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A Principal Confronted a Teenage Girl. Now He’s Facing Prison Time.

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.

A lawyer for the student, who is no longer at the school, said the case revealed a side of the community that many residents did not want to face. The lawyer, James H. Davis III, is chairman of the Black Parents Workshop, an organization that has sued the school district over racial disparities in the past, including unequal punishments for Black students.

“How many other Black students have been ignored over the years that something’s happened to them, in violation of their rights and privileges?” he asked.

But many in the school district tell a different story, of a popular principal simply intervening to prevent a fight and being targeted by people inside and outside the school who opposed his philosophy for running it.

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?”

Charges of bad faith abound.

“Fundamentally, this story is about something having gone horribly awry in our school community,” said Rhea Mokund-Beck, a parent who supports Mr. Sanchez. “There has been such a breakdown of trust. Such a breakdown of good will. Such a breakdown of even understanding what public education is for. And then one layers that with all of the dynamics of race and class, and, you know, this is about a real maelstrom that we’ve made for ourselves.”

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 settled in 2020, with the district agreeing to an outside monitor and a complete audit of its practices and outcomes.

Frank Sanchez, who started at Columbia High School that fall, was not an obvious candidate to repair the school’s racial disparities. His previous job was at Mountain Lakes High School, where the student body is less than 2 percent Black.

The Black Parents Workshop opposed his hiring, citing the economic and demographic differences between Mountain Lakes and Columbia, as did an outspoken parent named Elissa Malespina, who would soon join the school board.

Mr. Sanchez arrived at Columbia to find a starkly divided student body. “Some students spent Covid in Aspen,” he said, “and some went to a White Castle or a Burger King to get Wi-Fi because they didn’t have it at home.” He hoped his background, as a son of Cuban immigrants, would help him connect with students from the district’s sizable Haitian American community.

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.”

These measures, he said in an interview, put him at odds with some of the “law and order” administrators at the school, as well as the local Police Department. They also drew opposition from the Black Parents Workshop. “Our position has always been, if students are committing crimes, they need to be held accountable,” said Walter Fields, the group’s founder. If students do not feel safe at school, he added, it “creates systemic barriers to learning for Black children.”

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

Mr. Sanchez, school officials, the student, the prosecutor and the police all declined to discuss the episode. Teachers were instructed by the district not to talk with the news media.

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.

The videos, which have no sound, show the two making contact in front of the stairway doors, Mr. Sanchez slightly taller and considerably stockier. Their hands are mostly obscured. For about 20 seconds they jostle in front of the doors, then move through them, as other students gather to look.

Mr. Sanchez, holding a laptop in his right arm, appears to block or hold the student with his left, as they move toward a wall not visible to two of the cameras. For the last 20 seconds of the interaction the only view is from a lower camera, which shows only their feet. Finally another student seems to lead the girl back through the doors and away from the scene. Mr. Sanchez returns to the lobby.

In her affirmative action complaint, filed a month after the encounter, the student wrote that she had left the workshop to use the restroom when Mr. Sanchez grabbed her and accused her of bullying other students. When she tried to get out of his grip, she wrote, “he pushed me against the wall.” She added: “Mr. Sanchez should be held accountable for wrongly accusing me, and physically grabbing me. This should not be the way he disciplines students.”

Mr. Sanchez’s union lawyer, Robert Schwartz, said, “The video is the best evidence, and it doesn’t support the charges.” He added: “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s not unusual for an administrator who breaks up a fight to then have the kid accuse him of something. That happens.”

The New Jersey Department of Education leaves it up to school districts to set policies for when school officials may physically engage students. In the South Orange-Maplewood district, staff members may use “reasonable and necessary” force to “quell a disturbance” that threatens physical harm to others, according to the district’s policy manual.

Police documents from Mr. Sanchez’s arrest describe him “pushing and/or shoving and/or grabbing” the girl, “causing her to sustain injury.” In her statement to the prosecutor, she said she was bruised during the encounter.

Mr. Fields, from the Black Parents Workshop, said the circumstances leading up to the confrontation were beside the point. “I don’t care where the young lady was going,” he said. “No adult has a right to physically accost a student. I think those are excuses being made for Mr. Sanchez’s behavior.”

As the academic year wound down, Ms. Malespina and the Black Parents Workshop campaigned against renewing Mr. Sanchez’s contract, citing the student’s affirmative action complaint, along with an “increasing number of fights” and students feeling unsafe, according to an email Ms. Malespina sent to the superintendent and school board president.

