By Chanel Ward
While students across the nation are gearing up to start the 2023 school year, students at McAuliffe International School are not only getting prepared for the new year, but also for a new principal.
Kurt Dennis, who served as the principal of McAuliffe International School for the last 12 years has been terminated for “divulging confidential student information.”
The Denver Public School Board is set to officially accept or reject Dennis’ termination at a meeting on Aug. 24.
Additional concerns surround a newly surfaced video given to the Denver Public School (DPS) Board from a whistleblower of the McAuliffe staff, shows the conditions of a “seclusion room” that were so severe, a full-blown investigation is now being launched by the Denver Police Department (DPD).
“We’ve been engaging with the McAuliffe International community since July 3rd regarding the former principal, Kurt Dennis,” Vice President of the Denver Public School Board, Auon’tai Anderson stated at last Thursday’s news conference. Anderson said that Dennis was terminated, “for divulging confidential student information and other problematic allegations that surfaced,” against the principal.
Anderson than went on to explain that “new allegations came to light after the community meeting at Manual High School,” led to Anderson receiving an email later that evening by a “whistleblower that identifies as a member of the McAuliffe staff.” The email went on to say, “students of color were locked in this room multiple times last year.”
The door is shown to be locked on the outside with “a modified barrel bolt latch,” preventing anyone on the inside from exiting, leading to a host of additional safety issues and fire hazards.
At a time when DPS Superintendent, Alex Marrero is most busy with welcoming back students, parents, staff and administration has now the added weight of dealing with the controversy plaguing the largest middle school in the DPS district. “There hasn’t been a day since, I guess it initially broke, that we in DPS have received yet another piece, or another story… with Monday night being no exception,” Marerro explained. He further detailed, “every day is a series of new things to add and to investigate, which of course, will prolong the ultimate resolve of the investigation, but it also speaks to how thorough we will be.”
Marrero explained in an interview with El Semanario that although he is not able to get into specifics of the allegations against the former principal, “soon a lot of this will come to light,” stating that while decisions like these are difficult to manage, “after you make the decision to address it, it’s not difficult to make the right decision.”
“But this board has not wavered when it comes to the commitment to dismantling oppressive systems,” says Marrero, “so much so, that they named it as a number one priority and one, in essence, that that’s their call to action.” He also and very adamantly stated, “I’ve learned throughout the years to ask a little bit more questions to see if it’s a pattern, but never do I ever waiver on whether we’re going to do what’s right.”
Marrero went on to explain, “I weigh out the political implications and the financial implications in terms of resources and also the internal department relations, but never is it a question of ‘maybe we shouldn’t do this because of the unintended consequences.’ At least not in my leadership and not the way that I function.”
One of the things that we observed is – and I said it in the press conference, and I continue to say it – we filed more complaints against McAuliffe under his leadership than any other school.”
Pamela Bisceglia, AdvocacyDenver
When asked about Room 121E, Marrero replied, “I can only say this, that that is not a DPS approved seclusion room. It wasn’t presented to this District as such, it was created unbeknownst to us,” adding that there was, “no indication that it covers what we, in 2019, expected from any de-escalation room. So, I do not acknowledge it as anything other than a room that has a lot of question marks attached to it and that’s part of the investigation.”
Marrero ended with the assurance, “I think McAuliffe will be okay.”
“I just had a great conversation with the leader, the proven leader who will open up the school—Amy Bringedahl—the former principal of Northfield High School. Because, unfortunately the interim that was named is no longer going to be there until we finish the investigation,” he explained. “She’ll [Bringedahl] be supported and we will have a great start and hopefully beginning of the school year at McAuliffe with a proven leader.”
Also at the news conference, Pamela Bisceglia who has served as Executive Director of AdvocacyDenver for the last 12 years, spoke out concerning Dennis and gave a bit more insight into the school under his leadership.
“When we get called from families, it’s not to tell us what a fine job the school is doing in meeting the individual needs of their child,” said Bisceglia in an interview with El Semanario, adding, “it’s because they have a question, or concern.” She also went on to say, “one of the things that we observed is – and I said it in the press conference, and I continue to say it – we filed more complaints against McAuliffe under his leadership than any other school.”
The newly released video shows that turning a safe room into a forced lockdown is not an exaggeration and in addition to the lock on the outside of the door, Bisceglia said there were also, “padlocks on the windows inside the room,” and “exposed wiring from a radiator,” leading to a whole new problem of safety and regulation issues. Turning what would have been a safe haven for kids, who need it most, into another nightmare that they were forced to endure.
Bisceglia added, “the staff referred to it as the incarceration room.” That has disproportionately punished students of color.
AdvocacyDenver will be filing a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education and has filed a federal civil rights complaint against the school district that is pending.
President of the DPS Board, Xóchitl ‘Sochi’ Gaytán spoke with El Semanario and shed light on Superintendent Marrero’s commitment to the student experience saying, “he really commits, every month to his Student Board of Education.” Gaytán explained, “Dr. Marrero has his own board of education of students, there’s several students from each high school that come together once a month and they sit down with him and they have board meetings.”
And the student board has been quite successful, “our student board meets with the superintendent and then they share with him any issues or concerns they have in their school and in any policy that they believe needs to change,” said Gaytán.
Chanel Ward is an Independent Reporter for The Weekly Issue/El Semanario.
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