Almanac

News - August 21, 2013

No memorial yet for gymnastics instructor

• Cate Fisher, 19, was shot and killed two years ago

by Sandy Brundage

There's no sign of 19-year-old Cate Fisher on the premises of Menlo Park's gymnastics center, where she taught for nearly three years until her death in 2011, and residents are asking why.

A crepe myrtle tree was planted outside the gymnastics center. And inside, an area that was to be known as "Cate's Corner" holds some toys and books. But neither bears any sign to indicate they are in memory of the popular young instructor, contrary to what residents and some staff expected.

Teacher Cate

She landed at the gymnastics center after spending years bouncing from volleyball to flute to violin to every other activity. Nothing stuck, not until her mother, Michelle Sutton, suggested teaching gymnastics.

"For the first time she found something that really mattered to her," Ms. Sutton said. "I'd watch her and marvel" at the joy and energy she brought to class. "Everything about Cate was bigger than life. (Sometimes during class) I would whisper to her to bring it down a little bit and now of course I wish I could hear her shout."

The 19-year-old spent hours coaching her young students. "She wasn't afraid to wear a tutu or screaming pink shoes, but (was) sensitive enough to know how to connect with the quieter kids. I didn't know she had that knack. I don't think she did, either," her mother said.

All that bounding energy ended on July 13, 2011, when Cate Fisher was shot and killed while sitting in a friend's car in East Palo Alto.

One suspect was arrested in Colorado, following a crime spree that left yet another bystander dead. Christian Fuentes pleaded guilty earlier this year to the Colorado crimes and was sentenced to more than 75 years in prison; San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said his office is considering whether to extradite the man to stand trial here.

The families of those she taught, as well as her own, would like to see a tangible sign of "Teacher Cate" at the place where she loved to go to work. They've offered to pay for a plaque outside under the crepe myrtle tree, which was planted in her honor, and help do whatever else might be necessary to create a memorial.

"It's a loving gesture for someone I guarantee would still be teaching there, and I'd still be yelling at her about grades, needing a degree and not wanting to be a gym teacher for the rest of your life," Ms. Sutton said.

Two years and counting

Documents obtained from city staff through public records requests don't offer any satisfactory explanation as to why a recognizable memorial has yet to materialize.

The sign for "Cate's Corner" is still on order, according to Community Services Director Cherise Brandell — two years after the instructor's death and one year after the new gymnastics center opened.

Ms. Brandell attributed the long delay to finalizing the center's interior decor, and said there was no plan for a plaque underneath the crepe myrtle tree.

But another staff email raised the question of whether this really has to do with Cate Fisher's mother, who was abruptly fired as a gymnastics instructor earlier this year:

"I don't like the idea of a tree (which would just keep Michelle coming around) and am really hesitant to place something permanent inside the building," Recreation Supervisor Noreen Bickle wrote to Ms. Brandell after the Almanac starting asking about the status of a memorial.

Ms. Bickle didn't respond to follow-up questions. Ms. Brandell said she was unaware of any concerns and that Ms. Sutton was welcome to be at the city's facilities like any member of the public.

According to the community services director, responsibility for getting a sign belonged to manager Pearce Wagner. When the Almanac asked him if that was the case, he declined to comment, referring the inquiry back to Ms. Brandell, who told the Almanac that question had been "asked and answered."

But a second records request showed that Mr. Wagner's responsibility for ordering the sign was news to him.

"I was unaware that we were moving forward with this memorial for Cate Fisher and I was under the impression that Karen (Mihalek) had previously been assigned that duty," he wrote in an email on Aug. 4. to Ms. Brandell. "I would love to see a memorial for Cate and feel that it is long overdue. If you would like me to order a sign I can do that."

Mr. Wagner had displayed a painting of Cate Fisher at the gymnastics center until he was told to take it down, according to the community services director, because the Arrillaga family's agreement to fund the new facilities included a clause that nothing should be displayed on the walls.

Last week the city installed a plaque on the wall in the gymnastics center that thanks the City Council and the Arrillagas for their work.

Michelle Sutton

Six days before she was fired, Ms. Sutton had asked the city's human resources department and union representatives about filing a harassment complaint against her supervisor, Ms. Mihalek. She said she was told that a parent's complaint about asked to step off the mat during a child-only class led to her termination.

The Almanac reviewed Ms. Sutton's personnel file at the city and found no documentation of any reprimands or other performance issues; however, the city isn't legally required to document disciplinary actions for at-will employees.

Fellow instructor Chris Ortez quit in protest over the firing, telling the city manager and the council that Ms. Mihalek held "none-too-discreet contempt" for Ms. Sutton and reportedly had a history of complaints filed by at least two female staff members "who have been harassed, intimidated, and/or otherwise bullied by her."

The city hired an outside investigator to review the allegations. A letter from City Manager Alex McIntyre to Ms. Sutton said the investigator concluded no illegal harassment or retaliation had occurred.

Without naming anyone, Mr. McIntyre's letter acknowledged that certain supervisors and employees sometimes interacted inappropriately with Ms. Sutton. He wrote that the city would address those incidents confidentially. Nevertheless, Ms. Sutton's termination, while handled in a manner that "may have been unpleasant," was appropriate, the letter said.

Now teaching gymnastics in Mountain View, Ms. Sutton said she was perplexed as to why anyone would be worried about her coming around Menlo Park's facility. Far from wanting to hang around, she drops her younger daughter off for lessons at a distance to avoid running into staff.

She worries that the memory of Teacher Cate has gotten lost in the acrimony.

"I wish people would set aside how they feel about me and do the right thing," Ms. Sutton said.

Memories of Cate Fisher

Below are comments from a memorial book for Cate Fisher, signed by the families of students she taught.

• "I still think about Cate every day. Our son thrived with her. He can be very challenging and Cate was able to work with him and motivate him. ...She was amazing."

• "(Our son) had Cate for kinder gym for 2 sessions. He would pick flowers from the park and bring them in for her. Cate would always make a big deal out of it, gushing and gushing. ... Cate had such a generous heart. ... She was such an important, loving teacher for (our son)."

• "To the wonderful, sparkling, generous, big-hearted Cate: in your short life, you enriched ours so much! You were a fixture on our Saturday mornings. ... You made every moment joyful with your natural warmth, ease, confidence, and playfulness."

• "(Cate) was a wonderful person with a very large heart. She always had a smile for the children, knew them all by name, and made every child feel special."

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