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Allegations Mount Against Willard Administrator

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday February 29, 2008

Since the Planet reported last week that the Berkeley school board is investigating Willard Middle School Vice Principal Margaret Lowry for improper conduct involving two students, several more Willard parents have come forward with complaints against Lowry involving their children, complaints that they say were lodged with the school district months ago and about which they have never heard any resolution. 

Parents of the two Willard special education students in the first reported incident have told the Planet that Lowry gave money to one of them to buy marijuana from the other, in what some district officials said might have been an attempt to set up a sting. Lowry, who has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the investigation, has not been available to be reached for comment on the matter. 

Since those allegations ap-peared in the Planet last week, additional charges have surfaced, detailing other possible abuses by Lowry and shining light on the district’s complaint process, which has left families frustrated by the lack of response, follow-up or resolution for their concerns. Complaints allege that Lowry has repeatedly mistreated students, forced them to write false statements by threatening to expel them and asked them to inform on students to provide her with information. 


The complaints 

One mother of a African American student formerly at Willard filed a complaint with the school district last year after she heard that Lowry had allegedly bullied other students into signing false statements that her son was stealing money from other students. 

“Ms. Lowry filed a complaint with the Berkeley Police Department in January 2007 which charged my son with taking money from little girls in school,” the mother said. “She also recommended his expulsion to the school board. I filed a complaint against her to the school district.” 

The charges, according to the mother and other parents involved in the case, were dismissed when students told the judge that they had been forced by Lowry to make false statements against the boy. The mother said she talked to Felton Owens, the district’s director of student support services, and then-superintendent Michele Lawrence, but she never heard back. 

“They all said they would investigate, but my son was expelled based on what Ms. Lowry said,” the mother said. “The kids all went to juvenile court and denied that my son stole money from them. The case was dismissed due to lack of evidence.” 

The student’s mother enrolled him at a private school in Oakland last September. Her lawyer told her not to disclose her name for this story since she was preparing a lawsuit against Lowry. 

Sgt. Jennifer Louis, of the Berkeley police youth services detail, told the Planet that she could not comment on the case since juvenile cases are highly protected. She said that the Berkeley Police Department did not have a way to search for, tabulate or identify juvenile cases referred to the police department from Willard. 

“The vice principal doesn’t expel students, the board does,” said district spokesperson Mark Coplan. “The vice principal might take the first step but the board ultimately makes the final decision. It’s not a simple process. All complaints are investigated thoroughly ... In fact expulsions are kept to a minimum.” 

Cecile Eugene, a mother of an African American student at Willard, supported the allegations by the mother of the accused student. She claimed that her own child was forced to write a false statement in the case. 

Eugene said she filed a complaint with the school district on May 16, 2007, charging Lowry with forcing her 12-year-old daughter to write a statement against the male student on April 7 without her own consent or knowledge. 

“I would have never allowed it,” she told the Planet. “I feel my rights were violated and my child’s rights were also violated. She is a special-needs student.” 

The Planet has obtained a copy of the statement which Eugene alleged Lowry forced her child to write. The statement reads in part, “[the accused student] punched me in the head and said ‘bitch I better have my money tomorrow’.” 

Eugene’s daughter submitted another statement to the school district with her mother’s complaint. This one alleged that Lowry (known then as Margaret Klatt before she married last year) had threatened the girl with expulsion and jail if she did not write the original statement. 

“The statement that Ms. Klatt wanted me to write was false,” her second statement read. “I didn’t even know what I was writing. Ms. Klatt told me to copy the statement that she write herself ... [the accused student] never robbed me.” 

Eugene said that her daughter had read her second statement at a school board hearing for the charges against the student for the alleged theft on May 16, 2007, and at the juvenile court criminal investigation hearing last summer. 

Eugene said that she also never heard back from the district about the outcome of her complaint against Lowry. 

Pastor Tom Bardwell, a former Willard parent, said that he had also filed a complaint with the school district charging Lowry with falsely accusing his son of gun possession and forcing his son to write a false statement stating that he had witnessed the other student stealing money from girls on campus. 

“She found a gun on another student and tried to get my son to say that it was his gun,” Bardwell said. “Then she wrote a letter and told my son that if he didn’t sign it she would suspend him ... We went to juvenile court for [the accused student’s] hearing and the case was dismissed. I went to the board hearing and told the board that Ms. Klatt forced my son to write a letter and that she was doing investigations against kids, which is against the law.” 

