Brad Johnson, the former principal and middle school English teacher, filed a lawsuit against The Crowden School for wrongful termination. Credit: Ally Markovich Credit: Ally Markovich

Former principal Brad Johnson was fired from the Crowden School last year after a parent accused him of ridiculing his child in a series of vocabulary test questions involving crustacean jokes. News of his termination set off shockwaves through the private Berkeley music school, prompting numerous parents to withdraw their children and leading three teachers and multiple board members to resign.

Brad Johnson has filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court against the Crowden Music Center, its administrators, and a complaining parent.

Last week, Johnson filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the school, its executive director, Doris Fukawa, and the complaining parent in Alameda County Superior Court. The 92-page suit alleges that Crowden fired Johnson without cause, tarnished his reputation through slander and libel, and inflicted emotional distress. Johnson worked at Crowden for 25 years, first as an English teacher and then also as principal.

The lawsuit claims Fukawa and other school administrators did not properly investigate the parent complaint before firing Johnson and that the complaint is merely pretext for the real reasons behind his termination. The suit alleges that Crowden retaliated against Johnson’s efforts to raise teacher pay and that he was a casualty in Crowden’s effort to increase faculty diversity.

The Crowden School declined to comment on the reasons that Johnson was fired, citing legal and privacy concerns, but told Berkeleyside that an independent review announced on Aug. 27 “will be moving forward.”

Johnson was not fired for “good cause – or any cause,” the suit claims, arguing that the “true reason” for his firing was “because of his age and race, and in retaliation for … promoting and advocating fair wages for the faculty.”

In a Sept. 7 letter to Johnson’s attorney, the school offered to pay for mediation to achieve an “informal resolution” before launching an investigation. His attorney, Hugo Gerstl, interpreted this as a “bad faith” offer and instead proposed that Johnson would participate in an investigation if it was conducted by parents, teachers and administrators. The school responded that this was not permissible under California law. Johnson filed the lawsuit one month later on Oct. 6.

‘Errors in judgment’ or ‘retaliation’?

In a letter to the Crowden community on Aug. 14, former chair of the Board of Trustees Cary Koh said Johnson was fired for “errors in judgment” concerning his “handling of a student matter.” Koh has since resigned from the board, along with five other board members, and he now serves on Crowden’s Advisory Board. Koh could not be reached for comment.

Johnson says the student matter is a 12-page complaint by a parent accusing Johnson of harassing his child through vocabulary test questions that mocked his child’s speech impediment and Jewish heritage. The questions, which aimed to teach students vocabulary words like “simulating” and “alleviate,” were recycled year after year, with only the students’ names changed out. These particular questions described the parent’s son running around with garden shears, pretending to be a lobster while wreaking havoc on his classmates.

“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 in the letter.

The parent threatened to sue the school over the tests and asked for compensation for his son’s distress, including assistance getting his son admitted to another private school of his choice and having his child’s English grade changed from a B+ to an A-. (Fukawa and Marion Atherton, the school’s chief operating officer, “coerced” Johnson into changing the child’s grade, according to the suit.)

“If you use that excuse — that a parent complained and therefore, you are not fit for your position — that would apply to virtually everybody,” Johnson said. “So there was clearly something more to it than that.”

Prior to this incident, Johnson had never been reprimanded by the school or instructed to change his teaching practices or behavior, according to the lawsuit.

Johnson said the suit alleges “age discrimination because I’m the old white guy that the executive director got rid of after making a very strong push for diversity at the school.”

The lawsuit claims that Johnson “was treated in the disparate manner that he was not because of anything he had done wrong, but because he was a senior employee who was at the top of his pay and benefits scale, and because Crowden was looking for any excuse … to eliminate an employee with authority who had dared speak his mind.”

Johnson said he had taken up the cause of raising teacher pay on and off over the last decade or so. Last year, after the Crowden School received a $10 million grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, Johnson began pushing for increased wages with greater vigor. Academic teachers currently make $58,000 per year, while music teachers, who work part time, are paid an hourly rate of $50.50.

The lawsuit also alleges that Fukawa, Koh, and others defamed Johnson in communications that painted Johnson as stubborn and unyielding, falsely implying there was more to the story. The suit says that without investigating Johnson’s conduct, Fukawa falsely told faculty members at an Aug. 20 Zoom meeting that Johnson’s actions were inappropriate, though “not enough to be jailed,” and that he was responsible for five families filing lawsuits against the school. (Johnson says legal action has been threatened against the school but he was never informed of any family actually filing a suit.)

The fallout of the firing

The abrupt end to his 25 years as a teacher and then principal at Crowden has taken a toll on Johnson, who said he continues to cope with the separation. He said he misses being in the classroom with students and wants to work as an English teacher elsewhere but has not had luck finding a job.

“It’s the last thing I think about when I go to sleep. It’s what I think about when I wake up in the middle of the night. It’s what I think about when I wake up in the morning,” Johnson said. “The injustice of it just gnaws at you constantly.”

The former principal’s termination hangs over the school community, which has “degenerated into a less than collegial environment,” according to Laura Kakis Serper, the school’s choral music director. “There’s a big, huge elephant in the room. It’s never dealt with.”

“The injustice of it just gnaws at you constantly.” — Brad Johnson, former principal, Crowden School

Since news of Johnson’s firing spread, the tiny school has lost 20 students — nearly a third of the student body.

A few teachers continue to push the administration on the issue: Kakis Serper, her husband, Arkadi Serper, and physical education teacher Teale Matteson penned three letters, first just to Cary Koh and then to the entire board of trustees, asking for “truth and transparency” and for Fukawa to be placed on administrative leave while her actions are investigated. The letters detail their concerns about the school’s work environment, communications, and “financial improprieties.”

“Staff morale is at an all-time low. Intimidated teachers, fearful of retaliation, complain among themselves of a hostile and manipulative work environment. Crowden’s reputation has been tarnished,” the three teachers wrote in a Sept. 9 letter.

While the Crowden School said in a statement to Berkeleyside that “it does not comment directly on the merits of litigation involving personnel matters while the case is pending,” it promised to “contest the allegations made in Mr. Johnson’s lawsuit in due course and in the appropriate forum.”

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...