Juvenile justice expert hopes West High School incident sparks conversation

SALT LAKE CITY — West High School Principal Ford White is on paid administrative leave after allegedly driving drunk students home from school.

His absence has created an outpouring of support for the educator. Students walked out Tuesday in support.

Brett Peterson, Director of the Division of Juvenile Justice Services for the State of Utah, said he didn't know all the details of the situation but is happy this is sparking a conversation.

“My first reaction is I was grateful for a scenario where our knee jerk reaction wasn’t looking at these kids through a criminal lens," he said.

One of White's former students, Ashlyn Blackham, still can't believe what's happening.

“I read probably article after article and when I heard what he did. I was like, 'Why would he be placed on leave for doing something good?'" she said.

In Blackham's opinion, Principal Ford needs justice.

“I know this is a weird situation, but he helped those kids from possibly hurting themselves more, getting into deeper trouble," she said.

Ashlyn credits her in life in part to White. She went through some very traumatic times in high school, she said, suffering from depression and anxiety, as well as being bullied. There were times when Ashlyn said she was suicidal.

"He [White] would check up on me, even if it was just saying hi to me in the halls. Of course, he took care of some of the bullying and online threats going on, he tried to eliminate it as much as possible," she said.

Dr. Lexi Cunningham, Superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District, sent a letter to the West High School Community regarding White. It reads in part:

"As most of you know, Principal Ford White was placed on paid administrative leave on Friday, November 15th following an incident involving West High students. While this investigation is still ongoing and I cannot openly discuss the particulars, I feel it is important to make sure you know that our primary concern in any student-related incident will always be student safety and well-being. This is the lens through which the district’s investigation is being conducted."

About two years ago, Utah went through a dramatic juvenile justice reform, Peterson said. Before the reform, about half of the youth in custody were non-violent, low-level offenders. Now that number is down 40 percent.

“They may come in as a low-level offender. They may come in because of something like alcohol drinking, and next thing you know they are coming out as a much higher risk offender. So everything we can do to serve kids in their homes, schools and communities is absolutely paramount," he said.

Now, they find ways for youth to get treatment or help in other ways. The goals outlined on the Juvenile Justice Services' website are: improve short-term and long-term outcomes for youth, support families in the rehabilitation process, and improve the safety, security and well-being of JJS youth and employees.

“Too long we have relied on courts, we’ve relied on law enforcement as our pathway to treatment," Peterson said.

While Peterson said he doesn't want to weigh in on exactly what happened with White, because he doesn't know all the details, he said he is happy about the conversations now happening.

“I do want to weigh in on this conversation that this scenario has prompted in Utah," he said. "How we continue to look at and consider how do we treat youth, who are acting in ways that may not be appropriate, but recognizing with an adolescent brain, and we have the science that kind of correlates with that. We have to continue to challenge our approaches."

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