A retired administrative law judge will have to decide whether former Scotlandville High School Principal Calvin Nicholas’ decision to use a stick to break up a fight at the north Baton Rouge school was justified or went too far.
East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake testified Monday that he was “appalled” after he saw a blurry video on Sept. 1 of the fight from the day before, a video that shows Nicholas brandishing a stick and hitting a boy on the rear, what Drake described as “on the bone.” The superintendent said the school system’s policy barring corporal punishment clearly forbids the use of sticks and other implements against students.
“I don’t expect my principals to hit students with sticks,” Drake said. “It’s just inappropriate, unlawful and against policy.”
Nicholas, however, maintained, as he has for weeks, that if he hadn’t intervened, the fight could have gotten out hand. He also described his use of a stick as a “reasonable use of physical force and restraint” allowed by the corporal punishment policy. He also said the school system never provided him training in the appropriate way to break up a fight.
“There was no malicious intent,” he said. “That was a spur-of-the-moment incident. I was trying to keep (the fight) from escalating.”
Judge Bob Hester has 10 days to issue a ruling affirming or reversing Nicholas’ termination. If either side disagrees with his ruling, they have 60 days to appeal the decision to state district court.
Nicholas’ attorney is Jill Craft. The school system is being representative by Carla Courtney-Harris and Ken Sith, of law firm Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice.
Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, said Nicholas’ administrative hearing is the first one the school system has had under a new state law that revamps how such hearings are conducted. Under the new rules, Nicholas has to prove the school system acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in firing him, a higher legal standard than under the old system, Rutledge said.
Hester heard from six witnesses Monday over eight hours.
Nicholas testified last. The former football star took over as principal at Scotlandville High in June after having been recruited by Drake; Nicholas previously was an assistant principal at Baker High.
“I told him, ‘If you’re coming to me, you know discipline is my area of expertise,’ ” Nicholas said.
Nicholas said he quickly went to work to bring order to the high school of about 1,500 students. He shifted personnel around, made sure men stood at every hallway and gave them whistles to sound if problems arose. Scotlandville High draws from a wide area and is prone to group conflict, he said.
“That school has a culture not of one-on-one fights but group fights,” Nicholas said.
During the first two weeks of school, he managed to head off potential fights. But in week three, as Scotlandville High’s football team headed toward its opening football game, fights began to break out, including one the night of the game.
After school let out that following Monday, Aug. 31, kids who had been in a fight at the football game got into it again. Nicholas said the kids were fighting atop concrete, so he was worried they would hurt one another and also that other students close to the fight would jump in and make it worse. The school’s resource officer already had left for the day, he said.
“I had no one out there to help me, so I was by myself,” he said.
Nicholas said he’s walked around for years with a stick to help him think — at Baker High, he walked with a golf club — and he said he used the stick he had with him to get the attention of the boy who was the aggressor and get him off the other kid. He said in 27 years as an educator he’d never used one of his walking sticks before in that way.
John McCann, director of high schools, testified that as he watched the video, he immediately felt Nicholas had gone too far.
“I thought it was inappropriate that a principal would strike a student with an implement of that type in order to break up an encounter of that type,” said McCann, who had become Nicholas’ supervisor earlier that month.
During his investigation, McCann found two of Nicholas’ walking sticks and showed them to Judge Hester. Both were long wooden dowels. One had electrical tape at each end, and it’s the one that appears to be in the video of the fight.
Drake said he wrestled with the decision to fire Nicholas because he didn’t want more instability at the school, which has had multiple principals in the past year. But Nicholas’ use of the stick was something he wants to put a stop to.
“I’ve broken up fights before, but I always use my hands,” Drake said.
Craft cross-examined multiple witnesses about the stick. At one point, she asked McCann to say what was unreasonable about what Nicholas did.
“So it’s the stick?” Craft asked.
“That was a problem,” McCann agreed.
Craft asked then if would have been OK if the principal had used his hand to strike the boy.
McCann, however, said that would depend on the facts.
“Slapping or striking is much different from restraining,” he said.
Craft repeatedly brought up recent fights and incidents, painting a picture of a high school wracked by violence.
McCann would say only that the school had incidents “every now and then.”
Drake reacted more strongly to this line of questioning.
“To characterize these kids as being animals and being out of control is totally incorrect,” Drake said. “I’m there all the time.”
Drake also insisted Monday that Nicholas has twice told him he might be willing to resign as a result of what he did. Nicholas disputed that, saying he was considering resigning only because Drake made it clear that the only other alternative was being fired.