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West High School principal placed on leave

Letter claims Principal Ford White drove intoxicated students home from school

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West High School Principal Ford White paints with volunteers from Fidelity Investments Utah working on projects around West High School to help beautify the school in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 27, 2019.

Silas Walker, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — West High School Principal Ford White has been placed on paid administrative leave, according to Salt Lake City School District officials.

A letter sent to parents and others in the school community by Chris Gesteland, who supervises all schools that are part of West High’s feeder pattern, didn’t offer an explanation for the suspension. Contacted at his home Monday night, White declined to comment on the situation.

However, both an Instagram post from the account “westhighspam” and an email authored by a West High teacher and obtained by the Deseret News detail a situation involving three intoxicated students on school grounds during school hours. The email said the incident occurred on Nov. 14 about 11:30 a.m. on the school’s southwest lawn.

“I witnessed today a situation where three students that were on the south lawn during third period ... were intoxicated,” the teacher wrote in an email to Salt Lake City School District officials. “One student was trying to lift the other student off the ground to sit her on the bench while the third student was lying on the ground. When I saw this, I asked Ford White if he knew what was happening. He then stated that he spoke with them already and they seemed fine. But watching what I had just witnessed I did not believe that they were OK. When I approached the two students that made it to the bench, I smelled a strong odor of alcohol.”

The student lying on the ground told the teacher they’d been drinking, while the teacher said White “attended to the two students on the bench.” White summoned assistant principal Ron Litteral — who district officials have named as acting principal, according to Gesteland’s letter — to help with the situation.

“Ford told (one of the students) to go and get her car so she could take the other two students home,” the email said. “As (the student) pulled the car into the auto shop area, (assistant principal) Ben Jones came to assist. ... When I was asked to help (the student on the ground) to the car, I expressed concern about (the student asked to drive) and her driving because they had admitted to drinking.”

After further discussion, White got in the driver’s seat of the student’s car and drove the students home, the email said, while Litteral followed in his own car. The teacher said police should have been called, as per district policies, but they were not.

Contacted at home Monday night, the teacher also declined to comment about the incident or the email.

The Instagram post said students are planning a walkout in support of White at 9:40 a.m. Tuesday, and in a separate post repeated the basic details of the teacher’s email to district officials.

“Even though it’s none of our business, you all have been wanting an explanation for this, so here it is,” the post said. “Ford came across students who were drunk near the school. As far as we know, he helped them get home safely instead of doing what the district thinks was right (call the cops).”

White has served as principal of the school since 2017, according to district school board minutes.

According to his “Principal’s Message” on the school’s website, White describes his position as “the best job in Utah,” explaining that he had been on a decadelong journey to work in an inner-city school somewhere in America.

“This dream has finally been realized,” the website states.

White was born and raised in Michigan and served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a tank commander during the Gulf War. He attended college on the GI Bill. He has been a Utah educator for 20 years, according to the message.

White’s Principal’s Message says he has “firmly held to a basic belief that all students can learn at high levels if provided access, structure and encouragement to succeed. I have never wavered in this commitment and belief to act and provide the necessary material, emotional, and educational support necessary for all to navigate the high school experience and become college and career ready.”