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It’s irresponsible for public officials to lead a rush to judgment

It’s a shameful spectacle when publicity-seeking elected officials are so determined to be seen rooting out injustices that they ignore the fact that they are committing one themselves.

In the complex, nuanced case of former McAuliffe International Middle School Principal Kurt Dennis, that’s precisely what’s happening. Led by Denver Public Schools board Vice-President Auon’tai Anderson and at-large board member Scott Esserman, some other board members and district leadership are engaging in a rush to judgment in what is a nuanced and complex case.

At issue is the use of a “de-escalation” room inside McAuliffe where staff sent students having extreme, at times violent emotional outbursts. Dennis has acknowledged that students were placed alone inside the room — contrary to district policy — with a staff member watching through a window in the door, until they were calm enough not to pose a danger to themselves or others.

He has also acknowledged placing a lock on the outside of the door for a short period of time because students inside were attempting to yank the door open, risking injury to themselves and to adults on either side of the door. That, too, would be a violation of district policy. But again, investigations are underway.

Repeatedly using deliberately inflammatory language (incarceration room instead of de-escalation room, for example) and premeditated outrage, Anderson and his willing accomplices are destroying a man’s reputation long before all the facts are in and any investigation completed. We do not know close to enough yet about what occurred inside the school to reach any conclusions.

Neither Anderson nor any of the other people howling for Dennis’ blood have bothered to talk to the man since he was fired. And clearly they are unwilling to pass up photo opportunities and let the investigations run their course.

But in the age of instant gratification and free publicity via social media, asking for patience sounds almost naive.

Dennis already seemed to have a strong case that his abrupt firing — completely unrelated to the de-escalation room controversy —  violated his whistleblower rights, and his lawyer, David Lane, has said he plans to file a federal lawsuit as soon as the school board accepts Dennis’s termination at its August 24 meeting. Intemperate statements by Anderson and others could add a couple of zeros to the end of whatever taxpayer-funded judgment Dennis might win. 

That’s pure speculation, of course, but there’s little doubt Anderson at least is making reckless statements. He went on a national TV morning news program last week and said, among other things, that Dennis “went unchecked for so many years,” and that he could be facing charges of child abuse and kidnapping. The irresponsibility and callousness of these statements before a national audience boggles the mind.

When people get whipped into a frenzy, as is happening here, others tend to get intimidated and hesitate to speak out against outrageous behavior. Where, for example, is leadership of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, who should be leaping to the defense of an educator suffering through a public pillorying by board members they helped elect?

That’s why I was gratified to see a Facebook post on the topic from a long-time Denver teacher and school leader.

Marnie Moody Cooke served as a teacher and principal in Denver for 20 years. She was principal of Odyssey School of Denver (a K-8 charter school) for five years before leaving education in 2021.

Here is some of what she said in her post (reprinted with her permission). She delivers the truth far more eloquently than I could.

 “In my 20 years as a DPS teacher and school leader, I can tell you that staff members responding to a dangerous situation are most concerned for the safety of others AND the student, as they attempt to help a student deescalate.

A lot can go wrong during these unsafe moments. Other students and staff can get hurt by hurling objects, direct punches, kicks and scratches, over the extended period of time it takes to help the student regulate. Staff use what they can – – building a positive relationship with the student before the event, nonviolent crisis intervention skills, and de-escalation strategies. 

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. This isn’t politically correct to share publicly, but it is a reality that school staff and their loved ones know too well.

I’m struck, but not surprised, by district and board leadership’s condemnation of Kurt Dennis and his staff before the district may conduct a comprehensive investigation. It’s intellectually lazy to take these reports at their word, without trying to understand the context, the unfolding events, and most importantly, how to prevent these violent escalations from happening again. Sadly, today’s popular culture values absolutist thinking over critical thinking. 

District and board leadership are examples of the former: people unwilling to embrace the ambiguity of school violence, who are incapable of leading the district toward real, actionable solutions. As a result, leaders and teachers may expect more black box policies and unclear strategies that leave them powerless and degrade the culture and quality of learning for all students and staff… 

…I left the profession two years ago, so I’m not afraid to share my position as well as the heartbreaking truth that my former DPS colleagues feel rudderless in this district‘s leadership vacuum. They know that there is no clarity coming from district leadership and board members on managing school violence. 

There is only more political maneuvering, blaming, shaming, and abdication of responsibility for what is happening – the implosion of a once rising urban school district that is forcing good leaders, teachers, families and students to leave for new careers, districts and learning communities. 

Superintendent Marrero and Auon’tai Anderson seem comfortable sacrificing 89,000 students’ academic and social-emotional lives for their political careers. What a shame it is to see this happen.”

Thank you, Marnie.