MIDDLETON, Idaho — The controversy in Middleton continues after the school board there decided at its meeting on Monday not to renew high school principal Benjamin Merrill's contract.
At least 80 students walked out of Middleton High School Thursday morning to protest the board's decision.
The students said they feel frustrated because they are losing their principal but nobody has told them why.
"We haven't gotten any facts as to why they're firing him," said one student named Hannah.
Several students describe Merrill as a great addition to the high school and they say they love him.
"I've never had someone care so much," Hannah said. "We all love Mr. Merrill very much and we've never had such an amazing principal."
Kylie, another Middleton student, agrees.
"I have never had a better principal," Kylie said. "You can just tell he cares so much for the students, like when we did the walkout, his number one thing he was worried about was that we were wearing our seatbelts when we leave the school."
According to Merrill, he cares just as much for the students as they do about him.
“I’ve been to a few schools and I’ve never been around this caliber of students in my life,” he said. “I can’t put it into words the type of people that live here. The kids are just unbelievable. I’ve never met kinder kids.”
The school board has released few details about why Merrill isn't coming back, claiming it has to follow personnel and privacy rules.
But on Thursday, Merrill sat down with KTVB to tell his side.
He said it all goes back to December - at this school year's "Wish" assembly. At that assembly, Merrill said a group of about 25 parents gifted him a camera so he could take pictures at all the school events he attends.
“I didn’t really interpret it as a gift necessarily just to me," he explained. "I mean, the gift of the camera was something I could use and I think I even said that when the parents brought me on to the gym floor, handed me the camera, I opened it – I actually turned to our students and said, 'This is really kind of for you because this is an opportunity for me to take better pictures and tell our story.'”
Merrill said telling the school's story and highlighting the students' positive achievements has been his goal from the beginning.
It was shortly after that assembly Merrill said that a teacher gave him a hand-held video game for his children.
According to Merrill, the game was built in class, with the materials paid for out of the teacher's own pocket.
“What the teacher said was, my kids are out here a lot – they’re out here with me to a lot of our events and so they wanted to give back – the teacher wanted to give back,” Merrill said.
The game was reported to district administration and the superintendent contacted Merrill, during which time Merrill said he also disclosed having received the camera.
Later, Merrill explained, he became aware of two different school policies dealing with gifts to staff. One policy stated staff members could not accept gifts in excess of $50 and the other policy simply stated gifts could not be used to influence a staffer's decisions.
Merrill said it was a little confusing which policy applied to him - but added he did give the camera back to the parents.
“I wasn’t the only one who got gifts at the assembly but I was the only one investigated as a result,” he said.
Because he was singled out, Merrill said he felt he was being bullied or harassed by the situation, so the school board launched an investigation.
A statement from the school board posted on the district's website stated the investigation found no factual basis for any type of harassment against Merrill. The statement also said the investigation found Merrill had created a "dysfunctional system for staff."
According to Merrill, he's confused by that result.
“The outcome of the investigation surprised me a little bit because it felt like that a lot of the questions I was asked during the investigation itself were very focused on me personally," he explained. "So if the real purpose was going in to ask if I was being harassed, I didn’t have very many questions [from the investigator] about that.”
Merrill said he tried to approach the process and the issue of the gifts with the school board several different ways, but felt like he never got any answers or the chance to even talk to them.
Merrill also said he never saw the investigation results and when he tried to request them, he was denied a copy unless he paid $2,800, which he says would only have allowed him to get a redacted version of the report.
Since the investigation, many in the community have strongly supported Merrill. Students organized Thursday's walkout and parents have started a recall effort to replace the board members who voted to not bring Merrill back.
The principal said he is grateful and touched by the community's support but he doesn't want to see the kids hurt by all the repercussions.
“We just all need to remain calm through the rest of this and really treat everyone involved – board members, administrators, everybody – with the respect they all deserve," he said. "And just focus on what’s important – it’s our students.”
Some students at Middleton High told KTVB they have started a petition and once they get enough signatures, it will be presented to the school board in hopes of reinstating Merrill.