Why was Principal Pendley removed from Clarke Middle?

On December 16, Chris Pendley was removed as Principal of Clarke Middle School, a sudden decision that shocked parents and teachers alike. The Clarke County School District has not given an explanation for Pendley’s mid-year removal. Pendley has been placed in the Human Resources Department, but is currently without a job title and has been in professional limbo for over a month.

So, why was Principal Pendley removed? Teachers and parents of the Clarke Middle community have called for a definitive answer to this question but have been left with nothing but speculation and rumor. In this article, we’ll examine everything we know about the growing controversy surrounding Pendley’s removal.

Recent events at Clarke Middle School

2021 was a very difficult year for teachers and students everywhere as schools began to reopen after the initial waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a tough year for everyone – we’ve all had our daily lives disrupted, most of us have lost loved ones or know someone who has and most of us have faced rising economic uncertainty that hasn’t quite gone away.

In adults, this kind of stress has coincided with more traffic fatalities, increased rates of violent crime and increasing problems with mental health. Knowing this, it’s probably not surprising that children have also been affected by the rising stress. Schools nationwide have had to deal with more disruptive behavior, bullying and violence than in a typical school year.

Clarke Middle has not been an exception. The school has seen significant behavioral problems this year linked to the pandemic, according to Sandy Cedarbaum, President of the Clarke Middle School Parent Teacher Association. Cedarbaum told APN that “we’re dealing with a lot of the backlash from the problems with COVID-19. Given what [school children have] gone through over the past year, coming back into the school environment, there’s going to be adjustments.”

In the past few months at Clarke Middle, two high-profile behavioral incidents in particular have spread over social media and have gotten parents’ attention. One was a video of kids in the bathroom engaging in sexual activity, but the more significant of the two seems to have been a fight in which a Black child beat a white child repeatedly with a water bottle full of rocks.

Christian Trotter, a white parent of two Clarke Middle students, was so disturbed by this fight that he went to a meeting of the Clarke County Board of Education on December 9 to vent his frustrations. 

“I’ve watched the school decline further and further when it comes to incidents of behavior and specifically violence. Stuff just continues to happen,” he told the school board. “It was so shocking and disturbing, the violence and the malice in the attack, that that’s when I decided to do something. The most disturbing part was that the student who did the attacking was back in school the next day.” 

Trotter’s children were not involved in the fight, which he later called an “attempted murder.” Trotter actually removed one of his children from Clarke Middle School after this fight, as did at least one other parent.

Did Pendley handle behavioral problems well as principal?

Unfortunately, these kinds of fights are common in the school district and elsewhere across Georgia, especially in the COVID era. 

According to one teacher in the Clarke County School District who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “We knew it would be bad [coming back from shutdown]. It was probably worse than we imagined. If people are shocked by it [the violence], then I don’t know where they’ve been all this time. It’s been there the whole time. Part of it is [the poor state of] mental health in kids right now [due to the pandemic].”

Clarke Middle uses an approach called “restorative justice” when it comes to disciplining children in addition to more traditional, punitive methods. This approach involves discussing the problem with the child, sometimes in a circle together with those they’ve harmed. The child who caused the problem will be asked to do something to make it right, which could be as simple as cleaning up a mess they made or giving an apology, but the solution could also be more time-intensive.

Restorative justice was a part of Clarke Middle’s official policy on discipline before Pendley took over as principal, but he was “a big supporter” of the idea during his tenure, according to Cedarbaum. That may have caused friction with some parents who preferred a more punitive approach to discipline.

Cedarbaum believes that, to the best of her knowledge, Pendley handled the fight appropriately, although she says she can only speak for herself and not the PTA as a whole. “I’ve heard that they had a [restorative justice] circle to discuss [the fight] and that all people involved were happy with the outcome,” she said.

Going beyond this one incident, Cedarbaum says she was very happy with the way Pendley ran Clarke Middle School. “He was very transparent about what was going on in the school, with both the good and the bad. He was always in the hallways, interacting with the kids in a positive way. He is a very supportive principal who is there for the students and the teachers,” she said.

Parents and teachers weigh in

Charles Hardy Facebook comment
A comment in the ‘CCSD Town Hall’ Facebook forum

Judging from comments on social media and from emails sent to School District Superintendent Xerona Thomas which APN obtained in an open records request, Pendley was well-regarded by many members of the Clarke Middle community.

“Mr. Pendley is a dedicated, thoughtful, and caring administrator who had a clear vision for the future of CMS. His sudden dismissal in the middle of the school year, one day before the end of term, is incredibly disruptive to the teachers and students at CMS. His removal is a huge loss for the school,” wrote one parent.

Another parent wrote that “Mr. Pendley was an outstanding, thoughtful principal, and a full accounting is due to the community.”

A teacher at Clarke Middle also wrote to the superintendent in defense of Pendley. 

“The kids are not okay because they’ve lost their grandmothers, uncles, aunts, moms, dads and more than ever, their homes, and they need a sense of safety and stability… It is known that children who are experiencing or have experienced traumatic events need an increased sense of stability in relation to other children. To pull Pendley out of the school in such an abrupt way and mid-year without explanation, again, seems like … your mysterious needs / wants as a district … were put before those of the children we are expected to serve,” wrote this teacher.

While some parents were certainly opposed to Pendley’s leadership style, Cedarbaum believes that most appreciated the work he did as principal and were surprised by his removal. 35 parents and teachers from different households sent emails in support of Pendley to the superintendent in the days immediately following his removal.

So why was Pendley removed?

School administrators have maintained near complete silence on the reasons why Pendley was removed as principal. However, according to a statement by the Clarke Middle PTA, a group of six Clarke Middle community members were able to meet with Thomas and Chief Academic Officer Brannon Gaskins last month to discuss the situation. 

During this meeting, Thomas told these community members that Pendley’s removal “was not the result of a severe violation of policy.” She also said that the issues raised by the angry parent at the December 9 school board meeting did not factor into their decision to remove him as principal. According to the PTA’s statement, Thomas even said the reason for his removal was not related to his performance. 

She only listed one other reason why a principal might be removed mid-year, which was that if the “historical record of evidence” had indicated that the principal “was not able to effectively lead the school.”

Thomas did not specify the kind of evidence by which she would judge a principal’s leadership capability. 

Next steps

The meeting with Thomas and Gaskins last month didn’t satisfy Cedarbaum’s demand to know why the school district would remove a popular principal mid-year. Apparently, Pendley is not satisfied with the district’s lack of transparency either.

Principal Pendley outside Clarke Middle School
Photo / Elena Webber / Odyssey News Magazine

On January 4, Pendley posted publicly on Facebook about his removal. He said, “I have been trying to resolve this situation amicably with my district office superiors. At this point, it has been made clear that they are not interested in an amicable resolution, and they are unwilling to be transparent about the reasons for my removal.”

With more on this story possibly on the way, APN will continue to cover these events as they evolve.

You may be interested to know that, based on comments posted to the ‘Clarke County School District Town Hall’ Facebook forum, some parents will be attending the Board of Education meeting tonight (January 20) at the H.T. Edwards building (440 Dearing Ext.) at 6 pm to speak to their concerns about this situation.

CORRECTION (1/20): This article has been updated to include Pendley’s current department within the Clarke County School District, Human Resources.

CORRECTION (1/21): Some details about Trotter’s family have been updated (the article originally implied that he had just one child at Clarke Middle).

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