‘Lobster claws’ test questions land Crowden School principal in hot water

Teachers are quitting and parents are pulling their kids from a private Berkeley music school after the principal was fired in connection with a fill-in-the-blank vocabulary test involving crustacean jokes.

The Crowden School principal
Brad Johnson, principal and middle school English teacher at The Crowden School, was fired in March after 25 years at the school. Credit: Ally Markovich

On a Thursday morning in March, Crowden School principal Brad Johnson walked into a meeting with his supervisors and left with some unexpected news: He was being fired from his job at the small, private Berkeley school dedicated to teaching chamber music to third- through eighth-graders. He had been at Crowden for 25 years. His last day would be June 30.

In the six months that followed, Johnson’s termination — and the mystery surrounding it — has thrown the tight-knit community, full of high-powered parents and budding but already internationally decorated musicians, into turmoil. 

Four members of the Board of Trustees resigned, one within a day of learning of Johnson’s firing. In August, once they learned their beloved principal wouldn’t be returning, nearly 50 families signed a letter criticizing the decision to fire Johnson and pressured leaders of the 65-student school to reinstate him, turning out in droves to a community town hall. Seven eighth-graders and their parents — half of the eighth-grade class — have promised to leave the school in protest, each taking with them nearly $30,000 in annual tuition.

The administration has been put on the defensive. On Friday, as this story was nearing publication, the school notified parents that an independent review would be conducted into Johnson’s firing and he would be placed on paid administrative leave for the duration of the investigation. Hours after the announcement, three music teachers — Jane Lee, Heghine Boloyan and Monica Scott — had resigned in solidarity with Johnson, and more are considering doing the same.

Johnson, who had cultivated a reputation as the “heart of Crowden,” remains baffled. Popular among parents and students for his warmth, wit, academic rigor and infamous Halloween costumes, he both served as principal and as the school’s sole middle school English teacher. He says that before being fired, he had never before been reprimanded by senior administrators about his teaching. 

The Crowden School, which combines chamber music instruction with academics, has been embroiled in controversy over the firing of its longtime principal. Credit: Zac Farber

The Crowden School says Johnson was fired over his “handling of a student matter.” “One of our school’s families expressed some serious concerns,” Cary Koh, chair of Crowden’s board, wrote in an email to the Crowden community on Aug. 14. “The school determined there were errors in judgment that warranted Brad being relieved of a leadership position.” (School officials declined to speak on the record with Berkeleyside about the reasons Johnson was fired in time for publication, citing concerns over student privacy and legal liability.) 

Johnson says the “student matter” is a 12-page complaint written by a parent in February accusing him of ridiculing, harassing and publicly humiliating his students. He shared the full complaint with Berkeleyside. 

It hinges on a series of comedic classroom vocabulary tests in which Johnson would ask students to complete fill-in-the-blank sentence worksheets. Johnson said he’d used the exercises as a teaching tool during his entire tenure at Crowden and the same sentences had been in use for about a decade. Johnson aimed to teach his English students words like “aberration” and “lethargy” by including them in purposely outlandish sentences relying on gory imagery and absurdist humor — mafia hitmen, a student getting hit in the head with a shovel, an exploding toilet, etc. 

In a further attempt to engage his pre-teen students, he’d insert their first names at random into the sentences. Sometimes he’d string sentences together, such as in the story of “Crazy Lobster Boy” — a student who grabs two pairs of pruning shears, declares himself a lobster and runs around terrorizing his classmates while teaching them words like “simulating” and “alleviate.” 

Most students adored the vocab questions, multiple parents told Berkeleyside. Even the executive director’s own child had participated without incident, they said. 

But every so often, the tests have rubbed a parent or student the wrong way.

The parent who filed the complaint with the school felt that his son was being mocked for his speech impediment in a sentence describing “his tendency to babble like an idiot and drool on his classmates.” (Johnson insisted the boy’s name was picked at random for the sentence and said he didn’t know the child had a speech impediment.) The parent was also furious that his Jewish son was made the protagonist of the “lobster boy” story, arguing that a joke that the boy probably “had a crab or crayfish somewhere back in his ancestry” was evidence of Johnson’s “thinly veiled antisemitism” because the sentence connected the boy’s violent behavior to his crustacean DNA. 

“Humiliating a young boy on the verge of puberty by calling him a crustacean and referring to his ‘lobster claws’ at a time already complicated with fears and ambivalence about body image and sexuality is utterly shocking from any adult, let alone the Head of School and English teacher,” the parent wrote.

The parent told Crowden he was pulling his son out of the school and threatened to sue — demanding two years of free tuition, free homeschool and French tutors, compensation for his son’s emotional distress, assistance with getting his son admitted to another private school and a change of his grade from a B+ to an A- in Johnson’s class. 

Less than two months after the parent’s complaint was filed, Johnson had been fired.

Internal maneuverings

On March 11, Johnson met with Doris Fukawa, the school’s executive director. During the meeting, Johnson told Berkeleyside, she mentioned only one other parent complaint dating back to about 2008 when Johnson, during a graduation speech, had offended a mother by joking that her son was well known for leaving his personal belongings around the school.

Three weeks after the meeting, Johnson received a letter confirming his termination. 

“Crowden’s future plans, in light of our recent strategic plan, are not in sync with your continued involvement,” Fukawa wrote in the letter. “Given recent events, it further confirms that our paths are not in alignment.” Fukawa encouraged Johnson to partake in a “smooth and respectful transition.” 

