SALT LAKE CITY — A popular principal at West High School was fired by the Salt Lake School District Thursday, the same day its board met behind closed doors regarding the abrupt and unexplained resignation of Superintendent Lexi Cunningham and business administrator Janet Roberts.
District officials would not elaborate on the reasons for the resignations, despite reports that they were forced out of their positions.
The district informed former Principal Ford White that it was terminating him on Thursday, said White’s attorney, Michael Teter.
“This action stems from events that occurred during the morning of Nov. 14, 2019, when Principal White encountered three female students who appeared to be sick on campus. Once Principal White determined that they were likely intoxicated, he addressed the matter without resorting to involving the police,” Teter said in a prepared statement.
The district placed White on leave the following day, and students staged a walkout in support of him. Teter said after White was placed on leave, district officials “warned him about speaking publicly about the matter” while the district spent the next two months investigating.
“The district’s investigation never involved meeting with Principal White, however,” Teter said.
White told the Deseret News Thursday night that the last two months have been difficult, frustrating and somewhat bewildering. He said that in dealing with hundreds of complex, sometimes sensitive or dangerous situations, he had always felt he had the support of the district in the way he tried to empower students to help solve the problems they face.
“It’s been a hard 2 1⁄2 months of wondering what was different about this situation as compared to 100 other times when the details were different, but the situation was similarly intense,” White said. “That’s been the hardest part for me to reconcile. ... Why was this dealt with differently?”
Nov. 14 began with a message that was delivered through the SafeUT app, which alerted staff to a possible distressed student situation, according to White.
“We had an alert that an individual was going to be hurting themselves, and so we went through the student’s schedule, and they were not in class,” he said. As he was leaving his office to find the student, whom he knows well, he found “a very ominous suicide note, and it was the very day that the Saugus High shooting occurred” — where a student in Santa Clarita, California, shot five classmates, killing two before killing himself.
The note “said something to the effect of, ‘I’m going to go out like no other West High Student, suicide 2019,’ and it had this ominous nature to it. ... It was very alarming,” White recalled.
He sent a picture of the note to teachers asking if they recognized the handwriting, while he and a resource officer searched for the student reportedly considering suicide. They found her, got her to a counselor, and then he happened upon three girls sitting on a bench in between two buildings.
“I see three young ladies sitting there, and they’re seniors, so they don’t have a full schedule,” he said. “They’re oftentimes sitting in that location, heads down, not very talkative. I said hello to them, but I had no real intent to continue the conversation, because I was busy tracking this other thing down.”
One of the girls asked a question and they conversed briefly. When one of the other girls appeared sick, White said he asked about it, and the teen with whom he’d been conversing said they’d eaten bad food and weren’t feeling well.
“Just as I started to answer another question, I looked across the plaza ... and I saw two individuals who were trespassing on our campus,” he said. “One of the individuals was responsible for severely injuring one of our teachers back in September during a large fight that occurred on campus.”
He got on his radio and asked for help from his “team,” which included assistant principals.
While one witness has asserted that the girl who said she was supposed to drive the trio home admitted to drinking, White said he never heard her say anything about drinking. It wasn’t until another girl fell off the bench and was incoherent that he realized some of the girls had been drinking.
While he dealt with the two people trespassing, other staff interacted with the girls, but he said no one told him all three girls had been drinking. One girl said she was going to drive them home, and he said he still believed at that time that girl hadn’t been drinking.
“She seemed completely fine,” he said. “It seemed reasonable to let her drive them six blocks to their house. ... Maybe I’m being too Positive Pete in the situation, but I’ve got sick girls, who probably need to get home, and they live six blocks away. I’d done home visits at that particular (home), I thought to myself, ‘If I can secure these girls in their home ... I am going to get back to really these other pressing matters,’ that I absolutely had to take care of,” White said.
As he helped put the two intoxicated students in seat belts, his plan was to ride with the girls to make sure they made it home safely and then return to campus.
