The largest middle school in the Denver Public School District was shaken in July when the district made a controversial decision to terminate McAuliffe Principal Kurt Dennis. Dennis has been the principal of McAuliffe International School since the Park Hill institution first opened 12 years ago.
His supporters believe he was fired for speaking to the media about the dangers of a DPS policy. A “safety plan” policy requires schools in the district to accept students who have committed violent crimes and to have regular staff members conduct weapons searches on them every day. In March of 2023, a student at East High shot two administrators while they were conducting the search. The shooting was the “tipping point” for Dennis, as McAuliffe was also forced to conduct daily searches on a safety plan student accused of attempted murder.
After the shooting, Dennis did an interview with 9News to speak out against the policy, and in July the DPS administration suddenly terminated him. The DPS statement says, “The termination had little to do with any media interviews, but rather the sharing of confidential student information in violation of state and federal laws.”
Dennis refutes the claim that he revealed information about the student. “That isn’t true,” says Dennis. “I never provided any identifying information about the student. I shared as much information as other administrators at other schools have shared, to communicate security concerns with parents.”
Dennis also had to strike a balance with the situation. “If you’re going to operate in a transparent fashion with your community, you have to respect student privacy and give parents a level of comfort with what’s going on. It’s important that parents know what the district’s policies are,” Dennis says, reflecting on the safety of more than 1,600 students and staff at McAuliffe. Dennis also worries about the detrimental impact his termination could have on McAuliffe. “The timing [of the firing] was meant to be punitive to me, but it’s actually punitive to the kids.”
The community has been expressing outrage at the termination and support for his reinstatement. Parents and leaders—including two school board candidates—have rallied around Dennis since learning of his dismissal. A petition to reinstate Dennis has accumulated over 6,000 signatures on Change.org, parents have been writing letters to the Board of Education, and the community organized a rally at McAuliffe.
Elliot Guinness is a former student who attended the rally. Guinness is currently a sophomore at New York University, and he spoke to Front Porch about the impact Dennis had on his life.
“His relationships with the students and staff were special,” says Guinness. “When I was at McAuliffe he would be out in the hallway during every single passing period, he would be there to greet students every single morning, and he would be outside picking up trash while talking to students during lunch periods. It’s so important for leaders to be there and create those connections; he was extremely good at doing that, and so the students and staff really loved him.”
Guinness also believes the academic system implemented by Dennis maximized the quality of the school and the performance of the students. “The academics there were really good, and he created an infrastructure that allowed students to find their own paths and interests with electives, clubs, and extracurriculars” says Guinness. “He also set it up in a way that students have to work hard, and the McAuliffe motto of ‘work hard, be kind’ is a true statement that shines through him.”
Guinness appreciates the substantial benefits of this system. “Turning us into hard workers prepared us for high school. A lot of people say high school prepares you for college. But McAuliffe is where I started my academic and social activist endeavors. That’s when I began working hard, pursuing my passions, and becoming who I am. That started with Kurt over at McAuliffe.”
The DPS board will meet in August to vote on whether to accept or reject the termination that was handed down by district leaders, but if they reject the termination, those same leaders will determine where to place Dennis next. In the meantime, Dennis is filing an appeal with DPS and a lawsuit in the courts.
David Lane is the attorney representing Dennis in the lawsuit, and he hopes to achieve two possible outcomes with the proceedings. “The federal court has power to reinstate him if they believe that it would be warranted, or they can order money damages,” says Lane. “We’re seeking the full panoply of rights available to Kurt.”
Lane also believes the facts of the situation will support his arguments in the case. “Supreme Court precedent, particularly Pickering v. Board of Education, said when a school teacher speaks out on a matter of public concern, they have free speech rights and any discipline imposed is deemed retaliatory and a violation of the Constitution,” says Lane. “Kurt was clearly speaking on an issue of public concern, he violated no rules, he divulged no confidential information, and this was purely retaliatory.”
The Innovation Zone status of the school is also critical to the case. McAuliffe is part of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone, which provides the school with the semi-autonomous freedoms to determine contracts and make staffing decisions. “We’re investigating whether DPS followed the necessary procedures for firing a principal in an Innovation Zone school,” says Lane. “I think they did not follow the contract and so there may be a due process law issue.”
While awaiting the final decisions, McAuliffe has selected Micah Klaver to serve as the Interim Principal for the school. Klaver has worked at McAuliffe for more than 11 years, with four as a teacher and seven as an administrator.
For Dennis, the outpouring of support from the community has been profound. “I am filled with gratitude and appreciation for the Northeast Denver community. It is an incredible place to work as an educator. I can’t imagine a better place to be an educator. When you need something, people come forward to bring it, and this community support has a really positive impact on a school’s culture when they see the village coming together to serve our kids.”
Front Porch photos by Christie Gosch