Parents demand Menlo Park reinstate gymnastics teacher
City employees are often reminded that they work for the public — usually when the public wants the employee terminated. But in the case of a fired gymnastics teacher, the public wants her back at work.
Emails have flooded the Menlo Park City Council's inbox since parents learned that gymnastics teacher Michelle Sutton had been fired on Feb. 12. Menlo Park responded by deleting the emails, which are ordinarily archived as public records on the city's website, on grounds that they relate to a confidential personnel matter and could expose the city to a defamation lawsuit. The Almanac has maintained copies, however, including the original complaint that purportedly led to the termination.
Parent after parent wrote to say they would stay up past midnight to register their child online for Ms. Sutton's classes. They praised her rapport with kids and parents alike and described the firing as a "bait and switch" by the city, which didn't notify clients about the change in teachers or give the children a chance to say goodbye.
Lindsey Fisher's 3-year-old son has taken nine months of classes with the teacher. "Every day he wakes up and says, 'Is this my gymnastics day?'" she said.
The parents are mounting a campaign to get Ms. Sutton back. A Facebook group, "Bring Back Teacher Michelle," had 105 members within three days of launching.
Ms. Sutton was fired after one mother took exception to being asked to follow a gym policy that requires parents to step away during child-only classes, which require parents to stay off the mats, preferably watching from a viewing area. The program also offers parent-child participation classes.
The mother, Erika Boda, referred to Ms. Sutton's approaching her while class was in session as unprofessional, and her husband, David Maigret, emailed a complaint to the council on Jan. 30.
"It is really unfortunate what Michelle has done and she really owes my wife an apology and should be terminated — In my opinion. It is just a complete lack of judgement for a payed (sic) city employee," Mr. Maigret wrote.
The couple did not respond to the Almanac's multiple interview requests.
Ms. Sutton said the complaint did not accurately present her discussion with the mother, and in retrospect, would not change how she handled it.
While attempting to enforce the gym's policy she met "with strong resistance," Ms. Sutton said. "I would not have approached the situation differently; our gym polices are designed for the safety of all students and their family members."
Supervisor Karen Mihalek reprimanded her the day after the encounter took place, she said. Twelve days later Ms. Sutton was fired "for reasons that remain unclear to me and to the many parents who support me. A copy of my employee file was mailed to me with no other papers than those submitted at the start of my employment, despite being told that this letter of complaint was my undoing."
The Almanac, with Ms. Sutton's permission, reviewed her personnel file at the city's human resources department on Feb. 25. It contained a note regarding a pay raise she received in 2009, and the paperwork employees file upon starting work with the city. The file held no documentation of reprimands or any other disciplinary actions.
However, the city doesn't need a reason to terminate at-will employees, and is not legally obligated to document disciplinary actions in their personnel files, although employers often do as a safeguard.
The termination took place against a backdrop of conflict within the gymnastics program. Ms. Sutton told the Almanac that six days prior to being fired, she asked the city's human resources department how to file a complaint of harassment against her supervisor. Staff told her to contact the union liaison at the city; he then directed her to the representative who handled temporary employees, who didn't return her phone calls, she said.
Gymnastics program management directed the Almanac's inquires to the city's human resources director, who was unable to comment on personnel matters.
The Almanac interviewed four current and former employees of the Menlo Park gymnastics program; they asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. Each said that ongoing strife within the department contributed to the abrupt decision to fire Ms. Sutton, and that they were shocked to hear anyone claim she delivered poor customer service. One has quit in protest.
Ms. Sutton, on the other hand, wants to come back to the gym where she taught for five years — if the atmosphere improves. "I would love to return to the gym, to my position as instructor. The current gym environment is not ideal as this time. My best possible outcome, as it stands now, would be a return to good standing with the city of Menlo Park."
The gymnastics center holds special significance for Ms. Sutton: Her daughter, 19-year-old Cate Fisher, also taught at the gym before she was shot and killed in 2011.
"Because Cate was a beloved teacher for almost three years, I wasn't sure if I could ever return to the gym," Ms. Sutton told the Almanac. "(With) the immeasurable support I received from co-workers, especially that of Pearce Wagner, and the Menlo Park community, I was able to regain the joy of teaching. In addition to the love and support of my own family, these families kept me moving forward, often with optimism and happiness. Despite lacking job security and better pay, I had 200 reasons to look forward to going to work each week."