Subordinate Claws 

EBX After-School Special: Popular teacher's dismissal leads to intrigue and ugliness at prestigious local prep school.

A popular history teacher loses his job after abandoning a student on an educational trip. School officials later confiscate an anonymous newsletter that accuses an administrator and a teacher of lying on their résumés, and threaten to punish students seen passing it around. Police are called to break up an argument between the history teacher and two former colleagues. The next school day, security guards are standing watch over the campus.

Sounds like a typical week at a dysfunctional Bay Area public school. But this has all been happening at Bentley School, an exclusive East Bay K-12 private school with six hundred students. Parents pay top dollar to send their children to earn a Bentley pedigree. Tuition for the lower school (K-8) in the Oakland hills hovered around $15,000 this year, while tuition at the upper school (grades 9-12) in Lafayette was $18,770 -- and the average combined SAT score in 2001 was 1239. Bentley's board of directors include some of the area's most prominent citizens -- doctors, lawyers, developers, and George Zimmer, top suit at the Men's Wearhouse ("I guarantee it!").

The turmoil started three months ago when Alan Manatt, a teacher at the upper school and head of its history department, took eleven students on a weeklong historic tour of Europe with their parents' permission. Near the end of the trip one fifteen-year-old student, the son of a UCSF pediatrician, revealed that he'd lost his passport. Manatt's wife, who had accompanied him on the trip, returned home with the other students while Alan stayed behind in Amsterdam with the stranded kid. The next day, however, it became clear that the US Consulate wasn't going to have a replacement passport ready in time for their rescheduled flight. Then Manatt did something pretty dumb for a man with a Ph.D: He got on the plane (he says he didn't want to miss any more class time), leaving the teenager behind with some extra cash to secure his passport and return to the airport unescorted. Manatt says he didn't contact the boy's parents because he left in the wee hours. Instead, the mother later got a call from the consulate saying that her son was alone and upset. The student finally made it home safe but shaken, school officials say.

Shortly afterward, Bentley headmaster Rick Fitzgerald asked the 36-year-old Manatt to resign, though Fitzgerald says the school agreed to write him letters of recommendation and continue to pay him until his contract expired in August. Under the circumstances, Fitzgerald tells Feeder, "we treated him with tremendous fairness."

But students protested the dismissal of Manatt, who had a reputation for being an enthusiastic teacher. One scrawled "Save Manatt" on a blackboard. The school newspaper, The Talon, editorialized in favor of keeping him, and gushed about his animated lectures that were sometimes punctuated by "thrown chalk" and "flying arrows."

On April 2, about a month after Manatt's departure, a mysterious newsletter calling itself The Claw made its debut at Bentley. The Claw bills itself as "Bentley School's Underground Newspaper," and contains no bylines. Fitzgerald says students and parents have told his staff that Manatt is working behind the scenes on the anonymous newsletter.

The first two issues took aim at Fitzgerald, rehashing the résumé-fudging scandal that rocked the headmaster when he first came to Bentley in 2002 to take over a job that earned his predecessor a $205,400 salary.

On his résumé, Fitzgerald claimed to have a master's degree in English from the University of Virginia. But nosy parents discovered prior to his start date that he had never received the degree; apparently he hadn't satisfied the university's foreign-language requirement. In spite of the controversy, Bentley's board of directors stood behind Fitzgerald, who had served as headmaster of the prestigious Branson School in Marin County for thirteen years. Fitzgerald later successfully petitioned the university to give him his degree without having to take any extra courses.

Furious school officials fired Manatt outright and cut off his pay following publication of the second issue of The Claw on April 23, Manatt says. By the time the third edition came out, school leaders began rounding up all the copies they could find. This time the newsletter went after two of Manatt's former colleagues, alleging that one instructor also had lied about having a master's degree and accusing another of being unqualified. Laurie Kahn, head of Bentley's upper school, warned students that anyone seen distributing The Claw would be disciplined. The Talon's opinion editor, Edward Hess, denounced the move: "Students had mostly been ignoring The Claw, and realized that much of the information contained within it had already been publicly released and debated. By confiscating it, the administration was telling students that it would not tolerate debate." Kahn says the third issue contained defamatory and inaccurate information, but declined to identify what it got wrong.

But stifling The Claw didn't quiet things down for long. Two weeks ago, school administrators called Lafayette police after Manatt showed up around campus circulating fliers to students and teachers purporting to expose 29 "lies" being perpetuated by school leaders. Fitzgerald says that when Manatt left his job, he signed an agreement not to come onto campus. Manatt contends he was on a public sidewalk at the time. Nonetheless, Kahn and an upper school math teacher confronted the former Bentley teacher and asked him to leave. According to Manatt, the male math teacher got right in his face and called him a "fucking asshole," to which he recalls replying, "You're within three seconds of death."

Manatt insists it was a tongue-in-cheek threat, but neither Kahn nor the teacher were laughing when a police officer arrived. After conferring with everyone, the cop asked Manatt to leave. The following Monday, Fitzgerald sent a letter to Bentley parents saying he'd hired a security firm to patrol both campuses to make sure Manatt doesn't come back and bother anyone.

Manatt says Bentley bigwigs are trying to silence criticism. But the headmaster says parents called him after the incident to ask if their kids would be safe. "You tell me what I should do as a responsible school head," he asks. Meanwhile, the copresident of the Bentley Parents Association and school board president Dr. Cornelia Dekker said they both back Fitzgerald "100 percent" in his decisions. Manatt says he too has received letters of support from parents.

So why is Alan Manatt so mad at Fitzgerald, anyway? The history teacher, after all, was punished for what even he concedes was an error in judgment. But Manatt doesn't think he should have been fired for it. "The reality is that Fitzgerald made a mistake, Manatt made a mistake; Fitzgerald was forgiven, Manatt was crucified," he argues. Fitzgerald counters that his mistake "never had any negative impact on children."

Maybe public schools aren't so bad after all. At least the melodrama comes a lot cheaper.

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