As two dozen protesters outside Lexington Terrace Elementary denounced the principal as a "dictator" yesterday, she dismissed them as bitter parents angered by her refusal to let them "take control" of the school.
Principal Guinevere R. Berry asserted that parent volunteers at the school launched their attack mainly because she stopped giving them free lunches, ordered them to stop spending days in the school "socializing" and denied their request for regular religious meetings there.
The free lunches, provided to volunteers at the school for years, violated school system policy -- and sometimes meant children got no lunches because parents ate their food, the principal said during an interview inside the school.
Religious meetings at the school would be unconstitutional, she said, and the parents' gatherings inside the school often disrupted students.
"They have had free run of this building, and they wanted to take control of the school," said Dr. Berry, who had been transferred to Lexington Terrace over the summer from General Wolfe Elementary, where the staff revolted against her. "Some of what they do is anti-children," added Dr. Berry, a 35-year veteran of the school system.
Dr. Berry's comments came in response to an onslaught of criticism from some parents who have called for her ouster.
In letters to top school officials and in interviews, critics claimed she 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.
Dr. Berry, who denied all the claims, said the vehemence of the criticism surprised her. "It's been terrible," she said. "How much can you do in six weeks? How bad can I be six weeks into the school year?"
Outside the two-story, brick school across from the Lexington Terrace high-rise project, the protesters carried signs reading "The principal must go," "Berry means Barracuda" and "You can't put a Band-Aid on cancer."
"Dr. Berry has no respect for parents at all, and that's why today we are asking for her immediate removal from this school and from all public schools," said Velma Moseley, the PTA president. "We need her to be removed from office. Put her [at school headquarters] on North Avenue, not in a school."
In letters hand-delivered yesterday to Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and Gary L. Thrift, an assistant superintendent, Ms. Moseley demanded Dr. Berry's immediate removal while officials investigate the allegations against the principal. She said Dr. Berry's continued presence at the school would hamper the investigation because many teachers fear retaliation if they speak out against her.
The PTA president also requested that an investigator from school system headquarters be appointed to look into the claims.
Ms. Moseley and other critics said they did not trust Dr. Thrift to investigate the charges adequately because of his "failure to properly address these and similar problems" about Dr. Berry last school year at General Wolfe, her first principal job.
Dr. Berry's critics declined an invitation to meet with Dr. Berry and Dr. Thrift yesterday afternoon, demanding instead a meeting with Dr. Amprey or another official from school system headquarters.
Dr. Thrift spent much of the day yesterday interviewing teachers and other staff at the school, and met with several dozen parents whom he said supported the principal.
He said he heard no complaints about Dr. Berry yesterday resembling those that have been expressed by the PTA president, some teachers and parents, 80 of whom have signed petitions calling for Dr. Berry's removal.
Efforts to reach Dr. Amprey last night were unsuccessful.