The Berkeley Board of Education is investigating Willard Middle School Vice Principal Margaret Lowry for allegedly giving a student money to buy marijuana from another student, the Planet has learned.
Some district officials, parents and staff have talked to the Planet about the alleged incident but asked not to be identified in this story. They have said that the school board is investigating reports that Lowry attempted to arrange a drug sting involving two special education students within the school’s premises.
Willard, at 2425 Stuart St., is one of the three middle schools in the Berkeley Unified School District.
According to an e-mail to the Planet, Lowry gave money to a special education student to buy drugs from a classmate. Since the classmate reportedly did not have any drugs, the special education student turned the money over to a teacher, the e-mail charged.
School board President John Selawsky and district spokesperson Mark Coplan confirmed that Lowry was under investigation, but refused to discuss the details of the allegations against her.
“The district has heard rumors and has undertaken its own investigation into the allegation that the Daily Planet has received,” Coplan told the Planet. “It is our goal to provide the best and safest instructional environment for our students and we take all allegations seriously. Because this potentially involves a staff member, it will be handled as a confidential personnel matter.”
Coplan said he couldn’t confirm or deny any reports about why the school board was investigating Lowry.
“Once the investigation is completed, we will be able to disclose more information,” he said.
Cheryl Chin, principal of Malcolm X Elementary School and co-president of the Union of Berkeley Administrators, of which Lowry is a member, declined comment.
Willard School Principal Robert Ithurburn also refused comment.
Coplan told the Planet that the district did not have the authority to carry out drug stings in schools.
“A sting is always done by the Berkeley Police Department,” he said. “It’s not something we have done in the past or we will do in the future.”
Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said that the department very rarely carried out stings within the Berkeley Unified School District.
“Unless of course we receive a significant amount of complaints or a complaint of a certain severity from the community or the school administration,” she said. “But in my recent knowledge I can’t think of any.”
Lowry, who Coplan said was hired as vice principal for Willard about a year ago, was described by district officials as “a phenomenal human being.” They say she is a Berkeley resident, but the Planet was not able to contact her. Coplan told the Planet that Lowry could not be interviewed for the story and he was encouraging school staff and parents not to talk to the Planet or other media.
James Simon, a custodian at Willard who is currently on leave because of a complaint filed by Lowry against him, told the Planet that Lowry had sent a letter out to school employees last week asking them not to discuss the incident.
“It [the letter] told them not to talk about the incident that happened to her since the school district did not want false rumors in the Willard community. It asked employees to contact her directly if they wanted to hear about the incident.”
Michael Sorgen, a children’s rights lawyer based in San Francisco, said the district should report the incident to the Berkeley Police Department.
“It’s very serious,” he said. “It involves contributing to the delinquency of a minor or engaging in a prohibited drug transaction within the school premises. It’s a criminal activity. The district should complete its investigation as soon as possible.”
County Superintendent Sheila Jordan said that it was important to investigate the accusations against Lowry.
“When it comes to investigating drugs in schools, the state Education Code and the courts have given school districts a lot of latitude, but districts have to be very careful,” said Celia Ruiz, a labor attorney who often represents school districts. “In a case like this, the question arises whether the individual had the authority to engage in this particular activity and whether it could be attributed to the school board.”
Dan Siegel, an Oakland-based civil rights attorney and a past president of the Oakland school board, said if the allegations about the drug sting were true, it was a poor judgment call.
“It strikes me as really inappropriate to utilize young students for drug stings,” he told the Planet. “Clearly drugs on a middle school and high school campus are a concern but it is a concern police should be involved in. The police will never use minors for this kind of an undercover sting.”