The 60-second school confrontation that divided a community and sees a principal facing jail

A high school principal in New Jersey could face jail time for the way he conducted himself during a controversial confrontation with a student last year and the fallout has led to massive debate in two suburban towns.

Frank Sanchez, the principal of Columbia High School in the South Orange–Maplewood School District, was arrested and charged with second-degree endangering the welfare of a child and simple assault last month in connection to an incident that occurred last year.

Investigators say in March of 2023, Mr Sanchez, a white and Latino man, confronted a Black female student who was accused of bullying other students in the stairwell of the high school.

In an incident that lasted less than a minute, Mr Sanchez physically blocked the student from leaving the stairwell and entering the cafeteria. He said he was breaking up a fight.

But one month after the incident, the student filed an affirmative action complaint, alleging that Mr Sanchez grabbed her, accused her of bullying other students and pushed her against the wall. She said there was no fight or impending fight for him to break up. She also said she sustained minor injuries from the incident with Mr Sanchez.

Frank Sanchez, the principal of Columbia High School (SOMATelevision / YouTube)

The facts of the incident are subjectively disputed. Enough so, parents, administrators, students and others in South Orange and Maplewood communities have gotten involved in the heated debate about race, class and mistrust in the school system.

Following the affirmative action complaint, the school commissioned an independent investigation into the incident. The findings of that, though disputed, recommended “appropriate actions” for what they described as a pattern of “excessive” force against Black female students.

Black Parents Workshop, an organisation that advocates for education equality for Black students, condemned Mr Sanchez’s behaviour and supported the student’s complaint. At the end of the year, they asked the school board not to renew Mr Sanchez’s contract.

But other parents supported retaining Mr Sanchez, believing he is a good leader in the high school.

Last month, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office filed an arrest warrant for Mr Sanchez on the charges, which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years. He turned himself in.

Mr Sanchez’s union lawyer told The New York Times that videos from the incident do not support the charges.

“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 doing something,” Robert Schwartz told the newspaper.

The dangers of school violence have gained national attention recently with the case of Kaylee Gain, who was seriously injured during a high school fight.

For the time being, Mr Sanchez is on paid administrative leave.

Days after his arrest, students at the school held a walkout supporting Mr Sanchez. Across the town, lawn signs bearing “Friends of Frank” have popped up.

But Walter Fields, the founder of Black Parents Workshop said the incident was “a shameful moment for the school district.”

“What will it take for Black children to feel safe in their own community? What will it take for this school district to take moral responsibility and provide Black children an education to which they are legally entitled?” Mr Fields said.

“My suggestion is stop having ‘conversations’ on race and engaging in performative acts like hanging ‘Black Lives Matter’ banners across streets and begin respecting the humanity of Black children. Is that too much to ask for? This is a shameful moment for this school district that adds to a shameful history in the South Orange-Maplewood School District.”

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