Manual Principal Nick Dawkins: Inside Hostile Work Environment Claims

Nick Dawkins resigned as principal at Manual High School on March 2.
Nick Dawkins resigned as principal at Manual High School on March 2. Denver7 via YouTube
The March 2 resignation of Manual High School principal Nick Dawkins and his subsequent assertion that he "was targeted by those that called me a nigger and vowed to bring harm to me" after reports of a confederate flag at a Manual-Weld Central High School football game last September were preceded by a Denver Public Schools investigation into an alleged hostile work environment, as he has acknowledged. According to multiple sources, staff concerns about Dawkins included inappropriate sexual and racial comments, his lack of discretion about sensitive personnel matters (including copying others on an implicit job threat to a staffer on family medical leave), and his disappearance after a meeting in which he accused DPS of compiling a secret dossier on him partly because of complaints from white women.

At this writing, Dawkins has not responded to numerous interview requests from Westword on these topics, with the first delivered on March 8. If and when he gets back to us, we'll share his thoughts in this space.

Since Dawkins stepped down, DPS has been battling a public-relations nightmare at Manual, with student protests demanding his return, an online petition calling for the same thing, and a public letter from Manual's dean of students maintaining that his departure was hastened by what she describes as an attempted coup.

In a March 6 letter to parents posted on Manual's website, assistant superintendent Nicole Veltzé tried to calm this furor by answering five questions about the situation. Veltzé denied that Dawkins had been asked to resign, said security hadn't escorted him off the campus, confirmed that the independent firm Employers Council (formerly Mountain State Employers Council) had conducted an investigation into "a complaint about his leadership," stressed that Dawkins had split by his own choice without having been put on leave, and added, "We have seen no indication from Principal Dawkins that he would like to withdraw his resignation, and we cannot legally prevent him from resigning."

In response to that, Dawkins said he'd consider taking on the Manual principal position again depending upon what conditions, if any, might be imposed by DPS.

The next day, March 7, in another letter shared on Manual's site, Veltze clarified that "more than one person" had raised concerns about Dawkins. Westword has learned that this group included all five of the people on his leadership team (four women and one man), plus at least four teachers. Other teachers and employees are also said to have expressed unease about Dawkins's leadership style over the past three years or so.

Nick Dawkins as seen in a Denver Public Schools photo. - DPSK12.ORG
Nick Dawkins as seen in a Denver Public Schools photo.
The Weld Central controversy served as a flash point for Dawkins, say sources, all of whom agreed to communicate with Westword anonymously. After the game, Dawkins wrote a letter explicitly stating that the Weld Central squad showed off a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the match-up. He added, "We asked them to remove the flag and they did so. However, the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field. Three of our players were injured during the game, including a student who suffered a concussion and a student who was transported to the hospital for a leg injury. I want to emphasize that the players received treatment and will be fine. In addition, some of our players reported that, when tackled, players from the opposing team taunted them with racial slurs."

Weld Central High School quickly denied Dawkins's account, and days later, a new letter signed by Dawkins, Weld Central High School principal Dan Kennedy, DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg and Weld County School District Re-3J superintendent Greg Rabenhorst blamed unidentified spectators for trying to bring in a flag, made no mention of the alleged injuries or racial slurs, and stressed that "the Confederate flag plays no role in Weld Central, and neither school condones symbols or acts of racism."

Following the second letter, sources tell Westword, Dawkins did not come to work for several days. They added that he stayed away even longer following a January 30 meeting in which he told staff members about the aforementioned secret dossier DPS was assembling about him. During this session, the sources continue, Dawkins used the N-word several times in reference to himself, made the previously noted remark about white women, and openly discussed private human-relations issues about several staff members.

The use of the N-word isn't the only example of raw language from Dawkins mentioned to Westword. A source also maintains that he talked inappropriately about oral sex on one occasion; during another, he allegedly declared his love for a married staffer and asked if she would like to have an affair with him.

In addition, Westword has obtained a copy of a letter Dawkins sent to a staffer on leave to care for an ill relative. In the letter, Dawkins began with praise before threatening to replace the employee if more time was missed after returning from leave. We are not sharing the complete text here to protect that person's privacy.

By the way, the federal Family Medical Leave Act expressly forbids retaliation against employees. Upon their return to the job, individuals must either be given the same position or one that is "virtually identical to the original job in terms of pay, benefits, and other employment terms and conditions (including shift and location)."

In the meantime, large numbers of Manual students have made their feelings plain about their desire for Dawkins to return. Here's a video shared by Tay Anderson, the former president of Manual's student body and current organizer of a planned March 24 walkout in solidarity with survivors of the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

As for the petition, "Reinstate Principal Dawkins Now," it has attracted more than 700 signatures toward a goal of 1,000 at this writing. The introduction reads:
On Friday, March 2nd, 2018 less than three months shy of graduating four of the highest performing cohorts of youth in recent history from Manual High School, Principal Dawkins abruptly resigned from Denver Public Schools under false allegations of a "hostile work environment." Principal Dawkins has since released a letter explaining WHY he resigned revealing that DPS requested that he not return to his campus because he was being investigated.

If you know Principal Dawkins, you know that "hostile" is the furthest descriptor from the actual type of environment he created at Manual over the last four years. After years of instability and neglect, Principal Dawkins put his entire life on hold to come into Manual and pour pure love and power into our youth and community. He has a 90 percent positive rating in recent assessments from stakeholders in the building and he is overwhelmingly loved by those in the community who have worked alongside him.

Staff within Manual have since released their own letters to the community revealing a clear attempt by certain staff from within to sabotage Principal Dawkins and usurp power for personal gain. Letters explained that after dealing with a year filled with student deaths, racism, and gun violence — new members of Manual's administrative team in partnership with a few other key individuals essentially staged a coup during Principal Dawkins' absence. Whether this coup was retaliation or political retribution for other issues or simply an inability for staff to be held accountable is under investigation. However, the other members of Manual's staff remain in the building without a full and fair investigation. 
The petition's allusion to a letter alleging "a clear attempt by certain staff from within to sabotage Principal Dawkins and usurp power for personal gain" nods to a statement written by Manual dean LeGina Layman. It was shared on Facebook by Brother Jeff Fard, one of Dawkins's most vocal supporters — click to access the complete post — and suggests that the principal's enemies set out to overthrow him.

However, sources who reached out to Westword deny that a coup of the sort alleged by Layman was ever part of the plan. They describe Dawkins as both brilliant and charismatic and stress that they never demanded he be fired. Rather, they simply wanted help from Denver Public Schools in resolving problems that detracted from his many other skills.

One more thing: Dawkins has confirmed that he is the brother of Leslie Branch-Wise, the Denver police detective who has accused Mayor Michael Hancock of sending her inappropriate texts when she was part of his security detail in 2011-2012.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts