Page One

Parents call for teacher suspension

By William Inman Daily Planet Staff
Saturday October 07, 2000


Aaron and Venita Higginbotham couldn’t believe their ears when their fifth grader at John Muir Elementary School told them how she was punished for chewing gum on a Thursday in mid-September. 

The Higginbothams said that when their daughter was caught with a mouthful of chewing gum on the playground, her teacher, Stephen Rutherford, made her spit the gum out, then get in the middle of a circle formed by her classmates, do a push-up and pick the gum back up with her mouth. 

“I thought that maybe she was making it up,” Aaron Higginbotham said. “So we sent her back to school the next day and my wife called to see what happened.” 

She called Principal Nancy D. Waters on Sept. 15 to see if the incident had happened and the principal confirmed it, Higginbotham said. 

Aaron Higginbotham went to the school that afternoon and told Waters that he wanted his daughter placed in the other fifth-grade class. 

“She said it wasn’t possible because the other class was too crowded,” he said. 

But after the Higginbothams met with Waters the following Monday and said that they were going to change schools, Waters agreed to the switch, he said. Higginbotham said, however, that Waters had a condition to the class change. The administrator said she would agree if they wouldn’t pursue any punishment for the teacher. 

Higginbotham said he told Waters he would not agree to that and he would pursue the teacher’s suspension. 

“I want to take this as far as I can. This is something that should never happen,” he said. 

Higginbotham said that his daughter was switched to the other class and is currently seeing a counselor because of the incident. 

Principal Waters declined to comment on the issue, saying that it is an employee matter, and deferred to the district’s Public Information Officer, Karen Sarlo. 

“By law, we can’t comment on personnel cases,” Sarlo said. “These things are closed because we have to protect the rights of the teacher and the student. The parents get due process, and the teacher gets due process.” 

Sarlo explained that the grievance process is a “well-documented complaint procedure,” and that every parent receives the forms on the back of a packet they get at back-to-school night. Higginbotham said that they didn’t go to back-to-school night, and when they asked for a form from Waters after the Monday meeting, she said she didn’t have one. So the Higginbothams tried to get one from Superintendent Jack McLaughlin’s office. 

The receptionist at the office told the couple that they would have to get the form from Waters. 

It wasn’t until they got in touch with a PTA member from the school that the official grievance process got underway, Higginbotham said. 

Sarlo said that the complaint process is four-tiered. It begins with the school principal, and if the parents aren’t satisfied, it then goes to Associate Superintendent Chris Lim. From there, it goes to McLaughlin. If the parents are still not satisfied, the Board of Education will hear the matter. 

Higginbotham said Friday evening that since the meeting with Waters, they have met with Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Barry Fike and Associate Superintendent Lim. They still feel they hadn’t been given all the answers, Higginbotham said. 

Fike said that he was unable to respond to the Daily Planet about the discipline levied against the teacher because of a confidentiality agreement. 

“There are two sides to every story,” he said. “The district is in the midst of handling this through the formal complaint process bound by a confidentiality agreement that I thought was also agreed to by the parents of the child. 

“In my opinion, the discipline procedures being implemented by the district are appropriate for the infraction, whereas the ones being demanded by the parents go way beyond,” he said. The Higginbothams are still asking for the teacher’s suspension. 

Superintendent McLaughlin, who said Friday afternoon that he was unaware of the incident, told the Daily Planet that the teacher would be disciplined. 

“That is not something that would be allowed,” he said. 

When asked if it were grounds for suspension, McLaughlin said, “Not by itself.” 

Higginbotham said that he went to the press because he didn’t feel his complaint was being honored by Waters. He felt that she was trying to stifle the matter before it went to Lim. 

“She said that ‘we have a happy community at John Muir,’ and she didn’t want to tarnish it,” he said. 

Fike was also concerned about the Claremont Avenue campus’ image. 

“I am very concerned about the press trying to foster a witchhunt environment at John Muir,” he said. “I’m sure the new John Muir community will come together to prevent this from happening.” 


In May of 1999, parents of students in a John Muir kindergarten went on strike when teacher Cindy Vaias was reassigned to another school. 

Several parents later met with administration to criticize then-principal Barbara Lee’s alleged insensitivity to the multi-ethnic composition of the student body. 

Twenty staff members signed a letter stating that Lee’s administration had fostered an atmosphere of fear and that the parents had lost faith in the school administration. 

Many parents and teachers, however, rallied around Lee, but the school was polarized and Lee was reassigned. 

Enter Nancy D. Waters. The be-boppin’ scat-singer who, whenever possible, sings instead of talks, took over for Lee in November of 1999. 

“Nancy D. has done so much to bring that community together,” Sarlo said. “ She’s really an amazing woman.” 

Higginbotham, an African-American, doesn’t want to believe that his daughter’s race could have played a role in the incident. 

“I don’t think that race has anything to do with it,” he said. “I don’t want to think that, not after what happened there, and not in Berkeley.” 

The teacher in question is white. 


Higginbotham says that the teacher told him that he knew what he did was wrong when they met with Waters that Monday. 

“He said they were playing a ‘zany’ game and said he didn’t think she would go through with it,” he said. 

Part of his ire stems from the fact that the neither the teacher nor Waters bothered to call him or his wife afterwards. 

“My wife noticed that my daughter was acting strange that day,” he said. “That was how we found out.” 

Sarlo said the incident was isolated, and that she is not aware of any other complaints that have arisen at John Muir. 

She said that she’s confident that the matter will be handled justly. 

“You just have got to believe in the process, and that there will be justice for everyone,” she said.