West High School gets a new principal, replacing previous leader fired after driving students who were drunk home

Salt Lake City School District has named a new principal at West High — an appointment that follows months of controversy there after the previous principal was fired for driving two intoxicated students home.

In a decision announced late last week, Jared Wright was tapped to take the helm. He’s currently the principal at Clayton Middle, though he’s previously taught at West and graduated from the school in 1998.

“Congratulations to Dr. Wright,” district Superintendent Lexi Cunningham wrote on Twitter in the first notice about the position before an email later went out to parents.

Wright will face a tough challenge at West, though, tasked with taking over a school of 2,800 students where many were upset over how the situation with the prior principal, Ford White, was handled. Wright believes it will take some time and trust to work through it.

“I think the stage is set for West to move forward and start healing,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday. “It’s something that I have to model, which means vulnerability and knowing what I don’t know.”

White was fired in January after a district investigation found he broke policy in driving two female students home after they were found intoxicated on school grounds. According to district rules for safety, he was supposed to call police instead.

The district largely has not commented on the Nov. 14 situation. But White has said that he was never directly asked to talk about his account of the events of the day. After his termination, he told The Salt Lake Tribune that he was trying to manage three other concerns that morning, including a threat of a school shooting, when he found the girls sitting outside.

There was no school resource officer there, he said, so he decided to drive them home in another student’s car “to keep these kids safe."

“I was just trying to keep kids out of jail and out of the system,” he has said.

The decision to terminate White also came one day after Cunningham resigned, effective at the end of the academic year. School board member Michael Nemelka said that the superintendent was forced out after other members voted to fire her because she would not fire White. The board then voted to terminate the principal, though Cunningham was able to select Wright as the replacement.

Shortly after, Tiffany Sandberg, the school board president also stepped down from her position, saying the decisions were unfair.

It’s been a chaotic few months in the district. And White is still weighing a possible lawsuit.

About a week after he was originally 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 two girls whom the principal drove home joined the protest. Both said they believe that if White had called police, they would have been suspended or had a criminal record; the district has said that wouldn’t have happened. The Tribune generally does not identify minors associated with minor crimes, and the girls have not been charged.

After he was put on leave and since he was fired, the school has been led by interim Principal Stacey Briggs, a 20-year veteran educator. She will return now to her position as the director of Focus Schools, which helps underserved students in the district.

Wright will will take over this summer, and he credits Briggs with “calming the waters.”

Before leading Clayton Middle, he was the principal at Dilworth Elementary. He also taught for six years at West High School, starting in 2004. And he was previously the president of the Salt Lake Association of School Administrators.

“Jared’s varied experience in Salt Lake City School District will serve as a strong foundation as he assumes the role of principal at West,” wrote Chris Gesteland, a network director for the school district, in an April 8 letter to parents. “His time in the community as an educator, leader and parent give him the broad perspective it takes to lead the largest high school in our district.”

In addition to having the largest student body, West is also unique in that more than half the students — 64% — are minorities. The high school is home, too, to an acclaimed International Baccalaureate program, in which Wright taught a film class. He also instructed in radio and television broadcasting and Spanish.

When he was a student there years earlier, he met his now-wife in his first period English class on the first day of ninth grade. Their teacher, Julie Adams, still works there, too.

Now, two of Wright’s children are students at West — “and they’re not really happy that I’m going to be their principal next year,” Wright said with a laugh.

But even if they’re not, Wright joked that he’s excited to be principal of a place where he has so many connections.

“There’s a real magic at West," he said. “The administration and teachers and counselors are so student-focused.”

He believes his experience and background will help him connect to the students and show them the school is there “to adapt to their needs, not the other way around.” Wright wants them to feel empowered; “I am their advocate."

The West High Alumni Association also welcomed Wright to the school in a Facebook post, noting: “We are so thrilled to welcome Dr. Jared Wright (Class of 1998) back to the halls of West High School!”

Wright said he’s happy to be back at the place that made him want to be a teacher to begin with and that has shaped so much of his life.

He added: “It’s a place where I’ve been aiming for since I got into education.