Crowden Music School is a private North Berkeley school dedicated to teaching in chamber music to third- through eighth-graders. Credit: Nancy Rubin

Seventeen months after a beloved principal’s firing in connection with a vocabulary test involving crustacean humor upended a private Berkeley music school and prompted a lawsuit, the school is reaching a legal settlement with the principal and the executive director who fired him is stepping down from her post.

Brad Johnson, who doubled as Crowden’s middle school English teacher, was dismissed last year after a parent accused him of ridiculing his child in a series of comedic test questions involving a “Crazy Lobster Boy” set on terrorizing his classmates with pruning shears while teaching them vocab words like “simulating” and “alleviate.” Last October, he sued the school where he’d worked for 25 years and executive director Doris Fukawa for wrongful termination and slander.

The drama has culminated in a week of surprise announcements, timed to the beginning of classes on Wednesday at Crowden.

On Friday, Aug. 26, the school issued a joint statement from Johnson and James Marks, the president of Crowden’s Board of Trustees, apologizing for the way “the sudden announcement of Brad’s departure” and “subsequent events … fell short of the gratitude and recognition that was his due.” The statement expressed a desire to “heal the rifts that emerged within the Crowden community.”

Then on Tuesday, Aug. 30, the school announced Fukawa is stepping down from her role as head of the school. “[A]fter a lot of thought over the summer, [Fukawa] has decided to transition during the upcoming school year from Crowden’s Executive and Artistic Director to Director Emeritus,” reads an Aug. 30 email sent to current Crowden families.

Since Johnson’s departure, Marion Atherton, a longtime chief operating officer, has taken over as interim principal and now will “assume administrative leadership of Crowden.” Fukawa will stay at the school during her year-long transition and will continue to teach violin.

Over the last year, Crowden School has continued to feel fallout from Johnson’s firing, which caused staff and board members to resign in protest and parents to remove about 20 of the tiny school’s 60 children from the school — around a third of the enrollment at the $30,000 per year school dedicated to teaching chamber music to third- through eighth-graders. 

The loss of 20 students has been difficult for the school to overcome. In May, Fukawa sent an email to the community describing an “enrollment crisis that if not corrected threatens [the school’s] long-term sustainability. In 2021 and 2022, the number of students enrolled has hovered around 40.

The school’s communications director wrote in an email to Berkeleyside that the school expects to increase enrollment to 2020-21 levels in the next three to five years.

With Fukawa no longer at the helm, some parents and staff think it will give the community a chance to move on from a conflict that sowed deep mistrust between families, faculty and the administration. 

“Now there’s a chance for everyone to take a breath and heal,” Tom Nemeth, whose two children attended Crowden, said on Wednesday. “My hope is that the school can refocus on becoming academically strong and unique in its musical offerings.”

But many still long for Johnson, the long-time charismatic face of the school, to return.

“The man who is so valuable to the academic growth and prowess of our institution … is still exiled. He’s still at arm’s length from the community,” said Laura Kakis Serper, the school’s director of choral music. 

Kakis Serper and her husband, Arkadi Serper, are staunch supporters of Johnson. After Johnson’s termination, they stayed at the school, where they have taught for more than 30 years, hoping that they could help Crowden weather this storm and reshape it into a stronger institution, one with more trust between faculty and administrators and less bullying between students.

As part of the agreement, Johnson is not allowed to speak publicly about the settlement or share the terms of the agreement. (Crowden also declined to say what’s in the settlement.) 

Johnson told Berkeleyside it is “certainly a relief to be able to have all of this in the rearview mirror and to be able to move forward in a different direction.”

Since leaving the school, he has taken up tutoring some of his former students in reading and vocabulary groups as well as one-on-one writing sessions. He is also polishing the second draft of a screenplay, the topic of which he said he was not ready to discuss.

He’s not sure whether he will return to the classroom, but for now, he finds working with students and pursuing his creative pursuits satisfying.

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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,...