The Principal Matter

Teachers said Principal Gil Cho was dictatorial. Students said he manhandled them. The school district said he was doing a good job.

Then — on January 16 — McClendon's principal hit her, Gaddies says. McClendon had been out in the hallway on her way to get water when what students have described as a "play fight" started. The principal was breaking up the altercation when Maltby, the teacher's aide, walked by.

Maltby reported that Cho wrapped his arm around the girl's neck as McClendon playfully pulled on her arm. Then, she wrote, "Mr. Cho swung around, still holding the girl in the headlock, drew his right hand all the way back, and punched [McClendon] in her arm three or four times, pulling his arm all the way back each time. I, like the girl, stood there in stunned silence as Mr. Cho dragged the headlocked girl into his office."

Maltby says that through Cho's office door, she could see him raising his hand and punching in a downward motion. She ran in because she thought Cho was beating the girl, but then saw that he was hitting the chair next to her.

Dr. Martin Luther King Academic Middle school will have a new principal next year.
Rodney Dilger
Dr. Martin Luther King Academic Middle school will have a new principal next year.

Maltby collected statements from two adults and one student who witnessed the incident, and reported it to Child Protective Services and the school district.

No one informed Latrelle Gaddies until the next day. She got a phone call on her way to City College, where she is completing her undergraduate education. After learning her daughter had been punched, "I said whaaaaaaat?" she recalls. She turned the car around and headed for the school.

Gaddies spoke with Maltby and guidance counselor Spears. She didn't want to see the principal. "I was hot," she says. "If I would have saw the principal, I would have punched him in his face for hitting my daughter." She believed Cho's treatment of McClendon was race-related, and her daughter agreed. "He's mean to my culture, but nice to the Chinese," McClendon said.

Gaddies says she contacted several attorneys. CPS, meanwhile, handed the case over to School Operations and Instructional Support, the investigative arm of the school district. Investigator Richard Maggi came to the school and questioned those involved and witnesses. Cho was put on paid administrative leave.

Maltby, who filed the original report, somehow didn't make Maggi's list of people to question, she says. Near the end of his investigation, she says she approached him to tell him what she saw.

In his defense, Cho told the district that he believed he was breaking up a real fight. "I feel very strongly that I took corrective measures to stop this apparent fight," he wrote. He said he verbally warned McClendon three times to let go, but she continued her "vise-like" grip. That's when he lightly slapped her hand, partially hitting her arm. If not for the "minimum force that I exerted," Cho wrote, the student he had in the headlock would have faced a serious shoulder injury. "If I were to let go," he wrote, the 'fight' could have continued."

According to Maggi's file, one witness told the investigator the girls were in an armlock near the floor and did not respond to Cho's loud verbal requests to stop. "There was no excessive force and no one was in a headlock," the witness said, adding, "Mr. Cho did his job as a principal and broke up the fight, which is in the best interests of the students and staff at MLK." The witness (whose name was redacted from files given to SF Weekly) also told Maggi she overheard one of the teachers coaching the students on what to write on their incident reports.

In the end, Maggi concluded that "the amount of force used with the flat of the hand to have the victim release herself from the other student was not excessive."

After spending two days on administrative leave, Cho was back.

Teachers were appalled. "He's the Teflon principal," says Galgano, the union rep. "Nothing sticks."

McClendon said little to her mother about the incident. She wanted to forget it, but she says every time she walked by the office, she felt uncomfortable. Once, when she saw the principal in the hall, he apologized to her. "He said, 'You know I didn't mean to do that,'" she says he said. "Yeah, right," she fired back, and kept walking.

Gaddies, on the other hand, received no communication from Cho, which she found inexcusable. "This asshole ain't call me and sayin' nothing," she said. It's just lucky for Cho that her husband wasn't around, she added: "He would have hurt that principal."

Finding and retaining good principals isn't easy in the SFUSD, says administrators' union president Jim Dierke. There has been a shortage of administrators who choose to work in San Francisco, due to its high cost of living and the better-paying districts surrounding it. Needless to say, the district isn't quick to banish the ones it has.

Furthermore, there's just one person, an assistant superintendent, with the power to make that decision.

In Cho's case, that person would have been Jeannie Pon in 2005 and 2006, and Joan Hepperly in 2007. Their job as assistant superintendent of middle schools was to report to the board, and to make a recommendation on whether a principal's contract should be renewed. Despite the numerous complaints, Pon and Hepperly apparently gave the board the go-ahead on Cho.

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