Bardwell said that he turned in his first complaint to Willard Principal Robert Ithurburn.  

“It never went to the school district,” he said. “So I turned in another complaint to the school district almost a year ago.” 

Pastor Bardwell said he never heard back from the school district. 

“After all this happened, I told Mr. Ithurburn not to let Ms. Klatt come near my son,” he said. “She left him alone then ... Any black kid she doesn’t like, she was going to do something to hurt him.” 

Pastor Bardwell enrolled his son in Tracy High School after he graduated from Willard last fall. 

Donna Babbitt, parent of a former Willard special education student, told the Planet that she had also filed a complaint with the school district on May 10, 2007, addressing continuous suspensions of her daughter by Lowry (then Klatt) but had never heard back. 

The Planet obtained a copy of the complaint, which states: “An agreement was made by Willard Middle School that [Babbitt’s daughter] would be given the opportunity to cool off and go to a safe place where she can sort out her thoughts and think about her action. Mrs. Klatt was informed of the plan that was made at the Individualized Education Program meeting. Mrs. Klatt continued to suspend my daughter over any and everything.” 

Individualized Education Programs address the needs of special education students in the district. 

“No Child Left Behind Act, what’s that?” Babbitt said in an interview with the Planet. “It appears that my daughter has been left behind ... Ms. Lowry has labeled my child to be a uncontrollable 13-year-old African American female. Her discipline record looks worse than a rap sheet. My daughter had a lot of mental issues that Ms. Lowry was not able to handle. It appears that Ms. Lowry knows nothing about children who have special needs. It appears that she doesn’t give a damn about our children.” 

Babbitt’s daughter’s left Willard in December. Babbitt said the district placed her at the Learning Center in Alameda. 


Superintendent responds 

District superintendent Bill Huyett, who took over from Michele Lawrence on Feb. 4, said that the district took all complaints seriously. 

“Since I wasn’t here when these complaints were made, I don’t know too much,” he told the Planet Thursday. “But since these involve personnel matters, we can’t divulge the outcome.” 

A Willard parent who is active in the PTA and asked not to be identified said that he was surprised to hear about the allegations against Lowry. 

“In my experience, she had always seemed supportive and encouraging to all students,” he said. “Given that part of her job involves discipline, she has done it even-handedly.” 

Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition and an expert on the California Public Records Act, said that if the school district was indeed withholding information from the families concerning misconduct against their children by an administrator, it would be a violation of their rights. 

“If these complaints check out, not just the parents but everyone has the right to know what happened,” he told the Planet. 

But Francke said that the school district was not legally required to get back to the parents about the outcome of the investigation if a disciplinary action was not taken against a public employee. 

“As a matter of decency, I think, yes,” he said. “But I'm not aware of any law that requires it. One option the parents have as an alternative to waiting for a response that may never come is going to the school board, in an open meeting, and asking whatever they would like to know.” 


Resigning in protest 

La Donna Higgins, school secretary at Willard for four years, told the Planet that she resigned at the end of the last school year because she objected to “the repeated mistreatment of students by Ms. Lowry.” 

Higgins, part of the hiring committee at Willard when Lowry interviewed for the position of vice principal, said that Lowry had come across as a strong candidate. 

“She told us that she was responsible for training and enrollment as the vice principal for Skyline,” she said. “Since Willard was going from two vice principals to one, we were looking for someone who could handle a lot of responsibilities.” 

Higgins said that after Lowry was hired as Willard’s vice principal in the summer of 2006, she gradually became judgmental toward the school staff and students. 

“She said inappropriate things about the staff ... I also had problems with the way she was treating kids,” Higgins said. “There was heavy suspensions and expulsions of African American and Latino kids without proper evidence. Lots of students were called out of class and slowly my office was filled with students facing suspension. It became very chaotic. Parents would meet with Ms. Lowry and request that their kid never interact with her again.” 

Higgins said that she remembered that at least 10 different parents had lodged official complaints with the principal against Lowry.  

She said that she had testified at the expulsion hearing on behalf of the student whom Ms. Lowry said was stealing money from other students. 

“This was false,” Higgins said. “Ms. Lowry also filed criminal charges against the student for stealing money from younger students, which he was found not guilty of. She also made students write false statements against the student and threatened that if they did not she would make sure they did not attend Willard the following year.” 