The board, a group of 14 people who govern the music school, learned about the decision in April. The news fell flat. Young Lee resigned immediately, with three other board members following suit.

“At Crowden, a great deal is made of the importance of legacy and history, and I cannot reconcile Brad’s removal with these oft-repeated words,” Lee wrote. “Through the many decades that he has been with Crowden, Brad’s style and pedagogical philosophy have not changed, but Crowden’s values and priorities apparently have.”

A few weeks after terminating him, Fukawa offered him back his job as English teacher the following year, according to Johnson. “If I’d been drinking coffee, I’d have spat it out,” Johnson said. The offer didn’t square with the reason he had been fired, and the pay was so poor that he figured he would have to get a second job anyway. Johnson declined.

The vocabulary tests

A 1998 documentary about The Crowden School shows Brad Johnson teaching an English class. Credit: The Crowden School

While most students seem to have been amused by the wacky fill-in-the-blanks in Johnson’s vocabulary tests, the sentences had received pushback in the past. 

About five years ago, Johnson said, a parent complained about a question that included the names of famous serial killers. Johnson said he obliged, removing the names. 

Last year, Johnson said, the parent of a Black student took issue with a sentence that described a thief in a food bank robbery: “Captured on the surveillance video cameras driving the van, loading the weapons, and editing the misspelled hold-up note, [student’s name] was convicted of aiding and [abetting] a criminal enterprise in a food bank robbery.” 

The parent brought the sentence to Fukawa, accusing Johnson of racism, but Johnson said he only heard about it second-hand — never from Fukawa or the parent herself, only from another parent in the class. He assumed the parent let it go when she realized her child’s name had been chosen at random to appear in the sentence.

“Oh, c’mon,” said Donna Jones, the parent of two Black students, when she heard Johnson was accused of racism because of this test question. “I took my kids out of a public school precisely because I thought that they had lower expectations for Black students, and put them in this school because Brad actually challenged them.” 

Jones said Johnson was “nothing but supportive and kind to my two girls.” She is planning to withdraw her younger daughter from Crowden over Johnson’s firing. 

Dustin Breshears also plans to withdraw his children from Crowden. His four kids play together in a string quartet that tours internationally and has earned numerous awards for chamber music. Breshears said he can see how a kid could take a question the wrong way, but not in the context of Johnson’s class. 

“I thought, ‘Oh, somebody might be embarrassed by this,’” he said. “But what my kids told me was that, since they were doing that all the time and the names are always switched and everybody knew that the names were just random, it didn’t bother anybody. It was really funny because your name could end up anywhere on the test.”

Johnson denies that he has ever intentionally targeted children with his vocab sentences. They are not meant to be taken literally, he insists, nor does he find them inappropriate. “I’m proud of those sentences,” he said, adding that students said their absurdity made it easier to remember the vocabulary words.

“The fact that the students could enjoy—that they were willing to play along and have their names used in this way—is not the sign of a disrespectful classroom. Just the opposite: it is the sign of how much respect, trust, and comfort Brad cultivated in that class,” wrote Mark Goble and Elisa Tamarkin, two Crowden parents, in a letter to the board protesting its decision.

Mistrust runs deep

Despite the recent promise to investigate the firing, the conflict has sown deep distrust among some parents and teachers, who now say that the executive director and the board have acted without accountability. 

On Friday, after the school offered to conduct an independent investigation, three music teachers resigned in protest, saying that Johnson’s treatment, the school’s toxic climate, and their low pay and low status contributed to the decision. 

“We all feel that we don’t have any value to the school, any of us can be thrown away, with no warning, with nothing,” said Boloyan, who teaches violin and ensemble at the school and resigned Friday.

“It’s much bigger than Brad, though it centers around him,” said Laura Kakis Serper, the school’s director of choral music. Johnson has pushed for raises at the school, where academic teachers earn $58,000 per year.

Several parents stand firm in their decision to leave the school, saying Crowden’s mishandling of the conflict has turned them away for good.

“This has exposed an array of dysfunction at the school that I would say is primarily located in the senior leadership,” Jones said. “That this incident about what is fundamentally a trivial complaint about a vocabulary test has gotten to this point demands not only an investigation of the complaint, but more importantly an investigation of the senior management — the Executive Director and the Board,” Jones added later in a text message. “So, sadly we are not returning.”

Other parents expressed a similar feeling that the latest response from the board is not enough. Justin Davis, a parent leading the efforts for Johnson to be reinstated, wants Fukawa to break her silence and personally apologize to the community. He’s also calling for greater transparency from Crowden administrators.

“The fact is Doris and the board just can’t be trusted,” Breshears wrote in a text message. “I’m not going to keep my kids at the school because the spirit and the learning environment have already been destroyed.”

While Johnson himself declined to comment on the announcement, his lawyer was skeptical that the promised investigation was anything but “a sham ‘show.’” 

“You will pardon me if I am incredulous at the absurdity of this patent ‘star chamber’ or ‘kangaroo court’ being convened by Mr. Koh and his associates, and the transparency of where he and the Board are headed with this attempt to whitewash their actions and cover up the true and complete facts,” Hugo N. Gerstl wrote in a letter to senior administrators Friday evening.

But, Gerstl wrote, Johnson would agree to an investigation if it is conducted fairly — made up of equal parts parents, teachers and administrators — and if it examines the administration’s actions, as well as Johnson’s. 

“Are you willing to accept this challenge?” Gerstl asked the administrators. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misreported one of the names of the three music teachers who have resigned. The teachers are Jane Lee, Heghine Boloyan and Monica Scott.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.