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NJ high school principal arrested for physical altercation with female student, sparking fierce debate

Frank Sanchez
Frank Sanchez

A New Jersey high school principal has been charged with assault on a female student — sparking deep divides in the community over allegations about how school faculty disciplines students of color.

Columbia High School principal Frank Sanchez, 49, surrendered to detectives with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office Monday morning, Chief Assistant Prosecutor Thomas Fennelly told The Post.

Sanchez was brought up on charges of simple assault and second-degree endangering the welfare of a child related to an incident that supposedly took place on March 9, 2023, the charging documents viewed by The Post explained.

Frank Sanchez was arrested on Monday. Essex County Correctional Facility
Frank Sanchez was arrested on Monday. Essex County Correctional Facility

But some supporters of Sanchez, including local parents and a former district School Board member, have said his actions were justified and called the campaign against him a “witch hunt.”

Dr. Kevin F. Gilbert, the acting superintendent for the contentious South-Orange Maplewood School District, reported the incident to police on Dec. 22, 2023. Gilbert told officers that the school had hired an outside detective to look into the matter after an affirmative action complaint was filed against Sanchez, the documents noted.

Video footage from the incident allegedly showed Sanchez “pushing, shoving or grabbing” a female student by the arm as he yanked her toward a staircase, according to the charging report.

When the girl pulled away, Sanchez reached for her again, and they tussled for about 30 seconds.

The footage then supposedly showed the pair crashing through a door while Sanchez held the girl up against a wall, the complaint stated.

In addition to the video evidence, another student claimed to have witnessed the incident and told investigators that Sanchez “put his hands on [the student] for no reason.”

The incident has created deep divides in the community over allegations about how school faculty disciplines students of color. Linkedin/Frank Sanchez
The incident has created deep divides in the community over allegations about how school faculty disciplines students of color. Linkedin/Frank Sanchez

The girl herself also gave a statement to detectives with the prosecutor’s office, and told them she had “bruising” after the alleged confrontation, the charging document said.

The alleged victim’s name was redacted from the report, but the Black Parents Workshop – an advocacy group for black families in the South Orange-Maplewood School District –

that she was a “Black, Female Columbia High School Student.”

The Black Parents Workshop said the March 9, 2023 incident was part of a troubling pattern of inappropriate disciplinary actions targeted at black students.

The Black Parents Workshop said the March 9, 2023 incident was part of a troubling pattern of inappropriate disciplinary actions targeted at black students. Google Maps
The Black Parents Workshop said the March 9, 2023 incident was part of a troubling pattern of inappropriate disciplinary actions targeted at black students. Google Maps

“The history of abuse of Black children in this school district is inconceivable,” founder Walter Fields said.

“We have had a Black child put in a closet as punishment, one held by the ankles, students sexually assaulted by a teacher and students victimized by police brutality,” he listed out, adding that “there is something wrong in a community when repeated incidents of child abuse become the norm.”

The Black Parents Workshop’s concerns about Sanchez were previously swept under the rug at board meetings, the group claimed.

“We were the only organization that expressed disapproval of the renewal of Mr. Sanchez’s contract when it came before the Board of Education,” the statement added.

Columbia High School serves students from both Maplewood and South Orange. Google Maps
Columbia High School serves students from both Maplewood and South Orange. Google Maps

“Our position was based upon what we had been hearing from Black students in Columbia High School, and our inclination was validated when we became aware of the incident at the heart of these charges,” the group said.

Sanchez was initially placed on an unexplained administrative leave in January, NJ.com reported – though officials did not confirm if the removal was related to the supposed assault.

When reached by NJ.com, Fields said the group was “really concerned” about the allegations.

The workshop’s legal counsel, Robert Tarver, and the group’s chairman, James H. Davis III, are both giving the student legal counseling, NJ.com reported.

Sanchez, who lives in Sparta, did not immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment on Thursday. However, comments on his Facebook profile revealed that not everyone agreed with the Black Parents Workshop’s take.

One former district Board of Education member, Courtney Winkfield,

that Sanchez’s charges were a “witch hunt,” and that he intervened in a “student fight” for safety reasons.

Winkfield claimed the board was advised to disregard the outside report about the incident because it was “flawed” and did not follow protocol.

In a subsequent post, Winkfield also alleged that the case against Sanchez was only taken up when another BOE member brought the first report to the Maplewood police – and not when Gilbert made a “compliance call” about the internal review.

On Thursday afternoon, several South Orange-Maplewood parents had changed their Facebook profile photos to red logos that said “Friends of Frank.”

“The group of organizers behind Friends of Frank is a multi-racial coalition of parent volunteers led by Black women,” voice actor and Maplewood local Stephanie Nasteff-Pilato posted.

“The BPW does not speak for all the Black parents in our district, and often successfully scares well-intended white parents away from standing up for what they feel in their gut to be manipulative and off-base by casting any opposing opinions as racist,” she insisted.

A rally in support of Sanchez was set for Thursday evening. Most of the speakers Nasteff-Pilato wrote, will be women of color.

“Please amplify those voices and ensure that your behavior does nothing to play into the white mob narrative already being spun by the BPW,” she cautioned others.

On Wednesday evening, the Black Parents Workshop Facebook page captioned a link to the charging documents with “Facts Matter. What fight?” – seemingly a reference to the narrative advanced by Winkfield and Sanchez’s supporters.

The Black Parents Workshop, Winkfield, and Nasteff-Pilato did not immediately respond to The Post’s request for a comment on the debate.

“I am deeply saddened by the news of charges against the Columbia High School principal, the latest in a series of unexpected events that have happened in our district during this school year,” Gilbert told NJ.com earlier this week.

“No matter what our feelings may be at this time, our focus must be on meeting the needs of Columbia High School students, their families, and staff,” the statement added.

“I am working with my administration colleagues to make sure we continue to fulfill our obligations to the people we serve,” he said.

The South Orange-Maplewood schools – and Gilbert himself – are no strangers to controversy.

Gilbert found himself in the acting superintendent position in November 2023 after former Superintendent Ronald Taylor was ousted by a vote of no-confidence, the NJ Education Report said.

Gilbert did not return The Post’s request for comment.