The principal of West High School fired after driving drunk students home
(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) 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. Ford was placed on leave on November and fired Thursday.
Ford White says his life unraveled in 90 minutes.
The principal had just parked at West High School on Nov. 14 when the first crisis started: His phone buzzed with an alert that a student was experiencing suicidal thoughts. As he walked in the doors to find the girl, he was handed a note that a teacher found threatening a school shooting — his second emergency.
White ran down the hallway while reading it, trying to first find the student at risk of self harm. He sat her down with a counselor. On the way to his office, he sent an alert to school staff, asking if anyone recognized the writing in the letter.
He radioed for help from the school resource officer, but got no response. Then, out his window, he saw a couple of boys he had banned from campus after one assaulted a teacher last year. He dropped the phone and hurried outside.
While he escorted them off the property, resolving his third issue of the morning, he noticed two girls slumped against the south side of the school. One was throwing up, White said, and the other was falling down. Both were drunk. “They seemed sick," he recalled. “I was just trying to help them. So I drove them home."
But it was that action, dealing with the last of four rapid-fire concerns in an hour and a half, that led to White losing the job he built his life around.
On Thursday, Salt Lake City School District fired the principal after two months of investigating how he handled the intoxicated students. He said he was never asked to talk about his account of the events of the day.
“I was trying to manage all of these little fires that were burning at the same time,” White told The Salt Lake Tribune after he received his termination letter. “I was in triage at that point. It was a lot. And I was just trying to keep these kids safe."
It’s the first time White has spoken publicly since he was put on leave the day after the incident.
He recounted helping the 17-year-old girls into the car of a friend who was not inebriated. When an empty bottle fell out, he said, he decided to drive them the six blocks to a family member’s house just to be careful. The district’s policy required him to call police when he found them.
White said he tried, but the school resource officer wasn’t at West High and was monitoring two other high schools and three middle schools that day.
“The picture of the events of Nov. 14 ... are much more complicated than the district has led the public to believe,” added White’s attorney Michael Teter. “They involve real crises and emergent concerns that the district, in its letter terminating Principal White, nonchalantly labeled ‘fairly routine and typical.’”
Salt Lake City School District spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin confirmed Thursday only that the investigation into White had concluded. “I can’t comment on personnel matters,” she said.
The decision to terminate White, though, also comes one day after the school’s superintendent, Lexi Cunningham, resigned.
School board member Michael Nemelka said that Cunningham was forced out after other members voted to fire her and the district’s business administrator.
The board called an impromptu meeting for Thursday evening. The agenda didn’t specify whether members would take a public vote on either personnel issue, but after 12 minutes in closed session, they came out and declined to answer questions. “We will not be making any comments to the press at this time," said Board President Tiffany Sandberg. “We are adjourned.”
Nemelka did not attend. But he said earlier that other board members ordered Cunningham at one point to fire 16 principals districtwide — including White
— and she declined to do so.
Teter, White’s attorney, said the firing and resignations show the district “is in disarray.” The former principal, he added, is “weighing his [legal] options.”
About a week after White was suspended, hundreds of students at West High walked out of school
and rallied for him. They carried signs and chanted, “We want Ford back.”
The girls whom the principal drove home joined the protest and said they felt guilty that he was put on leave because of their decision; they said they didn’t usually drink but were dealing with recent setbacks. White’s attorney described his actions as caring about students “without resorting to involving the police.” The girls, both students of color, called it mercy.
White said Thursday: “I was just trying to keep kids out of jail and out of the system. That’s something I did every day at West."
Both girls said they believe that if White had called police, they would have been suspended, per school policy.
They also worry it could have given them a criminal record. The Tribune generally does not identify minors associated with minor crimes, and the girls have not been charged.
“The circumstances were crazy for 90 minutes. My intent was always to keep kids safe without a school shooting and without a kid dying by suicide," White said. “That particular day was a fast-moving, complex, high-pitched day. And I do not feel like they have really listened to what was happening."
He added that he doesn’t understand why the district has singled out the one episode, since he and other staff have driven students home in similar situations in the past. “I didn’t have anybody grab me by the elbow and say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable doing it this way,’” he noted.
While White drove the girls home, an assistant principal at West High followed behind. That administrator, Ron Litteral, acted as interim principal before the district placed Stacey Briggs, a 20-year veteran educator, in the spot in early December.
It’s unclear if she will be White’s permanent replacement. But he can appeal the decision to fire him.
White said he planned to follow up with the girls the next day — after working with staff on the shooting threat — but he was called into human resources before he had the chance. The call to fire him, he believes, was the result of “shadowy decision-making" in the district.
He took over as principal of the school in 2017. During his tenure, he said, he responded to six incidents involving guns, a handful of gang fights and several students dealing with serious trauma.
“I was trying to change the culture,” the former principal said. “There’s this whole idea of the rough and tumble kids at West. But we have sweet kids here.”
West High is home to an acclaimed International Baccalaureate program and has a student body that is 64% minority. And the district, as a whole, has a population that’s more than half students of color.
White also noted that he asked the district for help several times with installing more cameras, changing how money was spent to prioritize those who needed it the most and getting training on de-escalation, particularly for the police officers assigned to the school. Most of the issues he raised were ignored, he said.
“The kids who need the most were getting the least at West," White said. “And they will give up. If they’re in the system, they feel like they’ll never get out of it.”
White was raised in Michigan and served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a tank commander during the Gulf War. He wrote in a note on the school’s website: “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." That post has since been removed.
Many of the student 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 was: “Show up, do the work and get paid, baby.”
He has taken up a part-time job doing handy work to pay for attorney’s fees. He still can’t believe, he said, how fast things changed after 90 minutes of chaos.