Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated with comment from Chmiel’s lawyer, David Schroth.
Upwards of 75 students walked out of afternoon classes and joined parents to gather in front of Princeton High School at 1 p.m. on Friday, April 21. They chanted slogans like “We want Chmiel!” and cheered for cars that honked as they drove by.
The group was protesting the recent removal of principal Frank Chmiel ’98. His replacement marks the fifth principal in the last four years.
Chmiel’s termination was announced in indirect terms in a message sent to the high school community on March 17. In the message, Superintendent of Princeton Public Schools Dr. Carol Kelley and the Princeton Public Schools Board wrote that PHS’s assistant principals have “jointly assumed the responsibilities of the principal ... on a temporary basis.” The full email can be read here.
Chmiel was not identified by name in the message. Additionally, no explanation for his firing was provided.
For the school community, the past month has been marked by turmoil as interests of parents, students, and administration collide. As legal constraints complicate the school board’s ability to share information about the termination, some students feel their concerns are being ignored.
According to Shira Kutin, a senior at PHS, the email was sent the evening of “Asian Fest,” one of the schools “biggest events” of the year. Chmiel was expected to participate.
She reported that she and other students were “shocked” by the email.
“It felt like it came out of nowhere,” she told The Daily Princetonian.
Why was Chmiel removed?
“We don’t really know,” said parent Elizabeth Semrod, who was present at the start of the walkout. “He’s really loved and adored by the students,” she said. “I don’t know one parent or one student that’s not behind him.”
Kutin recalled Chmiel’s presence “in between classes in the hallway saying hi to everyone.”
“He would come into clubs, he would stop by during lunch,” she said. “And it really didn't take too much time out of his day, but we all knew him and saw him all the time.”
"He just kind of lightened the mood whenever we did see him. He was very friendly to everyone … I don't know a single person that didn't like him,” Kutin continued. “He was the sense of stability and friendliness that we all needed.”
“One person even quoted Batman, and said that he’s not the principal we deserve but the principal we need,” Henry Cammerzell ’25, who went to Princeton High School, told the ‘Prince.’
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ President of the Princeton Board of Education Dafna Kendal said that “unless Mr. Chmiel waives his right to privacy in writing,” the board’s hands are tied, legally, as far as disclosing any more details about the removal.
Kelley confirmed in an email to the ‘Prince’ that state law prohibits the board from sharing more.
“The board is extremely frustrated that we can’t say more,” Kendal said, adding that she thinks the protest “was a good display of democracy.”
So far, Chmiel has not waived his right to privacy. Nor has he filed plans for an appeal or a Donaldson hearing — an informal appearance before the school board.
David Schroth, one of Chmiel’s lawyers, said they are reviewing the reasons for non-renewal and will make a decision soon.
“There's a natural period of quiet [while we review the documents],” Scroth told the ‘Prince.’ “And as frustrating as that may be for the parents and the students because they're wondering what's going on, I can assure them that we are going through all of this with a fine tooth comb. As soon as we can let anyone know what our next steps are going to be, we will.”
Schroth says the deadline to request a Donaldson hearing is Monday, and the team will make a decision by then. He also said he is “exploring the option of separate civil litigation which may be viable on this case.”
Neither Schroth nor Ben Montenegro, the other attorney representing Chmiel, are the attorneys that the teacher’s union assigned to Chmiel for this case.
Parents, students, and administrators clash
“The board has continued to just ignore this reaction by the students,” said Elif Cam, a ninth grader at the walkout. “It was like they didn’t even care. And the board is supposed to represent our interests, the students and the community of Princeton High School.”
Students also spoke up in support of Chmiel at the March 28 Board of Education meeting. A number of student petitions have circulated, garnering thousands of signatures in support of Chmiel. Another, whose author does not identify herself as a PHS student, calls for Kelley’s resignation as superintendent.
Friday’s rally was organized by a group of sophomores via an Instagram account called @chmiels_the_real_deal, according to PHS sophomore McConnell Sundgren. “Chmiel deserves justice and recognition for his love at PHS and unfair termination,” reads a post advertising the walkout.
Students gathered at the school in support of Chmiel before marching to the district building.
Some students also voiced criticism of Kelley, chanting, “Get Kelley out!”
