GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

August 13, 2008

Gloucester High Principal Sullivan resigns

By Richard Gaines

Principal Joseph Sullivan, whose interview with Time magazine helped spark a global media frenzy over a possible pregnancy "pact" among some of the 18 pregnant students in his high school, announced yesterday he was resigning and retiring after 10 years in Gloucester.

In a statement released by his attorney, Sullivan said the decision to step down was neither "forced or pressured ... It is mine alone and it is irrevocable."

The resignation letter was dated Monday effective Friday.

But Sullivan essentially said he was scapegoated and "slandered" by Mayor Carolyn Kirk, muzzled by Superintendent Christopher Farmer and isolated and abandoned by the School Committee.

Under those circumstances, he said in his statement, "the job of being the high school principal becomes next to impossible."

Sullivan also reiterated that the answer he gave a Time magazine reporter on June 6, the last day of school before summer vacation, was "direct, truthful and honest."

When Time published its report on the spike in pregnancies at the high school and paraphrased Sullivan as saying there were "high fives" and "plans for baby showers" among some of the pregnant teens, none older than 16, a local concern was transformed into a worldwide competition with television crews arriving from as far away as Germany and Japan and reporters seeking new material, stopping random teens downtown.

Time used the term "pact" and suggested in context the word came from Sullivan, but never actually reported that Sullivan used the word, which seemed to be the trigger for the media eruption. The blogesphere had a field day, moralizing and lecturing the city, its teens and political leadership on the paths to wisdom.

After talking to Time, and except for releasing a June 26 written statement through his attorney, J. Michael Faherty, the former chairman of the School Committee that hired Sullivan in 1998, Sullivan was not heard from again — until yesterday.

His statement on June 26 was a response to comments by the mayor and superintendent at a news conference that Sullivan was not certain about what he'd said to the Time reporter.

Farmer said Sullivan had told him he "didn't remember where he'd heard about a pregnancy pact. "He was foggy in memory of how he heard the information," Kirk added. "When we pressed for specifics, his memory failed him."

Three days later, through Faherty, Sullivan shot back that his memory was clear, but he also said, "I honestly do not remember specifically using the word 'pact' in my meeting with the Time magazine reporter."

Faherty declined to comment yesterday and said Sullivan would have nothing else to say. Faherty said Sullivan was "either 65 or 66 years old."

Kirk declined to respond to Sullivan's accusation that in her news conference comments she "publicly slandered my reputation, my integrity and my intelligence," and Farmer similarly declined to respond to Sullivan's assertion that Farmer tried to block any further public comments about the pregnancies at the high school.

Kirk told the Times, "He helped many, many families in Gloucester. That's what he'll be remembered for." The mayor's office released a similar e-mail message.

School Committee Chairman Gregory Verga issued a statement praising Sullivan as a selfless and proud leader, and describing his departure as a "great loss" for the high school and the city.

Verga also said "any attempt to put the burden" for the events of the summer on Sullivan "is just wrong. He deserves to retire with dignity and not have this cloud over his head," Verga concluded.

Farmer described Sullivan as the glue that held the school together "despite the loss of two vice-principals, the head of Vocational Education, many teaching positions and an inadequate budget. The school continues to graduate young men and women who are the equal of any I have met in my professional travels.

"The city has every reason to be grateful for Dr. Sullivan's personal and professional service to the community. I wish Joe Sullivan a long, healthy and fulfilling retirement."

Farmer said steps will be taken to make interim arrangements for the leadership of the high school for the start of the new school year.

Former Mayor John Bell said last night he'd had "a couple of conversations with Sullivan in recent weeks and urged him to stay."

"Clearly, he had personal reasons for his decision," Bell added, noting that these were not related to his health, which had been a problem at times.

"This is a real tough day for the city," said Bell, who said Sullivan "got the Gloucester thing from the beginning."

Sullivan, who was a hockey star at Malden Catholic High School and Providence College, was hired by the School Committee chaired by Faherty, in the spring of 1998 on the recommendation of Farmer's predecessor, Thomas Consolati.

He had been principal of the high school in the South Shore town of Carver. He was making a long haul commute from Wakefield where he previously had been assistant principal.

He ran the school with the gruff, militaristic, no nonsense that Sullivan perfected in his first career in the U.S. Army reserve where he rose to colonel. He has two sons who served in Iraq.

Bell said, "He disciplined (students) in a respectful way.'"

Retired School Committee member and Councilor Al Swekla, who served with Faherty on the search committee that hired Sullivan, said he was impressed with his blunt honesty and Sullivan's version of "tough love."

"He gave direct answers whether it was the answer that you expected or not," said Swekla.

Former School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope said he read with "sadness" Sullivan's letter of resignation and said he found it "unconscionable" that such a fine educator and person would be "demeaned and slandered by our mayor."

Mark Nestor, president of One Gloucester, and Leslie Sarofeen, vice president of the education advocacy group, issued a joint statement as well.

"It is deeply regrettable that Sullivan has been so isolated that he feels the need to leave," they said. "Why does one more person need to be sacrificed to this issue?"

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com