Posted on April 16, 2024

A Principal Confronted a Teenage Girl. Now He Could Face Time in Prison.

John Leland, New York Times, April 11, 2024

In a high school lobby in New Jersey, the principal saw a student heading toward a stairway and moved to cut her off. There was physical contact between them, though no blows.

The interaction lasted less than a minute.

The student filed an affirmative action complaint against the principal, saying that he had grabbed her and “slammed” her against a wall. The student is Black; the principal is white and Latino.

The principal, reporting the episode later that day, said he was preventing an altercation between the student and three others, who said she had threatened them.

Over the months that followed, those roughly 60 seconds, captured partially on video, have divided neighbors across two towns, spawned two investigations and set off a legal process that could end with the principal in prison.

On March 11, almost exactly a year after the encounter, the principal, Frank Sanchez, was taken into custody and charged with assault and endangering a minor.

What happened that day last spring at Columbia High School, a high-performing school that serves the towns of Maplewood and South Orange, N.J., has become a Rorschach test for a liberal school district with a racially mixed population.

Did Mr. Sanchez use unlawful force against a vulnerable 15-year-old in his care? Or was he simply protecting students from harm?

The answers hinge on Mr. Sanchez’s state of mind and the student’s intentions — unknowable elements into which community members have projected their own experiences and assumptions. In a district that is both diverse and divided, the assumptions do not fall neatly along racial or political lines.


Within days of the arrest, students at the high school held a walkout in support of Mr. Sanchez, and parents and teachers rallied at the town hall, where one demonstrator held up a sign that read, “Who’s Next?”


South Orange and Maplewood, situated about 20 miles west of New York City, are liberal towns with a mix of affluent professionals and working-class families. The high school, a colossal, century-old Gothic Revival edifice serving a racially diverse student body of 2,000, ranks in the Top 10 percent of schools statewide, according to U.S. News and World Report, and routinely sends students to elite colleges.

The two towns, sometimes abbreviated SOMA, trumpet their progressive colors in their multiple social justice organizations, including SOMA Justice, SOMA Action and Community Coalition on Race, and in a 40-foot mural, “I Am Maplewood,” depicting a child’s face divided into six sections, each conveying a different racial identity.

But the school system has long had an achievement gap between white and Black students, with Black students graduating and attending college at lower rates, despite years of lawsuits and programs to fix the disparities. A former superintendent, citing the lack of progress, told the school board in 2018, “We have open and visible segregation in the elementary schools, and classroom segregation at the high school level.”

The Black Parents Workshop, which formed in 2014, sued the district in 2018, charging that Black students were routinely assigned to less rigorous academic tracks and were suspended more frequently than white students for the same acts. The suit was settled in 2020, with the district agreeing to an outside monitor and a complete audit of its practices and outcomes.


Mr. Sanchez made a point to greet students by name in the mornings and to walk the halls between periods, and he called on administrators to do the same. He also introduced changes to the school’s disciplinary processes, which met resistance from some at the school and on the board.

He wanted to cut back on student suspensions, which fell disproportionately on Black students, and to reduce police access to students, which he felt abetted a “school-to-prison pipeline.”


It was against this backdrop that Mr. Sanchez encountered a ninth grader in the school lobby last March 9.


According to an outside investigation commissioned by the school, several students had filed complaints that the girl had threatened and bullied them over the previous days. She was among roughly 50 students assigned a special one-day workshop designed to build empathy and connection, held in the gym.

But at 1:27 p.m., she was in the lobby and heading toward the stairway to the cafeteria, where the students who filed the complaints against her were eating lunch. Mr. Sanchez moved to stop her. Three video cameras captured parts of the scene, but each missed key actions.


At a packed year-end board meeting last May, a few dozen students and parents, including a current and former mayor of Maplewood, argued for retaining Mr. Sanchez. “Frank Sanchez is the best thing to happen to our district in the 13 years I’ve lived here,” said one mother, Stephanie Nasteff Pilato. A decision to fire him, she said, “would be a catastrophe.”

Mr. Davis, who spoke against retaining Mr. Sanchez at the meeting, sees the support for him, and the unwillingness to believe a Black student, as revealing. “These towns purport to be extremely progressive and extremely inclusive,” he said in an interview. “So they’re saying this girl was in a fight. She was a troublemaker. She was a thug. And I said, ‘What does that matter?’” {snip}


In fall 2023, the school hired an outside law firm, Cooper Levenson, to investigate the student’s affirmative action complaint. It delivered its report last December, nine months after the confrontation, finding that Mr. Sanchez had used “excessive” force to restrain the girl, and that he seemed “to have lost his temper and escalated rather than de-escalated the situation.” The report noted that two assistant principals and two students told investigators that Mr. Sanchez had a pattern of “taking harsher disciplinary measures against females, and particularly Black females.” It recommended that the district “consider appropriate consequences” for Mr. Sanchez.


The school district commissioned Cooper Levinson to do a second investigation, and placed Mr. Sanchez on administrative leave pending its results.

On March 7, Cooper Levinson delivered its revised report, noting that the first one “should have been deemed a draft report only and subject to revision, change and further peer review.” The revised report cleared Mr. Sanchez of all charges from the affirmative action complaint and recommended that he be reinstated. It found Mr. Sanchez’s description of the episode credible, and cast doubt on the student’s, adding that there was no record to support the charges of bias in his treatment of Black girls. {snip}