DPD opens investigation into alleged McAuliffe school ‘seclusion’ room

The room had a barrel-bolt latch on the door and locks on the windows to prevent anyone from getting out.
8 min. read
Pamela Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, and Auon’tai Anderson, DPS school board vice president, speak to press on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023.
Jenny Brundin/CPR News

Updated August 8, 2023

McAuliffe International School's interim principal Micah Klaver has been put on paid administrative leave in response to the investigation, school district officials said Monday.

Denver Public Schools spokesperson Scott Pribble said it's standard procedure until a matter is resolved. In the meantime, Amy Bringedahl, former principal at Northfield High School, will serve as the interim principal.

Updated August 4, 2023

The Denver Police has opened an investigation into the use of an alleged "seclusion" room at McAuliffe International School. A DPD spokesperson confirmed the investigation Friday in an email to CPR. But they gave no additional detail, citing how early they are in the investigation.

DPD's announcement comes one day after Denver Public Schools announced its own investigation into the use of an alleged "seclusion" room.

Our original story begins below.

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.

A whistleblower this week alerted Denver Public Schools to the existence of the so-called "seclusion room." DPS is investigating whether the room was used to discipline students of color. Several DPS board members, including Auon'tai Anderson, Scott Esserman and Xochitl Gaytan called Thursday for a thorough investigation into the room.

Anderson said the whistleblower, a member of the McAuliffe staff, said students of color were locked in the room - alone - multiple times last year.

Anderson and Esserman visited the room and confirmed it had locks on the windows. On Thursday, they shared photos of the room 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 "seclusion rooms" where a student is left alone 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."

A work order showing details and photos of the room that McAuliffe International School allegedly held students.
Jenny Brundin/CPR News

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 negatively impacted students with disabilities and students of color. It also accused the school of overusing out-of-school suspensions, which disproportionately affected 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. A petition calling for his return has garnered more than 6,000 signatures.

Dennis responds to allegations about the "seclusion" room

Kurt Dennis contends he wrote to DPS in October 2021 expressing his concern that affective needs programs at his school were under-supported. Such programs serve students with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities. No one from the district special education team ever responded to his request for help, he said.

"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.

McAuliffe International School in Denver.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

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

Instead of assistance, Dennis received a letter of warning from the district.

In a written statement released Thursday, Dennis said there is very little guidance provided by the district into how to run the programs and manage very challenging behaviors and student needs while also running an entire school.

In the statement, Dennis wrote that McAuliffe worked with DPS staff this spring to ensure that its de-escalation room was designed to specifications. The district also provided McAuliffe with reinforced paneling in the de-escalation room so that a student could not punch holes in the drywall.

Dennis said the district does not provide guidance on how to secure the door to a de-escalation room.

Students who have become violent towards classmates, staff or themselves, are moved to a de-escalation room to calm down for a 15-minute time period. The statement said that students in an escalated mental state would sometimes forcefully slam the door, endangering themselves or the adults supervising them. Sometimes students would run out of the room.

"In light of this situation, I made the decision to have a latch put on the outside of the door that allowed us to secure the door from the outside while the student de-escalated alone inside the room," he said.

The statement notes that there's a window in the door so school leaders could see into the room and "an adult was also present at all times to make sure the student was safe."

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. Additionally, the school serves more students of color than any middle school in the district.

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 percent of their peers statewide.

McAuliffe was one of only ten 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.

Multiple complaints against McAuliffe International from disability advocacy group

Pamela Bisceglia, executive director of AdvocacyDenver -- 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."

Several years ago, AdvocacyDenver filed a formal complaint against the school after learning Dennis had set up an affective needs center in his office. There were 12 male students, predominantly Black, who were not provided with books, technology or other education activities. Students had to earn the privilege to eat lunch with other students. Bisceglia said DPS lost that complaint and Dennis had to move the program to a standard-sized classroom with appropriate materials.

Pamela Bisceglia, executive director of AdvocacyDenver.
Jenny Brundin/CPR News

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.

"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 if they think a student needs to be restrained or secluded from peers.

Anderson agreed. "That's not a deescalation room, that was a prison that I saw yesterday at McAuliffe International School"

AdvocacyDenver will be filing a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education for violation of the Act.

District policy, however, doesn't refer to doors being locked or closed. There is no guidance on how to secure de-escalation rooms, but DPS said doors should be open.

The lack of guidance and support has been a source of frustration for other schools, making the issue much bigger than just McAuliffe.

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. AdvocacyDenver has a systemic federal civil rights complaint against the district that is pending.

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

On the matter of the upcoming Aug. 24 school board vote on reinstating former principal Dennis, board member Anderson said the revelation of the alleged "seclusion" room has forced him to change his vote. He, Esserman, and Gaytan said they will be voting to approve Dennis' termination.

Tony Gorman contributed to this report.

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