Fired principal defends use of “seclusion room” at Denver school

Former Principal Kurt Dennis is defending his decision to place students in a room alone to calm down at McAuliffe International School, saying that both the space and method were “district-sanctioned.”

Dennis, in an interview with The Denver Post, denied Denver Public Schools’ allegations that he violated district policy while using what he says was a “de-escalation room” and alleged the district provided insufficient guidance on how school administrators should use such spaces.

“There’s no formal training on how to do any of this. We did the best we could under the circumstances. At no time was a student ever alone,” said Dennis, who was fired by the district last month, before allegations about his use of what DPS calls a “seclusion room” surfaced.

Dennis said the students weren’t alone because administrators, including himself, watched through a window in the closed door. But that still violates DPS’s policy around “monitored seclusion,” which requires at least one adult to be in a closed room with students, district officials said Tuesday.

DPS last week began investigating the use of the room at McAullife — which district officials also have called an “incarceration room” — after Auon’tai Anderson, vice president of the Board of Education, received an email from an anonymous employee who alleged students of color were locked inside it multiple times during the 2022-23 academic year.

The Denver Police Department has since opened an investigation of its own, and the Colorado Department of Education is considering whether to conduct its own investigation as well, after receiving a complaint about the room this week from AdvocacyDenver, a group that works with children with disabilities.

How the room at McAuliffe was used

The room at McAuliffe was created in December 2022 when school administrators realized “it was needed” because a student, who was on an Individualized Education Program, was acting “in such a violent nature that we needed a safe place when the student was having an episode,” Dennis said.

An Individualized Education Program — known as an IEP — allows the use of a de-escalation room as a type of intervention for certain behaviors, DPS officials have said.

The school had never had such a room before and the decision to create it was made by Dennis and the school’s special education team, including people who were district employees, he said.

“It’s actually a district-sanctioned space,” he said, adding, “A lot of schools have these. It’s nothing unique to McAuliffe.”

DPS officials on Tuesday could not provide The Post with a tally of how many schools in the district have de-escalation rooms. Officials said, in a statement, that setting up such facilities “are building-based leader decisions and that information is unique to each school.”

Ideally, two McAuliffe employees — one holding each arm — would escort a student to the room, Dennis said.

Staff members are trained each fall on how to de-escalate a student with words and on how to physically remove them to a safe space, he added.

Dennis said he has also participated in the training and has helped put students in the room.

“As the principal, I always felt it was my responsibility to be there and to help,” he said. “It’s not something I wanted to put on paraprofessionals or teaching staff, so generally I’d be part of the process.”

Once a student was placed in the room, staff would close the door if needed, Dennis said.

“If the student needed it, we’d close the door and stand at the door looking through the (window in the) door,” he said. “That’s how the monitoring occurred.”

Dennis acknowledged that he had a lock placed on the door earlier this year, but said it was removed within a week or two of being installed.

“We had decided it was best if we just did a rotation system,” he said, adding that the system involved having a staff member hold the door closed.

DPS did not tell Dennis to remove the lock on the door, he said.

Either a school psychologist or social worker was present when the room was used and would enter the room once a child was calm and talk to the student, Dennis said. Then the student could return to the classroom, he said.

“In an ideal circumstance, you want it to be the same adult with the same student,” he said.

“Calms more quickly when he is alone”

A McAuliffe parent, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity to protect the privacy of her child, said her son has been placed in the room multiple times.

Each time, the school calls her to let her know, she said, and the staff has allowed her to participate if she chooses.

Her child can get upset if a classmate says something unkind to him and gets to the point where “he just sees red,” the boy’s mother said, and if other strategies don’t work, then he does need physical assistance to get to a safe space.

Her son has been in the room with the door closed and everyone — including his mother — watches him from the window, she said.

“He is further triggered by the presence of another individual close by him and he calms more quickly when he is alone,” the mother said. “I have been there a couple of times he has been in the room and he has said, ‘I don’t want anyone in there.’”

Once the child is calm, his mother said, he is able to go home with her or resume the school day.

Seclusion vs. de-escalation

DPS and Dennis disagree on the name of the room, how many children were placed inside it, and whether the way in which it was used by school administrators violated district policy.

