Investigation finds former Manual High principal Nick Dawkins violated district harassment policy, document shows

Dawkins resigned in early March after learning Denver Public Schools received complaints that he created a hostile work environment.
5 min. read
Manual High School. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Manual High School. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat 

Denver school district officials have concluded the former principal of one of the city’s highest-profile high schools violated the district’s policy against harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, according to a document obtained by Chalkbeat.

Nick Dawkins resigned as principal of Manual High School in early March after learning Denver Public Schools received complaints that he created a hostile work environment.

Dawkins was a popular school leader in a community that has seen repeated and contentious changes, and his sudden departure shocked students, parents, and community members.

The district hired an outside firm called the Employers Council to investigate the complaints. The confidential nature of the complaints and investigation created a vacuum of information in which rumors and theories have grown. A letter from a school district attorney obtained by Chalkbeat confirms the investigation’s findings, but it does not shed light on what exactly Dawkins was accused of doing.

The letter says that “based on the totality of the evidence that was gathered by our internal and external investigators, we have concluded that Mr. Dawkins violated DPS Board Policy GBA and GBA-R1.”

The first policy prohibits harassment based on a person’s race, gender, and several other “protected classes.” The second explains the procedure for investigating complaints.

It also defines harassment as “unwelcome, hostile, and offensive verbal, written, or physical conduct based on or directed at a person’s protected class” that results in certain outcomes. Those include physical, emotional, or mental harm; the creation of a hostile work environment; or using the satisfaction of a sexual demand as the basis for an employment decision.

Dawkins referred all questions to his attorney, Wayne Vaden. On Tuesday afternoon, Vaden offered to provide Chalkbeat an apology he said Dawkins had previously written. In it, Dawkins apologizes for using “harsh and inappropriate language” with his leadership team after learning that staff members brought marijuana to the school to use in a classroom experiment.

Later on Tuesday, Vaden and Dawkins sent a revised apology that was more broad. It says:

“I do apologize to anyone I may have offended or caused any harm during my tenure at Manual. My intentions were only to help Manual High School soar to new heights, and it deeply saddens me to know there are those who feel I did not value our relationships or friendship. I wish only the best for my previous students, employees, and the DPS community.”

The Denver alternative weekly newspaper Westword previously cited anonymous sources as saying the complaints included accusations that Dawkins made inappropriate racial and sexual comments. Chalkbeat also interviewed a complainant who, speaking on the condition that she not be identified, said her complaint included allegations he made those types of comments.

Asked to comment on those allegations this week, Vaden said: “We can’t respond to unknown, anonymous allegations.” He previously told Westword that Dawkins “adamantly denied any allegations of sexual misconduct.”

Vaden emphasized that he and Dawkins “do not know the underlying facts” of the complaints. In fact, he said neither he nor Dawkins have received a copy of the complaints or the findings.

Dawkins was not interviewed as part of the investigation, either. District spokeswoman Anna Alejo said investigators requested an interview, but Dawkins and Vaden never agreed to one.

Vaden said investigators never followed up with him to schedule it.

“My position is they dropped the ball,” he said.

As for why Vaden and Dawkins have not received notice of the findings, district spokesman Will Jones said Denver Public Schools is “waiting for a response from Mr. Dawkins on whether he would like to be interviewed before sending a final letter with the conclusions.”

Alejo said the district continues to be willing to schedule an interview with Dawkins.

Manual is a storied high school in northeast Denver with a host of prominent alumni. But it has suffered from significant leadership turnover in the years since it was reopened following a controversial decision in 2006 to shutter it because of poor academic performance.

The school serves just over 300 students this year. Ninety percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a proxy for poverty, and 96 percent are students of color. Manual is currently rated “orange,” the second-lowest rating on the district’s color-coded scale. Just shy of 19 percent of ninth graders met expectations on state literacy tests last year.

Dawkins grew up in the neighborhood and was principal at another Denver school before taking the helm at Manual in 2015. Many credited him with improving the school’s culture and reputation, and with establishing programs that offered students more rigorous courses.

A search is underway for a new principal for Manual. A forum for community members to meet principal candidates that was scheduled for Wednesday has been rescheduled for May 1 so the search committee can continue to meet with candidates over the next week.

As for Dawkins, Denver charter school network DSST extended him a job offer that is now on hold, network spokeswoman Heather Lamm said. “We are awaiting disclosure of additional details on the investigation before making any additional decisions,” Lamm said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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