In her farewell letter to the Willard staff on her last day at school Higgins explained her reason for leaving: 

“This last year at Willard has been a turning point in my life,” she wrote. “I have watched an administrator tear down every kid she has come in contact with. I have watched an administrator spend countless number of hours contacting the District Attorney to have a kid’s future destroyed ... I have watched an administrator disrespect and belittle parents of students at Willard. As I have seen the destruction of all the hard work that teachers, staff, and parents put in to create a positive image of Willard and give their all to making all students and parents feel welcome at school, I no longer feel welcomed here ... Berkeley Unified School District prides itself on following the direction of No Child Left Behind, [but] we have people in education who will do almost anything that ensure that certain kids are not only left behind but not even seen.” 


A trail of allegations 

A source at Oakland’s Skyline High School who did not want to be identified told the Planet that the array of allegations against Lowry at Willard aren’t a surprise. The source said that at Skyline, where Lowry was assistant principal before joining Willard in 2006, she also had a history of complaints about inappropriate conduct and racism against students. 

The source said that parents at the high school had also filed complaints against Lowry (known then as Margaret Klatt) for allegedly mistreating students and wrongfully suspending them. 

“I am not at all surprised,” the source said, after hearing that Berkeley Unified was investigating the allegations against Lowry. “The same things were done at Skyline.” 

An official at the Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) Human Resources Department declined to disclose information about Lowry’s employment history or any disciplinary action taken against her by the OUSD. But Francke said this information should be open to the public. 

“Any resume-type information or employment history is a matter of public record and must be disclosed,” Francke told the Planet. “Complaints about the performance of public employees other than peace officers are public if they lead to disciplinary action, or even, discipline or not, if they are ‘well-founded’ or reasonably reliable in terms, for instance, of their substance, frequency and/or sources.” 

The Planet filed a Public Records Act Request with both Berkeley and Oakland Unified on Feb. 20 to obtain public records for Lowry. 

“The district carries out background checks on all its employees,” Superintendent Huyett said. “I don’t think the district was aware of any of the complaints made by parents at Skyline.” 

Huyett said he hoped that the matter concerning the alleged instance of Lowry asking one student to buy drugs from another would be resolved soon, but that it was unclear what the district would tell the public about its decision. 

“We are doing an internal inquiry on the allegation,” he said. “We will come to a resolution by early next week. We will not be making an announcement about it since it’s a personnel issue. But the school community will be informed whether she has been reassigned or not.” 

Willard Principal Ithurburn sent out a memo to Willard staff and support personnel and the district’s assistant superintendent Neil Smith on Feb. 11 asking them not to discuss the incident outside the school, saying “We all want to ensure we represent the Willard community in a positive light.” 

He sent another e-mail to Willard staff last week, saying: “There is a strong possibility that an article about Willard may appear in the Daily Planet tomorrow or in the next issue. This is just a reminder that no employees should be discussing school issues out in the community.” 

Francke said that while these entreaties were legal, the administration could not penalize either faculty or students for speaking to others, including the press, concerning what they know or have heard. 

Lacisha Atckins, the mother of the African American eighth-grade special education student who was involved in the alleged drug sting currently under investigation, told the Planet on Wednesday that she had filed an official complaint with the district against Lowry on Feb. 14 but had not heard back yet.  

“The white kid to whom Miss Lowry gave the money to buy drugs from my son came up to him sometime in early January and asked him if he could buy weed,” she said. “My son did not have it. When his teacher heard about it she was concerned. A week or two later I talked to the principal, Mr. Ithurburn, and asked what was going on. He said he knew about it.” 

She said that she believed that the principal had initially met with the white child’s parents after the incident, but not with her. 

Atckins told the Planet that her son had been singled out for the alleged sting because of the way he dressed. 

“The white kid thinks [my son] is a drug dealer because he wears a black hoodie and baggy pants,” she said. “Ms. Lowry has been trying to set my son up for a while ... She doesn’t like him. She doesn’t like half of the African American children in the school. I am upset that she’s trying to implicate that my son’s a drug dealer.” 

Anna de Leon, a Berkeley-based criminal lawyer and a former school board president, said if the allegations were true, Lowry should be removed from the school district and prosecuted. 

“If she did this, if she furnished money to a student to buy drugs from another student, then she instigated and facilitated a criminal act,” De Leon said. “To encourage kids to do illegal conduct is shocking ... It shows extremely poor judgment.”