Students walk out of West High School after their principal is put on leave

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A student carries a sign in support of principal Ford White during a walkout at West High School in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019.

Just after 10 a.m. — when second period was underway — the girls sat outside West High School passing between them a bottle of rum and taking deep chugs.

One, a senior, said, “It was just a dumb decision.” Her friend, also a senior, said she was drinking “because I’m going through a lot.”

When they’d had so much that they were starting to black out, the first girl said, she remembers seeing their principal walk around to the south side of the school where they were sitting on red benches. Much of what happened next is fuzzy, but both 17-year-olds said he drove them home.

That was Thursday. By Friday morning, their principal, Ford White, was on leave from West High.

Salt Lake City School District won’t say if his response to the girls is the reason for his absence or if other things were considered. But hundreds of students walked out of class Tuesday morning in protest that he’s gone.

They rallied for more than an hour, flooding out the front doors and chanting, “We want Ford back.” Some carried signs; most wore red school T-shirts and marched over the painting on the sidewalk of a panther, their mascot.

The two girls who had been drinking Thursday joined the protest and said they are carrying guilt because they believe White’s mercy toward them — driving them home rather than calling police, in accordance with district protocol — is what landed the popular principal on leave.

“Our school loves this principal,” the first girl said.

“He’s the only one that treats students like his own kids,” the second girl said.

“Instead of looking at us like we’re ghetto kids from Rose Park,” the first added. Both girls are students of color.

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify minors associated with crimes. The girls have not been charged and say police have not contacted them.

Both girls said they believe if White had called police, they would have been suspended. School policy confirms that they could have been taken out of school for 10 days for “possession, control, or use of an alcoholic beverage."

They also worry it could have given them a criminal record. The first girl said she probably would have continued to drink — but now, based on White stepping in, she doesn’t want to make that mistake again.

“Ford knows how much potential we have,” the second noted. Both have played on a sports team at West High and said White came to their games.

He helped hold their hair Thursday while they threw up at the school, they added. And he drove them home in a third girl’s car while an assistant principal at West High followed behind.

Now that assistant principal, Ron Litteral, is acting as the interim principal in White’s absence. Some students shouted, “Fire Ron" at the rally.

Beyond that change in administration, though, district spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin said she couldn’t comment on “personnel issues.” The school sent out an email to parents Monday afternoon announcing Litteral’s position but not explaining anything further.

Chatwin said there will be an investigation and is “not sure how long that will take to resolve.”

The mother of one of the students whom White drove home said an administrator called her Tuesday morning and asked for details about the day the girls were drinking — so she believes the matter is the reason White is on leave. A friend of the two girls also said a school counselor brought up the encounter, suggesting White’s actions that day were being widely discussed by the staff.

The mother who was contacted for questioning feels White’s handling of the incident may have saved her family from difficulties that could have been hard to recover from. Though she said she’s furious with her daughter for drinking, she added that a police report can cast a much longer shadow when it’s filed against a kid from a low-income family in Rose Park.

“That just shows how much the principal actually cared,” said the mother, whom The Tribune is not identifying to protect her daughter’s identity. “We don’t come from families that have a lot, and it could have affected us, with fines up the yin yang and probations and all the aftermath. Just coming from a family background that is presumed to fail no matter what — it’s hard."

She believes White understood that the consequences of legal trouble can be more dire and far-reaching for kids who are already vulnerable.

“That just showed how much more I liked [White] as a principal, because he would take that extra step to actually get down to our level, knowing that it could have ended way worse,” the mother said. “I can’t excuse my daughter for the mistakes she’s done, but, coming from the parent’s point of view, I respect and love that principal for what he’s done for my child. I hate the fact that he’s getting penalized for it.”

White did not return a request for comment. Several students at the walkout said he has been their champion in high school.

Joseph Soochoon, a senior, said he went to White when he was struggling with class work, and the principal helped him find a tutor. “He’s a good guy. He sets a good example.”

According to a letter written by White on the school’s website, the principal was raised in Michigan and served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a tank commander during the Gulf War. He became principal at West High about two years ago, based on a 2017 tweet from the superintendent.

White wrote in the note online: “Becoming a Panther has been a decade long journey for me as my dream was to work in an inner city school somewhere in America."

West High’s student body is 64% minority. And the district, as a whole, has a population that's more than half students of color.

“The state of Utah is 47th in funding for education, and because of that, a principal at a Utah high school is an undesirable job," said senior Asa Turok, who joined the walkout. "[White] actually took pride in the school and our students, which is a rare thing.”

Many of the protesters said that White specifically wanted to work with them when issues arose and saw discipline as a last resort. He often talked to students about scholarships, and several noted with a laugh that his catchphrase is: “Show up, do the work and get paid, baby.”

He also never wanted to get students in trouble, said Carlos Flores, a sophomore, who held a sign that said “We want Ford!” The principal, Flores added, believes students of color face unique challenges and urged them to succeed.

With the girls who were drinking, Ford “made a moral decision,” said Felix Ortiz, the senior class president. “It went against the rules, but he chose to do the right thing.”

He said Ford has made a noticeable difference in the cohesiveness of the student body.

“There’s a sense of community at our school that hasn’t been here before Ford was here,” Ortiz said. ”We want Ford White as our principal, and we won’t stop until we get that."

The students chanted, “Ain’t no principal like ours” and “Free Ford.” Teachers looked down from windows inside the school as administrators and school resource officers paced around the crowd. A few fights broke out, but the rally was largely peaceful.

When several administrators tried to usher students back in, one girl responded, “If you give us Ford, we’ll go to class.”

The students organized the rally on an Instagram page called “westhighspam.” White also has an Instagram page that he uses to post about games and school events. Those running the West High account said they reached out to him and he messaged them that he’s “working hard to get us back.”

They later posted, too, on Instagram apologizing for the few moments when the walkout got heated and students threw bottles and trash that a janitor walked around cleaning up. They said they also regret that some called for Litteral to be fired.

At least two counterprotested the walkout, supporting the district’s decision to put White on leave with a sign that read: “99 problems. This ain’t 1.”

“We have so many other problems, just at West High itself. Why are we focusing on just one person being held accountable?" said senior Jatavia Smith. White should have followed the school’s protocols and not driven the girls home, she added.

"I just don’t see the need for everyone to be upset about it. "

The students who walked out Tuesday will not be punished, Chatwin said, and missing class will be treated as a regular absence that parents can call and excuse.

The two girls who were drinking asked why White was being punished instead of them. One said: “He shouldn’t be gone.” The second added: “It was our decision.”