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Former West High principal gets one-year suspension after driving drunk students home

Education board suggests Ford White still has “much to contribute as an educator.”

(Chris Samuels | 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 White was reprimanded for driving home students who were drunk. His teaching license has been suspended for a year.

The former principal of West High — who lost his job after driving home two female students found intoxicated on school grounds — will have his educator’s license suspended for one year.

The discipline for Ford White comes more than a year after the November 2019 incident that garnered statewide attention. White challenged his termination at the time, including filing a complaint over how he was treated with the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission, which investigates teacher misconduct.

After review, the state panel recommended the short-term suspension, which will allow White to return to the classroom again.

“While I’m saddened to have a suspended status on my license, I am grateful for the opportunity to address the difficult circumstances I faced that day,” he said in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune about the resolution, finalized late last week.

The suspension is set to take effect from the end of his last contract day with the Salt Lake City School District, which was June 30, 2020. He had been fired in January 2020, but later came to a settlement with the district to repeal that decision and remain on the payroll through the end of the academic year.

School district spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin declined to speak about White’s suspension. Ben Rasmussen, who heads the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission, or UPPAC, confirmed the details.

The agreement by the panel notes that White’s “conduct falls on the lower end of the spectrum” and that members felt “White still has much to contribute as an educator.” They wrote that the suspension will hopefully “induce Mr. White to correct his conduct.” White has 30 days to appeal, but he said he does not intend to.

An investigation by the district last year found that White violated policy in driving the female students home after they were discovered drunk just outside of West High. According to district rules for safety, the principal was supposed to call police instead.

White has said that he was never directly asked by the district during its review of the situation to talk about his account of the events of the day. He later told The 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 recounted, 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.

After he was put on leave, 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 were never charged.

White has been an adamant supporter of restorative justice for schools, including championing a bill passed in 2017 that is meant to help administrators disrupt the “school to prison pipeline.” Rather than referring students — especially students of color, who are more likely to be cited by police — to criminal law enforcement for violations, educators are encouraged to resolve a situation with school-based interventions.

White and his attorneys have said that approach is particularly important at West High, where 64% of the students are minorities.

Matt Schiffgen, of the Law Office of W. Matthew Schiffgen, represented White during his appeal. He said the district’s policy to call police is in direct conflict with the state law. “This was an opportunity for the board to really address and put some power into HB 239,” Schiffgen said.

The two girls, he said, are now in college on scholarships. Any other action taken by White, Schiffgen added, could have threatened that.

The attorney now worries that the principal’s suspension might deter other educators from taking a similar approach in the future.

“It’s kind of an underhanded attack at those who want to practice restorative justice,” he added.

Ultimately, UPPAC cited White for not treating the situation at least as a medical emergency with the possibility that the two girls could have suffered alcohol poisoning. And the members of the panel noted, too, that White should have released them to their legal guardians, instead of an uncle who was there when he drove them home.

Those are considered minor violations, UPPAC wrote in its recommendation in November, and the suspension was approved by the Utah Board of Education on Thursday.

Since losing his job, White has been working as a ski instructor and a Realtor. But being principal at West High, he said, was his “dream.”

Before becoming an educator, White served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a tank commander during the Gulf War. Some of that past, he said, also played a part in how he responded to the situation.

“Throughout this ordeal I’ve worked closely with my therapist from the VA hospital to better understand the rationale and sequence of decisions I made last year as I’ve struggled with past military combat experiences, PTSD, and how this impairment impacted my dream job,” he noted.

White continued: “My end goal was to get every student home safely that day and unfortunately, my state of mind did not pair with leadership. I’ve moved on and am grateful for the outpouring of support from family, friends, and complete strangers across the state, and look to continue my service to Utah families in meaningful and impactful ways.”

Schiffgen said the principal has had offers to return to other schools and hopes to be able to do so this fall.

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