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A Principal's Really Bad Day


Imagine you are a high school principal and auditors from the state education department are visiting. You want everything to go smoothly, right?

Well, imagine next that on the day the auditors are visiting, there's a small fire in one of your classrooms. The fire is quickly doused. But next, as the auditing team and a teacher are walking across the school campus, someone shoots BBs from a pellet gun toward them, hitting one of the state officials. Finally, at a Black History Month ceremony in the auditorium, where state officials are present, a fight breaks out between two students.

It sounds like something that might happen to Principal Seymour Skinner on "The Simpsons." But this nightmare scenario was all too real for Henry Simpson, who was principal of Williams-Sullivan High School in Durant, Miss., on that day, Feb. 24, 2006.

It got worse for Simpson a few days later when the superintendent of the Holmes County school system sent the principal a letter informing him that he was fired. The grounds were "failure to maintain order, ensure safety for faculty, staff and students, maintain instructional integrity and [Simpson's] failure to follow board policy and the law on reporting incidents in a timely manner.”

The principal challenged his termination, saying the superintendent overreacted after one particularly bad school day. But the superintendent and the school board cited Simpson's alleged failure to report the incidents up the chain of command. District officials learned of the incidents from someone in the state education department. (Simpson said in court papers that he tried to notify the superintendent about the pellet-gun incident that day but couldn't get in touch with him.)

In a Feb. 10 ruling, the Mississippi Court of Appeals upheld the principal's dismissal. The court noted that not only did Simpson fail to inform the superintendent's office of the pellet-gun incident, the principal apparently did not even learn from his own faculty about the classroom fire until he read about it in the newspaper.

"While Simpson relies on his ignorance of the events as a defense, we agree that it was his responsibility as the principal to know what happened at his school," the court said in Simpson v. Holmes County Board of Education.


It's unfortunate how seldom educators are given credit for the incredible number of decisions they just make and actions they must take in a typical day, let alone an atypical one. It is very easy for someone with the luxury of 20-20 hindsight to isolate a single incident from the thousands of others which went right the previous day, that day, and the next day. Having just successfully defended a teacher against a principal, superintendent and school board who Monday-morning-quarterbacked her, I get it...

My first year as an assistant principal, my principal was absent and I was flying solo. In between the teacher observations and student discipline issues, the guys working on our plumbing came running in my office and yelled, "Clear the building fast! We've hit a major gas line." I was able to get all of our 450+ elementary students evaculated from the building quickly, but once the fire department arrived they said that we would have to get much further away. Our school is located on a very busy highway. I ended up having to call the highway patrol to come and shut down the highway so that we could walk all of our students across the highway to the middle school (which dismissed and hour and a half earlier than us and was in the thick of the dismissal process). That was a day!

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