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Denver principals tell all in survey previously hidden from the public, say district policies put students and staff at risk

Denver principals tell all in survey previously hidden from the public
Denver principals tell all in survey previously hidden from the public 03:40

CBS News Colorado has obtained a report that Denver Public Schools fought for nearly two months to keep from the public. It details extensive interviews with high school principals about their concerns with the safety of students, and how principals really feel about the district's policies that they say put students at risk. 

DPS released the report following an open records request from CBS News Colorado, something that the district initially denied nearly two months ago, but the district released the report late Friday afternoon just days after CBS News Colorado attorneys spoke with the district regarding reasons why it was public record. 

"We're happy that it's been released," says Moira Coogan, President of the Denver School Leaders Association. "We think that it's important to let folks know how our leaders are feeling."

The DSLA is the union for principals in DPS. Her organization also called for the report to be made public this summer.

It's a survey of principals' honest, unfiltered feelings about where they believe the district is falling short. 

In the report, principals express serious concerns with DPS' discipline policies, saying that the more lenient policies have led students to believe they can get away with violent behavior. 

Principals feel their hands are tied to hold students accountable when they are accused of committing dangerous crimes. For example, the report says if a student is accused of sexually assaulting someone and robbing them at knifepoint of up to $5,000, principals can't even request an expulsion hearing, and even when students are accused of engaging in multiple violent actions, principals are blocked by the district from expelling them. 

"We really do believe that there should be a panel, we believe that there should be multiple people looking at some of our more severe behavior consequences for students, to make sure that what we're doing is that we're addressing all of the needs of every student involved," Coogan said. "We really believe that the more folks sitting at the table to help discuss those needs of those students the better. So, we have called for the request of having a panel to review expulsions and and placements."

In the report, principals also said that the lack of discipline against students accused of committing crimes has caused other students to lose confidence in their school leaders, and feel unsafe at school.

CBS News Colorado found one example of that sentiment in our archives, when East High School students protested against the school in 2020, angry that school leaders were allowing boys accused of rape to come back to the classroom. 

"It is concerning to students when they think that their safety isn't the number one priority of all the folks involved," Coogan explained. 

Coogan feels revisions need to be made to the district's discipline matrix, so school leaders can crack down on students accused of committing crimes. A discipline matrix committee has been formed to evaluate how to rewrite the matrix, but it likely won't be next spring before any substantial changes are made. 

"Our members believe school discipline is often not as simple as following a table, it is about balancing the needs of all folks involved," Coogan said. "We do feel concerned that some of those extreme behaviors aren't addressed within the matrix."

Principals also said in the report that when a student is deemed a high-level threat, there's not support from the district to handle those kids, that instead the message is "deal with it."

CBS News Colorado obtained data in April showing of all of the students enrolled in DPS last year, 151 had been deemed a high threat level at some point during their time as a student within the district, and more than 1,000 were deemed a threat at any level. 

Coogan says there has since been more training implemented for staff about those concerns, but more could be done, like evaluating options for better alternative -- or Pathway -- schools for students who have more violent behaviors. 

"We still need to discuss what appropriate placements look like for students, and where can where can students have the greatest supports to address their behaviors," Coogan said. "We're still asking for that to be a part of the discussion about what do those supports look like? What does placement look like?"

Every single principal said in the report that they wanted to have school resource officers back in DPS. 

"Our school leaders want to make sure that all students feel like they can come to school in a safe, welcoming and warm environment," Coogan said. "We have educators that are working every day tirelessly to make sure that that happens for them."

Denver Public Schools issued the following statement following the release of the report:

"The PrincipalEd assessment has not been shared publicly before, as it was covered by attorney-client privilege. The sole purpose of this assessment was to seek out the safety concerns of our school community in conjunction with the development of our comprehensive safety plan. The interviews contained in this report were conducted in this past April and May in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy at East High School.

"Since the release of the comprehensive safety plan this past June, Denver Public Schools has made several key advancements in security, including:

-The return of School Resource Officers to 13 DPS high schools

-We are in the process of completing a comprehensive building safety assessment at all DPS schools

-Began a systematic review of our discipline matrix in partnership with Harvard University

-Dedicated $82 million of our budget to address the mental health needs of our students and staff.

"DPS is committed to getting better at getting better. If any of our students or staff members feel unsafe, we urge them to contact the DPS Department of Climate and Safety so that we can address their concerns."

Read the full principal survey report below:

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