Lexington NAACP: School district mishandled principal leave

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Marlon Ball, the principal of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, was placed on administrative leave in November 2022.

Marlon Ball, the principal of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, was placed on administrative leave in November 2022.

Fayette County Public Schools

The president of the Lexington-Fayette branch of the NAACP in a Monday statement said the group is concerned about potential “mishandling” of the Dunbar High School principal’s recent suspension.

In the statement, President Whit Whitaker said “there appears to be procedural mishandling, action, and treatment of the (Paul Laurence Dunbar High School) principal who was recently placed on administrative leave.”

Following the death of athletic director Jason Howell, which is being investigated as a suicide, the school district released a statement saying the Fayette schools community was “grieving” and that “concerns” raised by members of Dunbar’s staff would be investigated.

“Per our normal human resources procedures, Dunbar Principal Marlon Ball has been placed on administrative leave. As with any personnel matter, we are unable to comment further,” the district statement said.

A letter to Ball from Superintendent Demetrus Liggins, obtained earlier this month by the Herald-Leader under the Kentucky Open Records Act, said the leave stemmed from an allegation of inappropriate conduct.

Whitaker’s Monday statement cited an email he said the district sent to parents reiterating the death of the Dunbar High School athletic director which included an announcement that the principal was being placed on administrative leave due to “inappropriate conduct.”

“This calls into our first question of whether the District’s email was the spark that began the rumors of unfairly tying the principal to the death of the athletic director,” Whitaker’s statement said. “This was further exacerbated by online chatter about a statement that the principal made on his personal social media page that was purportedly about the deceased educator, as well as unsubstantiated allegations made to the media by a Dunbar HS teacher/(school council) member accusing the principal of …. harassing his staff members.”

The Lexington-Fayette NAACP believes that “there is something inherently wrong, unjust and irresponsible in allowing the narrative to be inferred and driven by the personal opinions of staff members that chose to push the narrative suggesting that the principal had some responsibility in the untimely death of the athletic director,” Whitaker’s statement said.

The second question, Whitaker said, is whether earlier intervention by the Fayette school district could have addressed alleged complaints against the principal prior to the death of the educator.

“By allowing this strategic misdirection to spiral untethered, the actions toward the principal have taken the focus away from the much-loved educator and the grief that his family and friends are enduring,” the statement said.

Dale Golden, Ball’s attorney, and Fayette school district officials did not immediately respond to Whitaker’s statement.

Whitaker said the school district should have acted swiftly and in a more responsible manner to take control of the situation by releasing a statement discouraging any connection between the principal and the suicide.

The act of placing the principal on administrative leave and the ensuing investigation of alleged misconduct should have been held in a more private and dignified manner, “customary given the reputation of a principal with 13 years of experience in education whom the FCPS district deemed worthy and qualified less than six months prior for the position,” Whitaker wrote.

“It is concerning that the District missed an opportunity to diminish the stigma surrounding suicide and to further educate the students and the public about the signs and prevention, while also affording those affected by this loss to grieve without the negative distraction of media stories of personal opinions,” Whitaker said.

While the distict has made some progress in hiring an African American superintendent, in publishing a long-awaited Equity Statement, and employing a Chief Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Officer, “the FCPS district’s unfortunate mishandling of this very sensitive matter will be viewed as a setback,” Whitaker said.

He said it is also concerning that the school district continues to struggle to improve recruiting and retention of African American teachers.

This is a developing story and may be updated.

Staff writer Valarie Honeycutt Spears covers K-12 education, social issues and other topics. She is a Lexington native with southeastern Kentucky roots.

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