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Grand Jury Declines to Indict Principal Accused of Endangering a Student

A grand jury in New Jersey dismissed charges on Wednesday against the high school principal who had been accused of endangering a student, in a racially charged case that roiled the liberal, diverse towns of South Orange and Maplewood.

The principal, Frank Sanchez, 50, remains in professional limbo. In May, with charges hanging over him, the district did not renew his contract; he remains on paid administrative leave, which ends this month. He plans to appeal the school board’s decision and ask it to reappoint him.

“This has been a difficult time of my life,” Mr. Sanchez said on Thursday. “Being an educator defined me for a long time, and not being able to do that for several months was extremely difficult. There were days where it was dark.”

The school district’s acting superintendent, Dr. Kevin F. Gilbert, called the grand jury decision “welcome news to the many families and students who have been looking forward to welcoming Frank Sanchez back to Columbia High School.”

The case divided the school district, which has a longstanding achievement gap between white and Black students, despite years of civil rights lawsuits and programs to address the disparities.

The student who accused Mr. Sanchez is no longer at the school. Since Mr. Sanchez’s arrest in March, she has had to live in town amid lawn signs supporting Mr. Sanchez as well as rallies of parents behind him.

Mr. Sanchez said he had empathy for the student and what she had gone through. “She’s a victim as much as I was, of the adults who created all this attention,” he said. “These were the adults in town doing stuff.”

The student did not reply to a request for comment. A local organization that represented her, the Black Parents Workshop, said in a statement that, despite the grand jury’s decision, “we believe he abused his authority and violated the trust of this student,” and suggested that it might seek civil damages against Mr. Sanchez.

The case involved a confrontation in the lobby of Columbia High School in Maplewood last March, when Mr. Sanchez put his body in front of the student, who he believed was heading toward a clash with classmates. The interaction, which lasted less than a minute and included physical contact, was captured — incompletely — on hallway security video.

The girl, who is Black, filed an affirmative action complaint against Mr. Sanchez, who is white and Latino. A member of the school board, with whom Mr. Sanchez had clashed previously, shared the complaint and preliminary results of an investigation with the local police, which led to his arrest.

Parents, students and some teachers organized to support him, speaking at school board meetings, raising more than $70,000 for his legal expenses and sending more than 1,000 postcards to the prosecutor’s office, urging it to drop the case. Some characterized the complaint against him as a vendetta by a small group that opposed his hiring and his policies.

Walter Fields, who founded the Black Parents Workshop and now lives in Maryland, said the support for Mr. Sanchez was indicative of deeper problems in the district.

“This is not a community that has a history of supporting Black children,” Mr. Fields said. “And so it can raise tens of thousands of dollars to defend an adult who is charged with accosting a student.

“You can’t show a whole lot of concern for a student that you’re traumatizing by putting signs on people’s lawns supporting the adult who’s accused of accosting her. Did anyone raise any money for the student? No.”

After the grand jury decision, Mia Charlene White, a parent who helped lead the support for Mr. Sanchez, said the stress of the last few months felt overwhelming.

“Watching how Frank and his family suffered through this unfair, ridiculous, baseless witch hunt,” said Ms. White, who is Black and Korean. She lamented that “people have misconstrued our support of Frank as if we don’t understand the ongoing challenges in our public schools and in particular in defense of Black students.”

Mr. Sanchez said that at Wednesday’s grand jury hearing, he narrated the school security videos of the confrontation, and described what he said were days of threats by the student against her classmates. By the end, he said, “I think the jurors understood that, as a principal, you have to make such split-second decisions when you’re balancing student safety, and that it doesn’t really belong in a criminal court.”

Though he said he was relieved to be cleared on the charge of endangering a minor, he still faces a lesser charge of simple assault, which is a disorderly-persons offense and was not subject to the grand jury’s purview. The prosecutor’s office said in a statement that it “will be addressed on a date to be scheduled.”

Since his arrest, Mr. Sanchez has not been allowed to communicate with teachers or administrators at the school.

And he may yet face a civil lawsuit from the lawyers at the Black Parents Workshop, according to Mr. Fields. “We never looked at the grand jury as a final step,” Mr. Fields said.

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