Officials at DPS have said at least three children were placed in the room. Dennis said only two students — a Black child and a white child — were taken to the room.

“The two students I knew really well and had good relationships with the kids, so I think it was important I’d be present,” Dennis said.

DPS has called the space a seclusion room, which is prohibited in the district’s schools. Dennis said it was a de-escalation room. Those are allowed and the district has said they exist at other Denver schools.

The difference, according to DPS, is that seclusion occurs when a student is locked inside a room by themselves until they calm down. But with de-escalation rooms — which also go by other names, such as quiet rooms — students must enter voluntarily and are with an adult at all times and the door remains open, the district said.

A de-escalation room is only used if a student with disabilities is acting out and their parents have agreed it that can be used, DPS has said.

DPS policy allows for “monitored seclusion,” where a student is locked in a room but they are not left alone. Ideally, at least two school employees are with the student, but at least one is required to be with the child at all times, according to district policy.

“It is important to note that DPS definition of monitored seclusion means that there is an adult in the room with the student,” district officials said in an email to The Post on Tuesday.

But Dennis argued that McAuliffe practiced “monitored seclusion” by having administrators watch students through a window in the door — a practice that the district said is “prohibited.”

DPS, Dennis said, offers no formal training on how to use monitored seclusion.

“There’s no handbook,” he said, adding, “School leaders are left to their own devices to figure this out as best as they can.”

DPS offers Nonviolent Crisis Intervention training, which addresses restraints, seclusion and monitored seclusion, “regularly throughout the year,” the district said.

Construction of the room

McAuliffe faced budget constraints when creating the room, which was formerly a school psychologist’s office, Dennis said.

The costs of building de-escalation rooms fall on the schools, rather than the district, and because Dennis hadn’t anticipated needing the space before, the former principal hadn’t set aside money for its creation, he said.

“It’s not that easy,” Dennis said.

Board members have shared photos of the room that showed locks on the windows and outside of the door, which would prevent 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.”

And Anderson has said he received further information from the anonymous McAuliffe employee, who alleged students were dragged through hallways screaming and locked inside the room as school administrators stood outside until the children were calm.

Dennis met with a construction team from the district on March 8 to discuss modifications to the room, he said.

“The folks that needed to be there for the decision-making around the space were district personnel and they were present,” Dennis said.

DPS officials declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation, when asked whether any of the district employees who knew about the room at McAullife had ever filed a complaint or raised concerns about the space.

The room has an exterior window at the back of the office that the school needed to block access to, so the team discussed building a wall to do so, a move that would cut the room by about 25% in size, Dennis said.

The school also needed to put a water-flow pipe behind the new wall as part of an air conditioning project at the school, Dennis said. The construction team decided to add a different type of paneling to the walls because they didn’t want to keep the drywall, which can be damaged more easily, he said.

Dennis provided The Post with a  2019 memo from DPS to schools about standards for de-escalation rooms that states schools must “secure or limit all windows in the room.”

All plumbing fixtures and piping, as well as exposed lightbulbs, must also be removed or secured. All blinds and window coverings that can be pulled down must be removed along with other decorations, according to the memo.

Schools can consider adding padding to the walls of a de-escalation room, according to the memo. An ideal room “should be equal in size to four student desks, no windows in the room, one door, and only soft furniture used,” the memo says.

Principal fired

DPS fired Dennis in July, several months after he spoke out about school safety in a television interview following the March shooting at East High School in which a teen undergoing a weapons search shot and injured two deans.

During that interview, Dennis raised concerns about how DPS educators are required to check students for weapons, including one who he alleged was charged with attempted murder.

DPS officials have said Dennis shared confidential student information in violation of state and federal laws during the interview. They also alleged in his termination letter that there have been multiple complaints and investigations into McAuliffe’s use of discipline in recent years, including the “overuse” of suspensions that disproportionately affected students of color.

On Monday, DPS placed the interim principal of McAuliffe International School on paid leave. Anderson alleged at a news conference the same day that the administrator — Micah Klaver — was potentially involved in putting students in the room.

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