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Northfield High School principal out after investigation into student discipline

The principal of Denver’s Northfield High School resigned Tuesday rather than face being fired after a school district investigation found “multiple” instances of inappropriate responses involving the discipline of students at the school that opened this fall, Denver Public Schools officials announced Tuesday night.

Avi Tropper was hired with great fanfare to lead a bold new experiment at DPS’s first new comprehensive high school in 35 years. The goal: to build an integrated school and show that all students, regardless of past academic history, can succeed under the demanding International Baccalaureate program usually reserved for the highest achievers.

The district’s investigation found “multiple incidents” of problems with how students are disciplined, including inappropriate use of force, inappropriate escalation of relatively minor incidents, inappropriate supervision of security personnel, Tropper stating his intentions to use suspension as a tool to force at least one student out of the school and inappropriate behavior towards parents raising concerns, according to district staff and a letter to the Northfield community.

In an interview Tuesday with Chalkbeat, Tropper, who had been put on administrative leave during the investigation, said he did nothing wrong in the student discipline cases. He described the district’s investigation as “tremendously flawed,” featuring “falsehoods and lies.” He said the district failed to talk to faculty who could refute some of the claims.

Tropper said he resigned because he does not believe the district buys into the Northfield vision. He suggested district officials are bowing to pressure from a vocal group of Stapleton neighborhood parents who dislike the inclusive nature of the school and want their children in higher-level classes separate from others.

“We need a district that abides by its publicly stated values instead of folding under pressure,” Tropper said.

Susana Cordova, DPS’s chief of schools, said that was not true, and that the district stands by the investigation and its results.

“We remain 100 percent committed to the vision of Northfield High High School, which is a vision about an inclusive, high-performing school,” Cordova said. “This is not an easy decision to make. However, we believe that it was in the best interest of the school community to make this change based on the result of the investigation.”

DPS did not provide details of the discipline cases, but in a letter to families earlier this month noted that two families raised concerns about how their children were disciplined by a campus security officer. Both the officer and Tropper were put on leave during the investigation.

9News has previously reported that one of the incidents was triggered by a dress code violation, quoting the student’s mother as saying the school security guard “inappropriately handled” her daughter, holding her hands behind her back. She had been wearing a bandana.

Northfield opened in August with a freshman class and will add a grade every year.

Tropper refuted several of the findings of the district’s investigation. For instance, he said the claim that he was using suspension to force a student out is a “blatant lie.” He said the student was suspended for fighting, and his grandmother said she was planning to transfer him to another school. He said suspension is a last resort and the decision for a student to leave is up to the family, not the school.

Avi Tropper, the former Northfield High School principal (photo by Alan Gottlieb).
Avi Tropper, the former Northfield High School principal (photo by Alan Gottlieb).

Cordova said principals must enforce clear, consistent and fair procedures around behavior and discipline with the goal of keeping kids safe. In the letter to the school community, the district said it found multiple instances of cases not being dealt with promptly or fairly in accordance with districtwide discipline expectations and in a way that de-escalates conflict as effectively as possible.

Cordova said Tropper resigned in lieu of being fired.

Tropper wrote in his three-sentence resignation, which he let Chalkbeat review: “Please be aware that this resignation does not waive any legal right that I may have.”

Staff defections have accompanied the turmoil. A full-time teacher, two part-time teachers and an office staff member have left Northfield recently, district officials said. One teacher sent an email to school families just before resigning, saying she is “concerned that the administration is not addressing incidences of violence or threats of violence, which is causing bullying to escalate in the classroom.”

Tropper convened a staff meeting following the email, and a majority of staff did not believe that was an accurate depiction of the culture at Northfield, according to the earlier letter sent from district staff to families.

Tropper has plenty of support among remaining faculty who remain steadfastly loyal to him, and many parents.

Brent Stickrath, who left a job teaching in the IB program at George Washington High School in Denver to teach science at Northfield, said Tuesday he is disappointed Tropper is no longer leading the school.

“Northfield High is a safe place for our students to grow academically,” Stickrath said. “It just is. I think there is a mischaracterization that the school had a lot of discipline problems and so forth. Really, the focus has been on academics. The focus will continue to be on academic growth and the development of strong citizens. I just think Avi was central to the vision of this school. I am just saddened he is not able to be a part of it anymore.”

Debra Jackson, who has a son at Northfield, also was disappointed to learn of Tropper’s departure.

“I just feel Avi really believes in the school, believes in the kids, and didn’t get a chance to follow through,” she said. “There are troubled students there, and not all will make it. But they should be given the opportunity to succeed.”

Other parents interviewed by Chalkbeat after school on Tuesday said the school has had a rough start, with too many students disrupting class and neither teachers nor administrators doing enough in response.

“It’s been chaotic,” said parent Carl Sakamaki, who described his daughter as a strong student who came up through Stapleton schools. “I don’t think they were ready. I think they’re trying, but a lot is falling short.”

Students interviewed Tuesday before the announcement of Tropper’s resignation painted a mixed picture of the school. A group of about half-dozen African-American freshmen said they felt stereotyped by staff, with one saying anyone male is perceived to be a gang member. But they also said the work at Northfield is challenging, teachers are mostly supportive and they’re learning.

“It’s been rough,” said freshman Earl Watkins. “It doesn’t feel like a real high school. They don’t treat us like we’re almost adults. Not all of us disrespect the adults.”

DPS said a former DPS principal, Ed Salem, will continue as acting principal and a new interim principal is expected to be named shortly for the remainder of the school year.

The school security officer’s status is not yet resolved, district officials said. He too was placed on administrative leave.

Chalkbeat deputy bureau chief Nic Garcia contributed information to this report.

Here is the text of DPS’s letter to Northfield families:

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