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School Board Removes Willard Vice Principal

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday March 04, 2008

Willard Middle School Vice Principal Margaret Lowry—under investigation by the Berkeley Board of Education for improper conduct involving two special education students—has been removed from her position and will be replaced by Thomas Orput, vice principal of the Berkeley Adult School.  

“Orput will be interim vice president,” School Board President John Selawsky said Monday. He said Orput will begin at Willard on March 11 and stay there for the remainder of the school year. 

Although some media outlets reported that Selawsky told them Friday that Lowry would be transferred to the Berkeley Adult School, he told the Daily Planet Monday that nothing had been decided. 

“She might be put on administrative leave, she might be put on special assignment or she might be transferred to the adult school,” he said. “It’s not clear at this point. It will be decided at a meeting later today.” 

District superintendent Bill Huyett told the Planet Monday that the investigation of Lowry was complete and the district would decide about her future by today (Tuesday). 

“I am not sure if she will be tranferred to the adult school,” he said. “We might very well place her in another assignment.” 

Selawsky said that the district had consulted with the Berkeley Police Department about the allegations, but Huyett said he wasn’t aware of this. 

Selawsky said that Orput’s transfer to Willard, where he served as vice principal until Lowry took over in 2006, was decided on Friday. Lowry was vice principal at Oakland’s Skyline High School before coming to Willard. 

Parents of the two special education students 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.  

The Planet also reported on several other complaints from former and current Willard parents in a Feb. 29 article. They alleged that Lowry has repeatedly mistreated students, forced students to write false statements by threatening to expel them and pressured students to inform on students to provide her with information. 

Huyett said that the district would investigate these complaints. 

“Even if they are old, the district needs to resolve them,” he said. “We owe it to the parents. They deserve a response or some kind of a judgment. That may be something we have to do.” 

Both the Berkeley and Oakland Unified school districts have declined to disclose information about Lowry’s employment history or any disciplinary action taken against her, although Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware and a public records expert, said this information should be open to the public. 

The Planet filed a public records act request with both Berkeley and Oakland school districts on Feb. 20 to obtain records about Lowry. The 10-day response time allowed by law expired without any answer from Oakland Unified. 

In a letter faxed to the Planet late Monday, John R. Yeh, of Miller Brown Dannis, attorneys for the Berkeley Unified School District, rejected the Planet’s request to see Lowry’s resume and to be informed of any disciplinary action taken against her as “vague and ambiguous, overly broad and unduly burdensome.” 

His letter says that the district objects to disclosing information on the basis of legal opinions in two cases, BRV Inc. v. Superior Court, et al and Bakersfield School District v. Superior Court. But Francke told the Planet that opinions in the two cases cited are contrary to Yeh’s interpretation—that they actually hold that complaints and disciplinary information about school district employees are a matter of public record. 

The letter further states that the district will not disclose the other records requested by the Planet—containing data on expulsions at Willard from 2004 to 2007 tallied by race without students’ names—until March 31, more than a month after the request was made. 

Stephen Rosenbaum, an attorney with Protection and Advocacy Inc., told the Planet that if parents of special education students were not satisfied by the district’s response, they could file a complaint with the state Department of Education. 

“Sacramento has very strict time limits,” he said. “If the complaints are languishing in the school district—as the parents have charged—then there are several channels. They can go to the Federal Office of Civil Rights ... There is also mediation which involves a neutral facilitator. If the allegations are true then it’s important to raise awareness about these issues, like the media has done. Hopefully it will lead to resolution.” 

Anthony Sotelo, a special education consultant at the California Department of Education, said that calls to a toll-free number (1-800-926-0648) could initiate such a complaint. 

Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, spokesperson for the Berkeley Police Department, told the Planet that the Police Department would investigate the allegations that Lowry engaged students in a drug transaction if either the parents or the school district filed a complaint with the department. 

“It is not uncommon for the school district to handle many matters internally and administratively,” she said. “What would be encouraging is for the community to be mindful of how the school district is handling the matter. We are always here to follow up and investigate. If the allegations are true, then it shows poor judgment.