SALT LAKE CITY — James Vanleeuwen walked out of school Tuesday morning to support the man who’d reached out to him when he was struggling.

“I know Ford, and he’s always been there for me when I’ve needed help,” said the senior who was one of about a thousand students who protested the Salt Lake City School District’s decision to place West Principal Ford White on paid administrative leave. “I know he’s a good guy, and I know he did it out of safety and just caring for his students.”

The walkout began as students made their way out of the building and onto the school’s east lawn calmly and quietly. But the protest ended when a fight broke out after about 30 minutes of the students chanting “We want Ford!” and “Give us back our principal!”

While a few held signs, most of them quietly discussed an incident that occurred last Thursday, the day before White was suspended with pay by the district for an undisclosed reason. Though no one from the school or district confirmed the incident that led to his suspension, citing personnel policies, most of the students said last Thursday’s events are the reason he was placed on leave. According to an email written by a teacher obtained by the Deseret News, White and several other administrators and teachers came across three intoxicated students on the school lawn, but instead of contacting police, he drove the students home.

White’s decision shocked some of his colleagues who reported the incident to district officials, citing their requirement to report any student using drugs or alcohol on campus to law enforcement. But these situations became more complicated for educators after a restorative justice law passed during the 2017 legislative session.

That law says, “If the alleged offense is a class C misdemeanor, an infraction, a status offense on school property, or truancy, the minor may not be referred to law enforcement or court but may be referred to evidence-based alternative interventions,” several of which are listed.

That change makes a situation like the one White and his colleagues dealt with more challenging because there is no single appropriate action.

“There was a real overhaul of the school discipline part of the code as it relates to students who are committing lesser offenses on school property,” said Utah State Board of Education member Carol Lear, a retired attorney who worked for the Utah State Office of Education as the School Law Specialist and director from 1988 until 2014.

“The older style was to call the police and have these kids arrested. ... But now the concept of restorative justice is, ‘Let’s not give them a criminal record for minor offenses, but rather, let’s address the problems that are causing them to drink.’ I don’t think it is required that educators report that kind of stuff.”

She was not aware of the specifics of the West High situation, but when offered the available details, she said it’s not a clear-cut case. Most districts do have policies forbidding teachers and administrators from giving students rides without parental permission and other protections for both students and school personnel, but even that isn’t always an easy call.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of the least bad of a lot of bad choices,” she said. “It’s not always a professional violation, and it’s not always a policy violation.”

Salt Lake District officials have not confirmed that the drinking incident is the reason White is on paid administrative leave. Additionally, two other administrators were reportedly involved in dealing with this situation, as well as several teachers, and none of those district employees have been placed on leave.

In the email reporting the incident and obtained by the Deseret News, a teacher said White told one of the girls to drive the other two home. It was after another school official pointed out that the students had all been drinking that White opted to drive the girls home in their car with an assistant principal following to pick him up, according to the email.

Both the author of the email and White declined to comment on the incident and the investigation on Monday night.

Still, the students believe that incident is the reason the school district suspended the principal they love. Those who walked out saw what White did as putting student safety ahead of policies.

“Ford White did something that the district thinks was wrong, and I don’t think it’s wrong,” said Jameson Ashworth, a 14-year-old freshman. “Those kids, if he’d called the cops on them, it probably could have ruined their lives for the next couple of years. I think what he did was a little bit irresponsible but the right thing.”

The students see what White is accused of doing as an effort to keep their classmates safe without upending their lives. They said district officials don’t always understand “where we are coming from.”

“He’s so understanding,” said 18-year-old senior Isi Kava. “He knows people, and he knows where we’ve been. He relates to us.”

They said he runs the school with compassion, but also encourages them to strive for excellence.

“I’ve never had a principal like Ford,” Kava said. “He treats us as more than just students, he’s more of a family member to us, supporting us no matter what.”

“We want our principal Ford back!” one young woman yelled. “He’s done so much for this school!”

Cars loaded with teens drove by shouting support for White, while administrators and staff stood at the perimeter of the demonstration, which ended after the fight, according to Salt Lake District spokeswoman Yandary Chatwin.

“There was a fight that got broken up pretty quickly by administrators,” Chatwin said. “The administration is pretty hands off because our district believes in the students’ First Amendment rights. So walkouts are not uncommon in our district, and we’re always pretty hands off. Once there was violence, they felt they needed to step in.”

Erick Garcia, a 16-year-old junior, said if the district is punishing White for how he handled the situation, they should consider what may have happened to the students if he’d left them alone.

“Basically, he tried to keep them safe,” Garcia said. “They could have walked into the street, gotten hit by a car or hurt other people. ... The district didn’t like that (he drove them home), and put him on leave because he helped out students and didn’t report them.”

“They weren’t hurting anybody,” Garcia said. “They were just on the south lawn. ... I’m pretty sure he did the right thing.”

Vanleeuwen said many students who’ve felt overlooked or unimportant to past administrations feel they have an advocate in White.

“I’m not rich, and he’s helped me a lot,” the football player said. “I think he helps a lot more students that don’t have as much. He gets them the help that they need. He stays on them a lot more, and tries to help them get the classes they need to graduate.”

Adds Garcia as the crowd begins to chant “We want Ford!” again, “He’s a really good principal, very interactive with the students. He helped a lot of students out.”