Menlo Park: Letter sheds light on firing of gymnastics teacher | July 10, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - July 10, 2013

Menlo Park: Letter sheds light on firing of gymnastics teacher

by Sandy Brundage

While the city said the public was not entitled to learn the outcome of an investigation into allegations of harassment and a toxic workplace environment in its gymnastics program, a letter from Menlo Park City Manager Alex McIntyre to the former employee who made the accusations sheds some light.

The Almanac was able to read a copy of the letter, which reminds Michelle Sutton, the popular gymnastics instructor whose abrupt firing lies at the heart of the uproar, that she had been an at-will, temporary and part-time employee who could, therefore, be terminated at any point.

The letter says the investigator, after interviewing 18 people, concluded the instructor had not been illegally harassed or fired in retaliation for trying to file a complaint about her supervisor.

Without naming anyone, Mr. McIntyre's letter acknowledges that at times, certain supervisors and employees interacted inappropriately with Ms. Sutton. He wrote that the city would address those incidents confidentially.

Nevertheless, her termination, while handled in a manner that "may have been unpleasant," was appropriate, the letter says.

When the Almanac asked Ms. Sutton about the letter, she seemed to be taking its contents in stride. "I'm confident that a resolution is forthcoming," she said on July 5.

The exact nature of that resolution remains to be seen. It does not appear to include returning to Menlo Park to teach; the instructor said she's greatly enjoying her new position and expanded hours at Gold Star Gymnastics in Mountain View.

A complaint Ms. Sutton filed in May with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) continues working its way through the system. A DFEH spokesperson said that its investigation could take nine to 12 months.

The week before she was fired, the instructor had asked the city's human resources department and union representatives about filing a harassment complaint against supervisor Karen Mihalek. Ms. Sutton was then terminated on Feb. 12.

She said she was told that a parent's complaint led to her termination. The complaint, emailed publicly to program management and to the City Council on Jan. 30, described the instructor as unprofessional in how she had asked the parent to step away during a child-only class.

The Almanac found no documentation of reprimands or other performance issues in her personnel file. Since Ms. Sutton was an at-will employee, however, Menlo Park isn't required by law to document disciplinary actions, although employers often do as a safeguard.

Fellow instructor Chris Ortez quit in protest over her firing and later told 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.

Mr. McIntyre could not be reached for comment before the Almanac's press deadline. Previously the city has declined to comment on the investigation, citing employee confidentiality.


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