New Jersey Principal Facing Charges After Disputed Incident

Josh Meister via AP

Columbia High School in New Jersey serves two towns, Maplewood and South Orange. It's a high achieving high school (top 10% according to US News) in a state often given high marks for its public schools. And the area is outwardly progressive.


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.

Last year, an incident took place which has split the community apart by race. That story starts with a parents group called the Black Parents Workshop which had previously sued the school district.

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.

Principal Sanchez seems to have been as progressive as everyone else in SOMA and wanted to cut back on student suspensions to prevent black students from falling into the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. 


Last year on March 9, Sanchez had an interaction with a student which changed his life. The female student was in 9th grade and had apparently threatened and bullied three other girls. As a result, she was asked to participate in an anti-bullying workshop called Challenge Day. At about 1:30 she left the event and was headed in the direction of the cafeteria where the three students who'd complained were eating lunch. Principal Sanchez saw her and blocked her from leaving. Part of the incident, which lasted less than a minute, was caught on video.

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.”


Last fall the school hired an outside firm to investigate the incident. In December, a report was released accusing Sanchez of using excessive force in the situation. But then the supervisor of the investigator behind the report called the school board and said the report had not been submitted to superiors and that no action should be taken on the report yet as it wasn't finished. But school board member Elissa Malespina ignored that and contacted the police who launched their own investigation.

Meanwhile, the school gave the law firm a second chance at the report. They delivered the revised report on March 7 of this year and its conclusions were very different.

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.”

But it was too late. On the same day the revised report was released, Principal Sanchez was told to turn himself in to face charges of assault and endangering a child. Last month he was arrested.


I wasn't able to locate the video of the actual confrontation. But based on the description it sounds like this is a grey area. Was it assault? Possibly. Was Sanchez trying to prevent other girls from being bullied? Probably.

Yesterday I wrote about the Assistant Principal at a Virginia school who is now being charged because she didn't react after receiving multiple warnings that a 1st grader had brought a gun to school. Teacher Abby Zwerner was shot later that day. But the situation at Columbia High School shows the risk involved in trying to intervene to stop a confrontation before it starts. Many of the commenters on the story are teachers or former teachers who got fed up with the lack of discipline.

Let me get this right.  If he had not intervened to stop a possible confrontation he would have been accused of being negligent.  Because he did intervene, he is being accused of assault.  No wonder teachers are fed up with the system..

From a former teacher:

Years ago I used to teach in Oakland.  One day, while I was facing the board to write something on it. one student jumped onto another student behind my back. I pulled him off and quickly ended the attack.  This student, of course, went to the administration and claimed I had attacked him.  So I got called in.

Fortunately, all the other students in the class backed me up and nothing came of this.  A lot of other teachers came up to me privately and praised me for my brave action.  But that wasn't it, I had just done what had to be done at the moment.


From a former teacher in LA:

I’ll send $100 to the Sanchez legal fund. 

Working for a few years in the LA public schools, I saw instances of a consistently obstreperous student charge administrators with racial discrimination when disciplined. 

This would even occur when both student and teacher/administrator were of the same race.

Someone else pointed out that maybe equity isn't the right way to dole out discipline.

I am really over comments how disciplinary actions disproportionately fall on certain students. Maybe certain students disproportionately display inappropriate behavior. This is a travesty of justice for this principal, and will continue to drive out teachers from the profession.

Finally, from a frustrated parent in the midwest.

As a parent, it's very frustrating that schools' hands are so tied when it comes to discipline.  It takes one single kid to disrupt an entire class.

In my school, no one can physically restrain students unless they pose an immediate threat.  In practice, what this means is:

A special education student--who has some profound disabilities--is allowed to roam the halls, trash classrooms, yell loudly in the hallways, and, once, pushed two other students down the stairs.  All the adults can do is follow her around and try to calm her down and coax her back in.  She deserves respectful interactions, but this doesn't seem like an acceptable outcome.

A boy harassed my daughter and nothing happened.  He would move his chair close to her so that the were physically touching, and each time she moved away, he would move closer.  He'd use hand gestures toward her like slitting her throat.  And also whisper in her ear.  The school's only response was that they could provide more support to the boy, so another adult might be assigned to him and encourage him to not do that.

Kids can be incredibly disrespectful to teachers and disrupt class time, with virtually no consequences.


This whole story just strikes me as another case of progressivism run amok. Student discipline shouldn't be based on concerns over equity, i.e. group outcomes. It should solely be based on the misbehavior of individual students.

There were allegations of bullying and the potential for a confrontation in this case. I'd side with the principal unless there was some clear evidence he was excessively violent or had a habit of these kind of confrontations. That doesn't seem to be the case. I guess we'll see if there's more to the story as this trial goes forward but as of now, I'm hoping the principal is acquitted.

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