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Hardy Middle School principal leaves after parent complaints

A petition by the D.C. school’s parents that called for Errol Johnson’s removal accused him of poor communication, drops in academic performance and ‘widespread dysfunction’

Empty classroom with no students Globalstock/iStock (Gobalstock/iStock)
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The principal at D.C.’s Hardy Middle School ended his almost year-long tenure this week following complaints from families of escalating violence, poor communication from leadership and drops in academic performance.

Harry Hughes, the school system’s instructional superintendent, who oversees the school cluster that includes Hardy, said in a letter to families on Friday that Errol Johnson will continue to “grow within our district,” but did not say where or in what capacity.

Brandon Eatman, a 28-year D.C. public schools veteran and principal in residence, will lead the school for the rest of the academic year.

The leadership change comes after parents at the Georgetown school petitioned for Johnson’s removal. Families accused Johnson of depleting morale among students and staff and “widespread dysfunction across all areas of the school.” They also pointed to “repeated, serious and escalating safety incidents” that have put students and staff in danger.

But Johnson’s abrupt departure — just weeks before the end of the school year — has ruptured the community, with some teachers saying parents had mischaracterized certain issues at the middle school.

“It’s not that Principal Johnson does not have problems,” said Kyle Wheat, a math teacher who has taught at Hardy for a decade. Johnson had communication issues and “wasn’t great” at getting back to parents and staff, he added. But many teachers thought he should have been given more time to adjust to the role. “In many ways, it feels like we just met him.”

Johnson did not return requests for comment.

Before taking the helm at Hardy at the beginning of this school year, Johnson was an assistant principal at Dunbar High School, where officials said he oversaw improvements in attendance, student promotion from ninth to tenth grade and test scores. He also served as a resident principal at IDEA Public Charter School as part of a national program for aspiring school leaders, according to his biography.

But in a petition that circulated days before Johnson’s departure, Hardy parents said problematic student behavior had proliferated under Johnson’s purview, including multiple fights on and near campus and the brandishing of weapons. Families also said students had been recording fights on their phones — which are prohibited during the school day — and posting them to social media. The Washington Post was able to locate one video, on Instagram, which appeared to show two students at Hardy fighting each other.

DCPS officials did not comment specifically on parents’ allegations. “We are grateful for his service as principal this school year and his many years as a teacher and leader with D.C. Public Schools,” Hughes said about Johnson in the letter to families.

Parents and caregivers wrote the call for Johnson’s removal was not made lightly. “We fear the extraordinary gains enjoyed by the most diverse middle school in DCPS over the last 8 years are on the cusp of being irretrievably lost. What strengths the school previously had are rapidly being eroded,” the petition says.

Parents also reported feeling left out of the loop about those fights, as well as other safety incidents. They accused Johnson of failing to reprimand students for misbehavior, although information about how individual students are disciplined is typically kept private in accordance with federal student privacy laws.

Teachers, meanwhile, are feeling demoralized over the situation, Wheat said. He added that he’s heard students claim they don’t have to listen to teachers because their parents can get them fired. “The teachers feel very attacked and betrayed.”

Wheat also said the petition is filled with inaccuracies. “Everything was cranked up to 11 in that petition. Is the school unsafe? Absolutely not.”

Teachers’ relationships with parents have been affected, and Johnson’s removal has stoked concerns that parents can wield their power and get teachers removed. Some, in recent months, have tried. “Now that the floodgates are open … I fear for our community.”

Hardy families contend they had tried unsuccessfully to have a working relationship with Johnson and have met with the principal throughout the year to raise concerns and discuss solutions.

Abi Paulsen, who was among the parents who called for new leadership, said the decision is sad but she’s looking forward to the future.

“There’s a lot that still needs to be done,” she said. “I’m hopeful that we can rebuild. That’s our role here as a [parent-teacher organization.]”