Soon after the protestors arrived at the district building, they sent a delegate to knock on the door and request a meeting. Seven students were sent in to speak with Kelley — the meeting lasted almost an hour and a half, according to Princeton Public Schools Public Information Officer Elizabeth Collier, who was present.
Sundgren, who was also at the meeting, noted that it mostly involved students expressing their support for Chmiel, as well as concerns around transparency and student involvement in the Board of Education.
On the subject of the meeting, Kelley wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ that she “understand[s] and empathize[s] with the students’ feelings,” adding, “whenever a student’s voice is heard, it’s productive.”
Kendal told the ‘Prince’ that her impression based on conversations with administrators present at the meeting was that it was “a good first step.” Not all of the students agreed.
“We came to the Superintendent with real concerns and questions that required real transparency,” sophomore Alexis Colvin wrote in a message to the ‘Prince.’ “What we were placated with was a platter of sandwiches, the district’s therapy dog, compliments on our looks, and admonition to reach out to our school counselors.”
“Our questions were dismissed and there was some aggressive intimidation,” Colvin said. “We wanted to make clear that if the board honored our request to reinstate Principal Chmiel, it would be seen as a point of strength for recognizing a poor decision.”
One student reported being followed back to school and questioned by a member of the district’s staff after the meeting. “The individual made a point to apologize for Kelley’s aggressive behavior towards me during the meeting,” the student said, adding, “the interaction made me feel uncomfortable, intimidated, and concerned about the ramifications of the conversation.”
A pattern of administrative turnover
Colvin reported that students asked Kelley to confirm whether she “had fired 14 principals at her last place of employment.”
“She told us that she couldn’t recall,” Colvin said.
Semrod raised similar concerns about Kelley in an interview with the ‘Prince.’
“Our superintendent has a pretty heavy record,” she said. “She’s kind of known for coming in and firing people.”
Kelley began at Princeton Public Schools in July 2021. Previously, she served as superintendent of Oak Park Elementary District 97 in Oak Park, Ill. from 2015–2021, and before that, she served as Superintendent of Branchburg Township School District in Branchburg, N.J. from 2012–2015.
Amanda Siegfried, the Senior Director of Communications for Oak Park Elementary District 97, told the ‘Prince’ that “no principals were fired during Dr. Kelley’s tenure as superintendent.”
Representatives from the Branchburg Township School District did not respond to a request for comment.
When asked about rumors about her record dismissing administrators, Kelley replied, “Any staffing recommendations have been made with input from multiple leadership sources.”
Frequent administrative turnovers at PHS have caused difficulties for students in the past few years.
“There’s no consistent message in what the school is going for, if you’re swapping people in and out all the time,” Cammerzell told the ‘Prince.’ “Ever since I graduated Middle School, there’s been a sense of turmoil within Princeton public schools.”
Some community members have remained supportive of Kelley. Princeton Parents for Black Children (PPBC), a group that advocates for Black students in Princeton public schools, issued an email statement on March 28 in support of Kelley and opposing “attacks against Black women [in] leadership.”
The statement affirmed a trust in Kelley and the board “in its recent personnel decisions regarding Princeton High School,” adding, “We also condemn and share our disappointment in efforts by a small, but vocal, group of parents to use these decisions as a pretext to mount a vicious and disrespectful misinformation campaign against Dr. Carol Kelley and other Black women leaders in the district.”
The PPBC Executive Board situated the discourse in a national context, writing, “Attacks against educators and education are taking place around the country. From banning books, to eliminating Black History from curriculum, to discrimination against LGBTQ students, to physical attacks and threats against Board of Education members, this country is confronted with a crisis that is being led by people with a specific political agenda. It has become a national movement and, [noticeably], outsiders have joined the few locals to target Princeton.”
An abridged version of the statement was published as a letter to the editor in Town Topics on March 29.
It remains unclear whether Chmiel will be reinstated and whether the board will be able to disclose more details around his removal.
“I’m waiting for a legal action,” Cam told the ‘Prince.’ “I’m excited to see what Chmiel and his lawyers have in store for us.”
Charlie Roth is a head Data editor and staff news writer for the ‘Prince,’ focusing on local politics coverage.
Annie Rupertus is an associate News editor for the ‘Prince.’
Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.