Demoted Austintown principal’s attorney says knife investigation was ‘stupid’

Jim Penk stored a butcher knife in his desk and showed it to employees, according to newly-released documents from the district

The school provided this photo of a knife that the district said was confiscated from Jim Penk's desk.
The school provided this photo of a knife that the district said was confiscated from Jim Penk's desk.

AUSTINTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The attorney for a recently-demoted Austintown Middle School principal said the district’s investigation into his client was “the stupidest case” he’s been involved in.

Tuesday, the district released a statement saying Jim Penk was demoted to assistant principal at Fitch High School after an incident involving a “large knife.”

WKBN is learning new details about that investigation after a public-records request.

According to documents related to the internal investigation, Penk was accused of showing a rusty butcher knife to the school’s choir director after saying he didn’t want to hear anything more about a concert. He showed her the knife after saying he may have to throw things at her, according to the documents. The choir director’s supervisor reported the incident on March 8, saying the choir director was upset by the incident.

Attorney Scott Essad, who represented Penk in the case, said the woman wasn’t upset by the knife, however. She was only upset that she had been ignored by Penk.

“If you were to categorize this situation, the way you would summarize it is, it’s a bad joke by James Penk and a huge overreaction by Mr. Colaluca,” he said.

Superintendent Vince Colaluca began investigating the incident after the supervisor’s report.

According to the documents provided by the school district, Penk also pulled out the butcher knife when he was with other employees.

One employee said Penk showed the knife to him years ago. The documents said he called the incident “creepy” and reported it to Barb Tomic, the president of the Austintown Teachers Union. He said Tomic responded by saying, “That’s just Penk,” according to the documents.

Another employee also came forward during the investigation, saying Penk pulled out the knife from his desk after another employee put his feet on Penk’s desk.

He said Penk told the employee, “Get your feet off of my desk” while placing the knife on his desk. According to the investigation documents, the employee said, “You can’t have that… what are you doing?” to which Penk responded, “I know… but I feel safe, don’t I?”

After Colaluca began investigating the incidents, however, the employees said they didn’t feel threatened by Penk’s behavior. The said they knew the incidents were jokes.

The choir director emailed Colaluca, writing that the incident had been “completely blown out of proportion.” She said she was frustrated by being dismissed by Penk when questioning him about a future concert.

Those investigating the incident believed that Tomic’s involvement may have caused the employees to change their minds about pursuing the matter, however.

The documents said the employees were worried about writing a statement against Penk after Tomic told them it “could hurt their careers and Jim Penk’s career.” When questioned further, the employees involved in the incidents said they didn’t want to be involved in the investigation but believed Tomic was protecting Penk, who was a friend, according to the report.

WKBN reached out to Tomic for a comment but hasn’t heard back.

Essad said Tomic likely believed that the incident wasn’t worth an investigation. Essad admitted that Penk had the knife in his desk for awhile but said it was just something he picked up that he never bothered to get rid of.

“No student had any access to that knife or any knowledge that it was there,” he said. “The jokes he made with that knife were in the American tradition of comedy that harken back to the Marx brothers, Abbott and Costello, all the way through to Parks and Recreation. He was making a joke and it’s sad that an educator as accomplished as Mr. Colaluca cannot recognize a joke.”

Penk later reached an agreement with the Board of Education, allowing him to serve as assistant principal at Fitch High School. During this time, he will be under supervision while “engaging in ongoing professional development in staff management and leadership.”

Essad said the punishment is “extremely disproportionate” to the actions, but they won’t be pursuing it further.

Austintown Middle School Principal Jim Penk
Jim Penk

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