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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Needham High principal fires back at critics



Paul Richards finds himself at the center of a firestorm
(Globe Staff Photo by Tom Landers)

After criticism from Rush Limbaugh and a jab from Jay Leno, Needham High principal Paul Richards is firing back, defending his decision to no longer publish the honor roll in the local paper.

He said media attacks on him and his school were "character assassination" and that a decision made to reduce student stress had been "twisted into a 'politically-correct move to protect self-esteem.'"

Richards was blasted for coddling his students on radio talk shows, including conservative Rush Limbaugh’s, and was the butt of a joke by Jay Leno in his Tuesday night monologue on "The Tonight Show."

Limbaugh chided Richards for caving under parental pressure.

"So one parent complained and the school bent over backwards! They just fell, spine turned to mush,” Limbaugh said on his show Wednesday.

Richards’ office has been deluged with media calls, according to his secretary. The principal said he never expected that the policy would spark so much attention.

“I’m shocked,” Richards wrote in an email to the Globe. “This was simply an FYI to parents, until it was fed to the media by parents who disagreed with this. I had no intention of making a public stand.”

In light of the backlash, the principal said he hopes the story got the debate rolling on how schools can reduce stress among teens.

“The character assassination of Needham Public Schools and myself was unfortunate, but there is indeed a value in providing 'food for thought' on an issue that many would like to think doesn't exist,” Richards wrote.

Superintendent Daniel E. Gutekanst said that the decision on the honor roll was not "made in isolation," but rather in the context of school district's efforts to address the school's pressure cooker atmosphere.

The suicides of four students from Needham in the past two years has heightened concerns about academic pressure.

To read Richards' explanation of his decision, check out the Needham High School website, and click on "Daily Bulletin."

-- Lauren K. Meade

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