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?’” He added: “They’re so determined to protect this principal that for whatever reason, they will put their — I’ll call it pseudo-progressive liberalism — aside to meet their own objectives.”

The board voted in May to retain Mr. Sanchez, but the showdown left wounds in the community. Several Black parents said that Mr. Davis’s group did not speak for them.

“This is an effort to advocate for Black children by burning up the entire system,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a parent who supports Mr. Sanchez. “These folks have played very aggressively and unfairly with people’s lives to try to score political points. And this is an escalation, in my opinion, that is very dangerous and crosses the line.”

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.

But there was a problem with the report, said Courtney Winkfield, who was on the school board at the time. “The investigator’s supervisor personally called our board attorney and told them to halt on doing anything with this report,” Ms. Winkfield said. “He said specifically that the investigator did not follow standard operating procedure, did not submit his draft report for review to him.”

Nonetheless, on Dec. 27, according to police records, Ms. Malespina called the police to share the report’s findings. The Maplewood Police Department gathered the videos and incident reports from the school and began its own investigation — this time not into civil charges of bias but criminal charges of assault. Ms. Malespina, whose term on the school board ended in January, declined an interview request.

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. “Security video,” the investigator wrote, “does not demonstrate that Principal Sanchez engaged in behavior unbecoming a public school official.”

The report also noted that Mr. Sanchez “could have engaged in better de-escalation techniques,” for which it recommended that the school provide more training.

But if the report seemed to vindicate Mr. Sanchez, it brought him little comfort. On the same day he learned of the findings, he was called to turn himself in to the county prosecutor. If convicted of assault and endangering a child, he faces a prison term of up to 10 years.

At a school board meeting two weeks later, a half-dozen mothers, wearing red to support Mr. Sanchez, held up signs and took turns reading aloud from the report of the second outside investigation, to rounds of applause from other supporters. Gwyneth Brown, a student representative on the board, said students felt “unconnected” and “very, very lost.”

No one spoke against Mr. Sanchez.

For educators everywhere, the criminal prosecution of Mr. Sanchez for an action that schools typically handle using their own disciplinary codes opens up new levels of potential risk. Fights are part of high school life. If a school official can be not just disciplined but also jailed for intervening to break up or prevent a fight, what are teachers supposed to do?

In an interview, Mr. Sanchez mentioned a fight last year in which a teacher told the students to stop but did not physically separate them. “And the parent was just so upset when they saw the video, like, ‘Why isn’t this person stopping it?’” he said. “And to be honest, I was a little upset, too. I didn’t say that to the parent, but I did say, ‘Well, because sometimes people are worried about liability.’”

The implications of Mr. Sanchez’s arrest extend far beyond South Orange and Maplewood, said Christopher Emdin, a professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has written extensively about race and education.

“The nature of schools is that uncomfortable interactions happen,” Dr. Emdin said. In districts with a history of racial litigation, he added, “there’s a tendency to blow things out of proportion and to attach what happens oftentimes during the school day to race and racism. And that’s dangerous for Black kids who are undergoing legitimate racist practices in contemporary schools. Teachers can’t act effectively if they’re fearful that their actions are going to be misconstrued as racist.”

Other students at the school may feel a different effect, said Monique Couvson, author of “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” who cites research that Black girls’ conduct is disproportionately likely to be met with force. For those who witness such uses of force, she said, “it sends a message that their anger or their quote-unquote attitude is not a valid expression of a form of harm that they might be experiencing.”

In South Orange and Maplewood, bright red “Friends of Frank” signs have sprung up on neighborhood lawns. A crowdfunding campaign to pay Mr. Sanchez’s legal bills has raised more than $60,000.

At Columbia High School, the Board of Education’s lawyer met for two hours with faculty members after Mr. Sanchez’s arrest to discuss what teachers could and could not do when students are fighting or are threatening to. “The entire room was on pins and needles,” said Amy Biasucci, who has taught A.P. biology and environmental science at the school for 15 years. The meeting was clarifying, she said, but did not dispel teachers’ fears.

“We make tens of thousands of micro-decisions on a daily basis,” she said. “And it is very scary to think that someone could take a micro-decision out of context and you could now go to jail for that. Your life could be ruined after literally giving your entire life to public service. It’s excruciating.”

Mr. Sanchez remains on paid administrative leave, with his next court date scheduled for June.

Taylor Robinson contributed reporting.

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