DPS investigating whether students of color were locked inside “seclusion room” at McAuliffe International School

Denver Public Schools is investigating the use of a seclusion room at McAuliffe International School, with Board of Education members demanding to know whether students of color were locked inside such a room at the school by themselves — a violation of district policy.

Board members Auon’tai Anderson, Scott Esserman and Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán held a news conference at DPS headquarters Thursday in which they called on state and local law enforcement agencies to investigate the school’s use of the room, which they described as having exposed pipes, vents and locked doors and windows.

“Our schools are places of learning — not prisons,” Anderson said at the news conference.

The board members shared photos of the seclusion room at McAuliffe, which showed there were locks placed on windows and outside of the door, preventing anyone inside from leaving. They also shared a document that they said was a work order that described the room as having “multiple holes in drywall due to student rage and incarceration.”

DPS spokesman Bill Good confirmed the district is investigating the use of the seclusion room.

The investigation comes about a month after DPS fired McAuliffe’s principal Kurt Dennis after he spoke publicly about district employees being required to check students for weapons after a teen undergoing such a search shot two deans at East High School in March.

The district has said Dennis shared confidential student information in violation of state and federal laws and cited other reasons in his termination letter, including that he violated policies by repeatedly trying to remove a student of color from the school despite district officials telling him such a move “was not available or appropriate.”

DPS also alleged in the termination letter that there have been multiple complaints and investigations into McAuliffe’s use of discipline in recent years, including one that found an “overuse of out-of-school suspensions” were disproportionately affecting students of color, according to his termination letter.

The seclusion room at McAuliffe, the board members alleged, was created under Dennis’s leadership.

Statewide, there is little oversight into how schools use seclusion, which is the practice of placing a student in a room alone, according to a 2020 investigation by Chalkbeat Colorado. 

At DPS, school staff are not allowed to place a student in a room by themselves. Instead, district policy states that at least one employee must be with the student at all times. Staff must also notify parents within one school day that “monitored seclusion” was used on a student.

A seclusion room must also have adequate lighting, ventilation and size, and “to the extent possible” it should also not have any “injurious items,” according to the district’s policy.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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Updated 11:10 a.m. Aug. 3, 2023: This story has been updated to clarify that Denver school board members are seeking to learn whether students of color were locked inside McAuliffe International School’s seclusion room alone.

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