Reacting defensively to a White House comment on their treatment of the wife of the skipper of the missile cruiser Vincennes, La Jolla Country Day School officials on Thursday stressed that they had to let the popular fourth-grade teacher go because they feared for the safety of their students.
Earlier Thursday, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters during a routine press briefing in Washington that it was “very disturbing” that Sharon Rogers would be dismissed from the exclusive private school shortly after a suspected terrorist pipe bomb exploded under her van.
“I think everyone would agree that it’s very disturbing to have anyone have their job affected by something that happens to them through these kinds of outside forces,” said Fitzwater, who at first was reluctant to discuss Mrs. Rogers’ fate at the school.
“We have to do everything possible to prevent terrorism. We need to be understanding about individuals. But certainly this is a disturbing case,” said Fitzwater, adding that President Bush had “deep concern” for Mrs. Rogers and the “larger threat” the bombing attempt posed to all Americans.
Authorities probed the pipe-bombing of Sharon Rogers’ van March 10 as a possible terrorist reprisal for the shooting down of an Iranian airliner, by mistake, over the Persian Gulf last July. Her husband, Capt. Will Rogers III, gave the order for the Vincennes to fire on the plane.
Country Day Schoolmaster Timothy Burns on Thursday responded to the White House comments with his first public statements since announcing Mrs. Rogers’ dismissal March 16.
“We share Mr. Fitzwater’s concern about Mrs. Rogers and the recent events affecting her life,” Burns said in a prepared statement. “The bombing of her van was a shock for all of us and did indeed present a disturbing case that our school had to address. The decision that Mrs. Rogers would not return to the La Jolla Country Day School campus was based on the ‘larger threat’ discussed by Mr. Fitzwater.
“The protection of children’s lives is our main concern,” Burns said. “The van she was driving on March 10 would have arrived at our school in five minutes.”
The school, spread over 24 acres in the heart of the affluent Golden Triangle section of La Jolla, is considered one of the San Diego area’s top private academic institutions, even equipped with its own observatory and 16-inch telescope.
Officials said there traditionally is a long waiting list for parents to enroll their children in the 700-student school where tuition runs about $6,000 per year.
A school official who asked not to be identified told The Times on Thursday that there was another consideration leading to Rogers’ dismissal. The official said both the Naval Investigative Service and the FBI declined to provide protection for the school for as long as the school thought necessary.
The school has hired a public relations consultant to handle “damage control” by arranging a series of meetings next week between reporters and school officials to get the Country Day side of the story out.
Meanwhile, The Times has also learned that Mrs. Rogers continues to consult with the substitute teacher who has taken over her fourth-grade class, and sends in lesson plans for her former students.
The hiring of a public relations expert comes as the school is increasingly the target of criticism and bad publicity locally after revelations this week that Mrs. Rogers’ intended to return to her classroom but was “terminated” by the La Jolla school.
Radio station XTRA said in an editorial Wednesday and Thursday: “Shame on you, La Jolla Country Day! Shame on you for not supporting your fine teacher Mrs. Rogers in her time of need. Your callous treatment of the Rogers family in the name of concern for the children of La Jolla Country Day was just plain wrong and a public relations nightmare.”
Outspoken callers to its morning talk show were running 80% opposed to how Country Day administrators handled the problem, station spokesmen said.
On Wednesday night, KFMB-TV Channel 8 sponsored a telephone poll that showed 77% of its callers objected to Mrs. Rogers’ dismissal. In a heavy response to the pop poll, 3,091 callers responded to the question: “Do you feel Sharon Rogers should have been dismissed from her teaching job?”
In another development Thursday, Navy officials said that Capt. Rogers would leave the helm of the Vincennes in mid-May in a “routine shift” for a new assignment as commander of the Tactical Training Group on Pt. Loma.
Navy Chief Petty Officer Craig Huebler said there was no connection between the new assignment and the bombing of Sharon Rogers’ van. “He was already scheduled to get this change,” Huebler said. “This had nothing to do with what happened here.”
David Lauter in Washington and Leonard Bernstein in San Diego contributed to this story.