A Lesson of Leadership: How A Superintendent And School Leaders Supported Me When I Was Arrested

It has been great to see the activism of students be expanded. While student activism didn’t begin with the Parkland youth, I am still glad to see them join the ranks of students of color who have been on the front lines for as long as anyone can remember. After all, we know that the school-to-activism pipeline has been in our communities since Black families pushed for the expansion of public schools in the 1860s.

But, what is the role of adults and leaders within school systems to protect the school-to-activism pipeline? At times, it is simply to get out of the way. At other times, it is to provide guidance, cover, and support.

Today, our Superintendent Dr. Hite and Mastery Charter’s CEO, Scott Gordon, demonstrated unwavering support for one of our student activists, Nasihah Thompson-King (more on this in an upcoming blog).

Years ago (December 2005), when I was a nascent principal, I also saw first hand what support and leadership looked like when I chose to take a political stance against the invasion of Iraq. While attending a protest, I ended up being violently arrested. It was another case of Protesting While Black which means overly aggressive and racist police officers are bound to overreact.

After my then 16-year old son was accosted, and I intervened in his defense, my brother and I were arrested, in front of my two sons (my other son was 6 years old at the time), who had accompanied us as a part of their ongoing lessons to stand for what they believe in. During this incident, my brother and I were assaulted by the police, but they arrested us and charged me with assault.

A typical experience for activists and Black folks in general.

The superintendent at the time, Paul Vallas, had a choice to make as the arrest was very public and reporters wanted a statement. He chose to stand by my right to protest in the same way school and district leaders are standing for students today.

The thank you letter I wrote Vallas after the incident captures how he handled it and can serve as a model for others.

Dear Mr. Vallas,

Greetings. I wanted to again express my appreciation for the manner in which you handled an obviously difficult situation, namely my arrest on false charges of assault on a Philadelphia Police Officer.

You managed to adhere to the policy of the School District, while at the same time remaining supportive of me during some trying times. You remembered that justice dictates that I am treated as innocent until proven guilty. You also managed to draw attention to the fundamental issue that sparked the false charges: My child was unjustly accosted.

As an educator and an administrator for almost fifteen years, my commitment to the students and communities that I serve has been well documented. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I would be no less committed to my own children, parents, and community, regardless of any hardship or injury that I would be subjected to for stating my beliefs.

In closing, I affirm my determination to educate our youth, to combat injustice and ignorance, and to serve the children of Southwest Philadelphia under your leadership.

Again, I thank you for your consideration and judgment during this difficult time for me and my family.

I look forward to continuing the growth of our school with your support.

Peace to you and yours.

Sharif El-Mekki

The support didn’t just come from my superintendent at the time, it also came from my colleagues from the Association of Black School Administrators (ABSA). ABSA was a prelude to The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice Several of whom were mentors who were showing me the complexities of the principalship. Their letter of support meant a lot and demonstrated the solidarity that our students and other justice seeking activists will need from school leaders. Below is a letter from ABSA’s leadership.

Dear Mr. Vallas:

In our meeting with you on December 8, 2005, ABSA emphasized as one of its primary objectives the commitment to support our colleague administrators.  That support is holistic rather than solely pertaining to school-related matters.  At the time of our meeting with you, there was no way of knowing that we would be called upon so soon or that it would hit so close to home.

As you are well aware, members of the Philadelphia Police Department unjustly accosted Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Shaw Middle School and a founding member of ABSA, on Monday, December 12th in a fit of gross police overreaction. Mr. El-Mekki was arrested, charged with serious offenses, placed in jail, and compelled to appear in court.

Members of the El-Mekki family who were present were also traumatized.  To make matters worse, the media quickly seized upon the opportunity to identify Mr. El-Mekki, not as a private citizen, but as the principal of Shaw Middle School. Pending the outcome of the investigation, Mr. El-Mekki had to be removed from his school in accordance with District policy.

Mr. Vallas, the fact that Mr. El-Mekki was fully exonerated in a court of law less than a week after the incident was only a small part of what helped to buffer the animosity he may have harbored from this real-life civics lesson. In a meeting with ABSA, Mr. El-Mekki shared with us that what he truly held in high regard was the immediate and unwavering support you extended to him, well before his name was officially cleared. 

When it may have been expedient as the CEO of the School District of Philadelphia to distance yourself from a potential public perception nightmare, you conscientiously stood behind a man you fervently touted as a “terrific principal.”

Sharif El-Mekki will move on from this incident. He will undoubtedly use it as a “teachable moment,” educating the young people at Shaw and others like them on how they must stand up for what they believe is right, even in the face of adversity. Yet, it is through your forthrightness Mr. Vallas, that Mr. El-Mekki can also teach his students that a good character and reputation are recognized and supported by others. 

On behalf of our colleague and member, Sharif El-Mekki, ABSA thanks you and commends you for your steadfast commitment to a truly “terrific principal” and an even better man.

Sincerely,

Salome Thomas-EL, President and Roger Jackson, Vice-President

Leaders have an important role during these times to support activists, especially our youth. May our youth be further emboldened and buoyed by the support of their parents, teachers, school and district leaders, and other members of their communities.

Onwards.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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