Parents rally behind ousted principal PTO wants more input, asks for reinstatement after knife incident

November 13, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Parents at Johnston Square Elementary School believe the sudden removal of their principal for improperly disciplining a child was a harsh punishment they hope will be reversed.

They will rally Thursday in support of Colyn Harrington, 63, who was ousted after she suggested to an 8-year-old boy that his penis might be cut off if he did not stop making sexually explicit comments to his female classmates. She summoned a janitor, who entered her office carrying a dinner knife. Harrington intended to scare the boy, not to harm him, according to school officials.

Harrington's departure came as a surprise last week to parents and teachers who knew nothing about the incident and don't understand why one lapse in judgment should end a 40-year career in city schools.

"We are asking the school board to reinstate Ms. Harrington," said Wanda Robinson, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Johnston Square. "It is high time that we parents band together for the community and the education of our children."

Robinson said parents and members of the community will assemble at the school at 3 p.m. and walk to school board headquarters on North Avenue to ask that they have a greater say in who will be the next principal at Johnston Square.

School officials made a mistake by not informing parents and teachers about the incident immediately, Robinson said, and by excluding them from the decision-making process. "There should have been a vote whether we could keep Ms. Harrington," Robinson said. "The ultimate decision should have been made with the parents."

The mother of six children, five of whom have attended Johnston Square, Robinson said she believes Harrington was the best principal of the six who have been at the school in the past nine years.

Betty Rodgers, the parent of a third- and a fourth-grader, agreed. "She is one of the best principals up there. My children are bringing home more reading assignments and they are being more productive in math classes," she said.

Disagreement about method

Parents appear to disagree on whether Harrington was right or wrong in the method she used to discipline the boy. Some feel she was using a harmless verbal threat that might have been used by many parents. But others feel differently. "What the principal did there was completely wrong," said Linda Thorne, the parent of a girl who graduated last year. "But I don't think the answer should be to totally get rid of her."

School officials said Harrington called the third-grader into her office Oct. 4 to discipline him for repeating a vulgar expression commonly used as an invitation to oral sex. Harrington allegedly told the child that maybe if he didn't have a penis, he would not ask little girls such a question.

Barry Williams, Harrington's supervisor, said he went to the school Monday with other staff, including a psychologist and a social worker, to talk with teachers and students. Williams said the children were told their principal would not be back because she had done something wrong. Williams said he talked to children and told them, "Ms. Harrington cared very much about you and she still cares about you. Ms. Harrington would want you to be successful. She wants you to become good readers."

Some teachers expressed anger over the incident, Williams said. They were told they were free to express their anger, but that it should not get in the way of serving children.

Parents are angry at the media for what they described as negative reporting that is not balanced by stories on the positive efforts of teachers and students.

"There are so many kids who are doing wonderful things, but you never hear about those things," said Robinson.

'Unjust' decision

But most important, Robinson and other parents said, they believe a good principal who had made a mistake was taken away in the middle of the school year, creating turmoil.

"I think what they did was so unjust to the kids, teachers and parents, to remove her at such a crucial time when we need some stability," she said. "The children are going to suffer and the teachers are going to suffer."

Pub Date: 11/13/98

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