Almanac

Viewpoint - March 13, 2013

Editorial: Veil of silence over instructor's firing

The recent letter to "gymnastics families" from Menlo Park City Manager Alex McIntyre is another in a string of half-hearted efforts taken in the wake of the abrupt and unexplained dismissal of gymnastics instructor Michelle Sutton. The case led to an uproar among parents, who became even more upset when emails written to the council in support of Ms. Sutton were deleted from the city's website.

The city did restore the emails last week, but management remains committed to silence instead of shedding any light on why one of the most popular instructors was summarily fired without explanation.

Mr. McIntyre's letter failed to satisfy scores of residents clamoring for the instructor's reinstatement. It simply falls back on a boilerplate response: "I regret that I am unable to share more specific information due to the confidential nature of personnel matters" and he was "...satisfied that I understand the situation and that proper procedures were followed. ..."

The city manager has refused to disclose who he talked to before deciding that he understood the situation. According to the Almanac's sources, his review did not include the instructors who have said Ms. Sutton was bullied and harassed by a gymnastics program supervisor.

As an at-will employee, Ms. Sutton could be dismissed at any time without cause by the city. The cascade of events that apparently led to her firing began when she asked a mother to follow policy by stepping away during child-only classes. The mother called Ms. Sutton's behavior unprofessional, and filed a complaint; the instructor was fired 12 days later. But another possible factor was that six days before Ms. Sutton was fired, the instructor asked the human resources department how to file a complaint of harassment against her supervisor.

Ms. Sutton remains upbeat about the city's gymnastics program. She appeared at last week's City Council meeting to request reinstatement and an investigation into the case. She said after five years on the job she "will always love and support" the city's gymnastics program.

Perhaps this positive attitude endeared Ms. Sutton to her students and their parents, who flooded the city's website with supportive emails and have established a Facebook page to support her that has more than 185 members now. Several have discontinued their children's enrollment in the gymnastics program.

Several troubling aspects of this case have not yet been addressed by the city:

• Soon after her dismissal, Ms. Sutton gave permission for the Almanac to view her personnel file at the city. It contained a note regarding a pay raise she received in 2009, but no documentation of reprimands or other disciplinary actions. If there were performance issues, why weren't the problems documented in her file?

• What is the city's policy for how gymnastics staff should respond to parents who aren't following the rules?

• Who did Mr. McIntyre interview during his review of the case? Was it only senior management, despite statements from gymnastics program instructors that management was creating a hostile workplace?

The city should answer these questions. The public, along with Ms. Sutton and the parents who support her, deserve a transparent explanation about her dismissal.

Comments

Posted by Seriously, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Mar 13, 2013 at 11:21 am

I agree that the city needs to address these questions, and soon. These are procedural concerns, so the city should not be able to hide behind the excuse of "confidential personnel matters." Can the Almanac shed any light on who within the city is actually responsible for communicating to the public regarding these concerns? Is there any precedent for informing the public on process issues that are related to personnel matters, without treading into "confidential" territory? There is still a lot of public interest in resolving the problems within the gymnastics program, but no one knows who is ultimately responsible for any of this mess.


Posted by N.D., a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Mar 14, 2013 at 6:29 pm

The Community deserves answers. Since the City Manager already stated that he was "satisfied" with the decision to fire Ms. Sutton. It would take a man with integrity to admit he was wrong and actually conduct a full investigation and make the necessary changes to the Community Services Department and put an end the hostile work environment.


Posted by Dead horse, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Mar 14, 2013 at 7:20 pm

Do we really need a fifth (or is it sixth?) thread covering the exact same topic?


Posted by Former Gymnast, a resident of another community
on Mar 15, 2013 at 8:53 am

As a former gymnast, I can tell you that good teachers are the crux of any quality program. They are the ones doing the heavy lifting and have the knowledge and skills required to motivate and also prevent injuries in the gym. While it's not necessary for Administrators to have a background in the sport, they should at least have an understanding and respect for work that the teachers do. This does not appear to be the case at the City of Menlo Park. Students thrive under a dedicated and experienced staff, not a staff that is being bullied and harassed.


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