Parents call for removal of city school principal Climate of fear, intimidation alleged

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A principal removed from a Southeast Baltimore elementary school in June after staff revolted against her has come under intense criticism at her new school, where parents and teachers say her conduct has created a climate of fear and intimidation.

Today, six weeks into Guinevere R. Berry's first school year at Lexington Terrace Elementary, critics portray her as a "dictator" whom many staff members refer to among themselves as "Dr. Barracuda."

In letters to top school system officials and in interviews, parents and teachers have complained that Dr. Berry is given to abusive tirades, often uses profanity in conversations with parents and in the presence of students, discourages parental involvement and threatens retribution against teachers who speak out.

In an interview yesterday, Dr. Berry denied all allegations and said she knew of no complaints until an assistant superintendent gave her a copy of a letter from the PTA.

"We're dealing with a group of parents who will say anything about anyone, whether true or not," said Dr. Berry, who moved to the 350-student Lexington Terrace from smaller General Wolfe Elementary.

"They're the kind of people who will lie about anybody or anything to try to get me out of the school because I won't let them do things that are not in the best interest of children," she continued.

Dr. Berry, a 35-year veteran of the school system declined to elaborate, however.

"I would like to be as positive about what's going on as I can," she said. "I don't want to point fingers. I don't think it does any good to say negative things about people."

Critics say the once-inviting school, across the street from the Lexington Terrace high-rise housing project, has become a contentious, forbidding place filled with demoralized people.

Already, the PTA says, about 20 parents have withdrawn their children from the school to get them away from the principal. One teacher, a 14-year veteran, has sought and received a transfer, and several others are seeking one and have complained to the Baltimore Teachers Union.

More than two dozen interviews with parents and teachers reveal a litany of complaints about Dr. Berry. Among them:

* Last month, while angrily confronting parents who had questioned her policies, she stood in the lobby of the school, began waving and pointing her right hand as if holding a gun and said, "I'll go home and get my big gun and -- 'pow-pow-pow' -- take care of the whole thing." Students, who had been streaming past at the end of the school day, heard the outburst. Some of them have since nicknamed the principal "Dr. Gunny Berry."

* She often launches into profanity-laden verbal attacks on parents, whom she refers to as "you people." She banned several parents from the school after they questioned her and called the police on one longtime volunteer when she came into the school.

* She threatens retaliation against teachers and parents who speak out about problems or question her decisions and has publicly criticized their clothing and physical attributes. Several teachers were forced to relocate to new classrooms, over their objections, just weeks after settling into their assigned rooms.

* She keeps essential equipment and supplies locked in a basement storage area and denies teachers access to it. This includes a television, a videocassette recorder, ditto and laminating machines, classroom materials, even toilet paper. Teachers bring it from home to stock the bathrooms.

* Over the objections of teachers and parents, she ordered children's artwork removed from the hallways, then removed furniture from an area that had been set aside for volunteers.

Dr. Berry's critics have taken their complaints to top school system officials but say they have yet to receive a response.

Velma Moseley, PTA president at the school, wrote letters this month to Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and Gary Thrift, an assistant superintendent. In them, she outlined complaints against Dr. Berry and demanded her removal.

Along with the letter to Dr. Amprey, hand-delivered to North Avenue headquarters Tuesday, Ms. Moseley included petitions from 80 parents seeking the principal's removal.

"It's been complete chaos since she came to this school. She came in and just completely stripped away all we worked to build," said Mrs. Moseley, the grandmother of five students at Lexington Terrace elementary. "They can't put a Band-Aid on cancer, and she's cancer at this school, poisoning it."

Mrs. Moseley said morale has plummeted to the point that two dozen of the estimated 40 staff members who responded to a PTA survey said they had "no confidence" in Dr. Berry's leadership.

Remaining staff members did not respond, PTA leaders say, because many of the feared reprisal if the principal got wind of their response to the anonymous survey.

"The bottom line is the children, and this climate hurts the children the most," Mrs. Moseley said.

The number of parent volunteers, once an active corps of 70 people who served as support staff in the school and helped plan activities and field trips, has dwindled to only a handful, the PTA says.

Teachers also say the new principal has left the staff demoralized.

"It's like our school has been made the dumping ground and the principal talks to us like we're dogs," said one teacher, who like others, asked that her name be withheld for fear of retribution. "I dreaded coming to work each day. I've never been like that."

Some teachers recalled a staff meeting in which they say the principal forced them to read aloud for more than two hours from a staff handbook she had written, and told them they "can't hide" and "if I want to catch you, I will."

Parents say they decided to go public after the incident in which Dr. Berry allegedly acted as if she were firing a gun.

"These children have to deal with guns and shooting and violence outside in the neighborhood, and when they come to school, they're supposed to be taught better," said one parent, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

But Dr. Berry called the account, included in a letter to Dr. Thrift, "complete fabrication" and added "I don't even know how to shoot a gun."

A few teachers, however, defended Dr. Berry.

One of them, Carla Robinson, said the principal is committed to raising standards at the school to improve perennially low standardized test scores.

"I have no complaints at all with her, and she's great to work with," said Ms. Robinson. She said parents had spread lies about Dr. Berry because "some people are just resistant to change."

Dr. Amprey said he had received the letters and the petitions and that he and Dr. Thrift would investigate the allegations. "I'm aware of the concerns, and we take these concerns very seriously and will investigate them thoroughly," he said.

The superintendent said he would await results of the investigation before commenting further. Dr. Thrift, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, is to meet with Dr. Berry and parents Monday.

The complaints came as no surprise to the Baltimore Teachers Union, said Linda Prudente, a union spokeswoman. The union received similar complaints during Dr. Berry's two-year tenure at General Wolfe, her first principal job, Ms. Prudente said.

"It seems that instead of removing the problem, the school system just moved it from one place to another," she said. "It's really a slap in the face if the powers-that-be at North Avenue [school headquarters] think they can make a problem go away just by moving it elsewhere."

Problem principals rarely are demoted in the city school system, but often are transferred to other schools as administrators strive for a better match between principal and school.

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