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Denver principal sought restraining order against student, district sided with student

The union representing principals just sent a letter to its members and the DPS superintendent, saying the district must take certain actions to address safety.

DENVER — The principal of the Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS) in the Baker neighborhood sought a restraining order against a student after the principal learned of a text message threat from late January. And according to documents 9NEWS obtained from Denver County Court, there is evidence of that principal that faced pushback from Denver Public Schools (DPS) regarding school safety.

The court record included screen shots of the text, in which the student at DCIS wrote: "About to shoot up the school and only go for the principal only."

In seeking the restraining order, the principal told the court that information was shared with her that showed the student may have access to guns.

She was granted a temporary restraining order by a Denver judge on Feb. 8.

Three days later, according to the court records, the principal of DCIS emailed the judge. The email detailed a meeting between the principal, a supervisor and a school district attorney -- a meeting where the principal was told she would be kept from coming to school, not the student.

The principal wrote to the judge that she was told if the restraining order were served on the student, one of three options would follow:

  1. She would be put on remote work
  2. "Principal on Special Assignment at the central office"
  3. Paid administrative leave

As a result, she did not have the temporary restraining order served.

She ended the email to the judge saying, "I remain concerned for my personal safety and that of my school."

The principal of DCIS did not provide 9NEWS with any of the court documents, and declined to be interviewed about them when contacted.

It is the second recent example of a principal being overruled by the district.

Earlier this year, the principal of McAuliffe Middle School tried to convert a student’s learning to online after prosecutors charged the student with attempted murder. The district denied that request, and a subsequent request by the principal to have the student expelled.

In a document obtained by 9NEWS, the Student Discipline Program Manager said, “As there is no evidence that [the student] was in possession of a firearm on his school grounds or at any other DPS school, the request for an extended suspension and expulsion hearing is denied. Please return the student to school.”

Principals want change

A day before students returned to DPS after spring break this week, the union for the district’s principals has called for school safety changes.

The Denver School Leaders Association (DSLA) represents principals, assistant principals and lead partners within DPS. The union sent a letter to its members and DPS superintendent Dr. Alex Marrero. The letter stated that district leadership and the school board must make changes to how DPS handles discipline and placement of students who may be a safety risk.

The letter makes several requests to the district leaders:

  • Review and revise the DPS discipline matrix
  • Create an expulsion and placement panel
  • Revise policies around enrolling students based on previous safety concerns
  • Add protections for school leaders who raise safety and security concerns
  • Increase mental health support

"We need to have the district bring leaders to the table," said DSLA president Dr. Moira Coogan. "Making sure that leaders have a voice, that they feel comfortable raising concerns about student discipline, that they feel comfortable raising concerns about student safety."

Current procedures

Students are subject to the DPS Discipline Matrix

Depending on the type of conduct, the discipline matrix defines the range of punishment options. For instance, bringing a firearm to school comes with a mandatory expulsion hearing and a full threat appraisal. Students in grades 4-12 will also be suspended for five days.

The conduct on the discipline matrix ranges from bringing a weapon to school to assault to hazing and retaliation.

The discipline matrix, which was revised in 2021, seeks to end the school-to-prison pipeline, based on a Denver Public Schools Board of Education directive. The school board detailed which conduct can be referred to Denver Police and which are listed “no referral to law enforcement.”

Some of the conduct that does not come with a referral to law enforcement includes:

  • Destruction or theft of school property
  • Theft
  • Habitual disruption
  • Bullying
  • Harassment
  • Being under the influence

“We didn’t exist when the matrix was reformed, it was done without the union and we really do advocate that the Denver School Leaders Association should be part of those discussions to elevate the leader voice at this point as we’re looking at all of these things," Coogan said.

The DSLA formed in 2020 and its first contract was authorized by the district in 2021.

"Because our leaders have equity in mind, and they care about all of their students and the safety of all of their students, and they know the unique needs of their buildings, they’re the best people to have at the table for these discussions," Coogan said.

In the letter from DSLA, the first request is to review and revise the DPS discipline matrix and board policy JK and JK-R “to eliminate vague descriptions of behaviors that are subject to interpretation, and to allow individual schools to develop plans in alignment with Article 18 of the [Denver Classroom Teachers Association] contract.”

Board policy JK updated student discipline in 2021.

The policy change, approved by the school board in 2021, sought to create consistent discipline throughout all schools in the district, define expectations for staff responsibility about school discipline and assure equity for all students.

Board policy JK-R details the specific criteria that is now known as the discipline matrix.

Article 18 of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) contract requires each school to develop a discipline plan that is consistent with board policies JK and JK-R. This section of the teachers union contract states that a student can be removed from class twice before a student support plan is developed.

After a third removal from class, most students can be taken out of that class for the remainder of the year.

“Whether the student will be in place in a different education setting, suspended or expelled, will be in accordance with Board policy and [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] regulations.”

The school plan also states that if an educator is referring an excessive number of students for discipline, the principal will review the classroom practices of that educator.

The previous DPS discipline matrix was in place from 2017-2021. That version included mandatory expulsion recommendations for students suspected of bringing a weapon to school, selling drugs, assault, sexual assault and robbery.

There were a dozen examples of conduct that came with optional recommendations for expulsion. There were 17 offenses that came with mandatory referrals to law enforcement.

Under the current matrix, the DPS Department of Safety has flexibility to decide if the offense and student are reported to law enforcement.

The DSLA letter also seeks “increased protections for leaders who raise possible safety concerns regarding student safety and security concerns.”

9NEWS has requested an interview with the DPS Superintendent regarding the requests from DSLA.

Toward the end of the letter, the union wrote: “DSLA will continue to elevate our leaders’ voices in recommending that Denver Public Schools develop stronger policies and procedures that support school safety and prioritize student and staff mental health needs.”

While the rest of the district returns from their spring break on Tuesday, East High School returns to classes Wednesday for the first time since a student shot two staff members on March 22. The 17-year-old shooter was found dead in Park County. Both staff members have been released from the hospital.

To let us know what’s going on in your school please email us at marshall@9news.com.

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