McAuliffe International School allegedly put students of color in a

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Room 121 E at McAuliffe International School was different from a typical classroom. It had a barrel-bolt latch on the door and locks on the window to prevent anyone from getting out.

After being alerted to what some call a “seclusion room” by a whistleblower, Denver Public Schools is investigating whether the room was used to lock students of color in the room alone for disciplining. Several DPS board members, including Auon’tai Anderson, Scott Esserman and Xochitl Gaytan called Thursday for a thorough investigation into the room.

Anderson and Esserman visited the room and on Thursday, they shared photos as well as a work order that described the room as having “multiple holes in drywall due to student rage and incarceration.” The use of such rooms are in violation of district policy.

“The fact that the room was called an incarceration room by a staff member at the school in a work order to have it removed, says enough,” Anderson said. “Our schools are places of learning — not prisons.”

He said DPS has launched an investigation into the matter to ensure “that none of the adults detained any student against their will, and ensure that these acts did not result in … serious physical or emotional harm towards our students.”

Anderson said the district had no prior knowledge that the room existed at McAuliffe International.

“We have an obligation to teach and keep all of our students safe,” Esserman said. “Incarcerating them is not the way to do so.”

The news comes a month after McAuliffe International Principal Kurt Dennis was fired for allegedly violating student privacy laws when he voiced concerns about the district’s school safety practices and gun violence during an interview with 9News.

A copy of Dennis’ termination letter provided to CPR News and Denverite also referred to a “pattern of administrative actions” that the letter says negatively impacted students with disabilities and students of color. It also accused the school of overusing out-of-school suspensions, disproportionately affecting students of color.

The school board will vote later this month on the termination of Dennis. The community has rallied to reinstate the popular principal.

Dennis contends he wrote to DPS in October 2021 expressing his concern that special needs programs at his school were under supported. No one from the district special education team ever responded to his request for help, he says. Instead, Dennis received a letter of warning from the district, he said in his response to the termination.

“We realize that there has been a lot of turnover within the district special education team and that it has been hard to fill vacancies, but we have both legal and ethical responsibilities to our special education students and for certain situations, we are not able to meet these obligations without district support,” he wrote.

Dennis detailed a list of clarifying concerns and questions, including about special cases that need district level involvement. He noted that many communications to the district go unanswered or meetings are missed.

Instead, Dennis received a letter of warning from the district, he said in his response to the termination. He said the school, which has almost three times as many students as other middle schools, has two special education center programs, where many other schools have one or none.

Pamela Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver — a disability advocacy group — said her agency has filed more complaints against McAuliffe International over the past 10 years than any other Denver school.

“Mr. Dennis was one of the school leaders that we knew to forward the practice of fast-tracking minority male students into a separate school setting,” Bisceglia said.

Under DPS policy, students aren’t allowed to be in a “de-escalation” room by themselves. District policy states at least one employee needs to be with the student in the room, which must have adequate lighting, ventilation and size. The door should never be closed or locked, said Bisceglia.

“That’s why we would assert what was put in place at McAuliffe was seclusion,” Bisceglia said. She said the Protections of Persons From Restraint Act — a Colorado law — demands that parents be notified by school staff if the administrators think a student needs to be restrained or secluded from peers.

Last year in a far-reaching decision, a state department of education officer found “widespread” concerns throughout Denver Public Schools that it systematically violated the special education rights of Black male students enrolled in the district’s centers for students with emotional disabilities.

Biscelglia said the district has a corrective action plan in place to end that practice and that the district is being monitored.

On the matter of the upcoming school board vote on reinstating Dennis, board member Anderson said the revelation of the “seclusion” room has forced him to change his vote. He, Esserman, and Gaytan said they will be voting to approve Dennis’ termination.

Dennis, in a letter responding to the claims in his termination letter, said McAuliffe serves more students of color than any middle school in the district and is one of the most sought after middle schools for families of color. The school’s students of color significantly outperform students of color at DPS-run middle schools. The average Black student at the school outperformed 79% of their peers statewide.

McAuliffe was one of only 10 schools out of more than 200 given a “distinguished” rating for equity on the district’s performance framework. It also has six specialized counselors and three deans who are all leaders of color.

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