“One of my other assistant principals, who did talk to the teacher, comes up in my left ear and says, ‘I think they’ve all been drinking,’” White said. “And that’s all I needed to know. ... It just became, ‘OK, I’ve got a key in the ignition. I’ve got a car running. I’ve got girls buckled in, and I just told her (the student behind the wheel), ‘Get out.’ And she says, ‘This is going to make everything worse.’ And I said, ‘No, I’ve lost 33 students in 22 years, get out of the car, and I will get you to your family. I need to get back here. Get out.’”
The girl exited the car and got in the back seat with the others, and White said he drove them to one of the girl’s homes (they were related) and left them with a relative. He called parents later to let them know what happened and that there would be school-related consequences.
White said he intended to let his supervisor know about several of the issues, including the intoxicated students, the next morning, but he hadn’t gotten to it when he received a call summoning him to a meeting with human resources.
“I knew at that point this was going to be a strange turn of events,” he said. “This is not how things usually operated, where I was invited to the district, especially the H.R. office, to talk about it.”
White said he’d gone over the events of that day on his own, and he’d answered any questions asked of him in writing, being as honest and as thorough as he could. He has some ideas about what aspects of the situation bother school district officials, but he’s not sure why the situation led to his termination.
“I have transported kids to district meetings before without permission, without signed forms,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of things about securing kids, who’ve done something inappropriate, with a family member.”
He said the demographics of West High are such that getting a parent to school to deal with issues like this one is not always possible. He said none of the other staff or administrators voiced concerns to him or said anything about his handling of the situation that would cause him to have second thoughts.
Teter said that while the district “demanded” White’s silence, it distributed “numerous” public releases and statements and went “so far as to send multiple alerts to West High School parents via text, email and robocalls whenever it makes an announcement on the matter.”
While White’s attorney said he was still “carefully considering his next steps,” White said he most likely will request a hearing on his dismissal. At the same time, district officials said White’s status hasn’t officially changed with them.
“Mr. White was made aware today that the investigation on the school district’s end has concluded, and that meeting took place earlier today,” said Yándary Chatwin, director of communications and government relations. “Currently his status is on administrative leave. He has a small window of time to be able to appeal any decision. So for the time being, his status is still on administrative leave.”
White was put on leave at the same time the principal of Uintah Elementary School was put on leave. A message was recently posted on the elementary school’s website that introduces Bruce P. Simpson as the interim principal for the remainder of the year. There has never been an explanation from the district about why the principal was placed on leave.
Chatwin confirmed the district’s decision after the Salt Lake City Board of Education met in a short executive session late Thursday afternoon and emerged to briefly address the recent resignations of Cunningham and Roberts.
Board President Tiffany Sandberg gave a statement but shed no new light on why Cunningham and Roberts suddenly stepped down, or whether, as some media have reported, they were forced out of their positions.
“We want to thank them for their service to the Salt Lake City School District and wish them well in the future. We will continue to work together in a collaborative manner throughout the rest of this school year. We will not be making any comments to the press at this time,” she said.
Sandberg did not reply to reporters’ questions.
When asked if the board voted in executive session in a meeting Jan. 21 to end Cunningham’s contract or ask for her resignation, Chatwin said she was not in the board’s executive session and had no personal knowledge of what occurred in the meeting.
Cunningham’s current contract runs through June 30.
“In the contract it does says there isn’t guarantee of renewal but if the board intends to not renew that contract they have to provide written notice by Jan. 31, which is tomorrow,” she said. To Chatwin’s knowledge, she said that has not occurred.
Roberts’ contract also ends June 30 and both plan to stay with the district until the end of their contracts, according to Chatwin.
Roberts has worked for the school district for 27 years, in recent years as its business administrator. Cunningham was appointed superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District in 2016 after a nationwide search.
In November, Cunningham was named a finalist for the superintendency of Peoria Unified School District in Arizona, where she taught and served as principal for 17 years. She also has family in the area. Another candidate was ultimately hired.
Earlier this month, Cunningham was selected as a finalist to lead the Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida, but was not selected for the position, according to press accounts and the district website.
In her resignation letter to the board, Cunningham wrote that she planned to pursue “the next adventure” in her career but did not elaborate.