Reacting defensively to a White House comment about their treatment of Sharon Rogers, La Jolla Country Day School officials Thursday stressed that they had to let the popular fourth-grade teacher go because they feared for the safety of their students.
Early Thursday, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters during a routine press briefing in Washington that it was “very disturbing” that Mrs. 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 poses to all Americans.
Authorities are investigating the pipe-bombing of Sharon Rogers’ van March 10 as a possible terrorist reprisal act 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 headmaster 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.”
Country Day 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, and is even equipped with its own observatory and 16-inch telescope.
Officials said there is traditionally a long waiting list for parents to enroll their children in the 700-student school, where tuition runs about $6,000.
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 that both the Naval Investigative Service and the FBI declined requests to provide protection--including bomb-sniffing dogs to check classrooms and officers who could secure all entries to 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.
The hiring of a public relations expert comes as the school is besieged by local criticism and bad publicity following revelations this week that Mrs. Rogers intended to return to her classroom but was “terminated” by the La Jolla school.
Radio station XTRA on Wednesday and Thursday ran an editorial saying: “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.
“Lots of folks were agreeing with me that, when we think of La Jolla Country Day, we don’t think of words like ‘patriotism,’ ‘loyalty’ and ‘integrity,’ ” said Mark Williams, XTRA’s morning talk show host.
Gayle Falkenthal, executive producer of KSDO radio, said listeners calling their talk shows have been “overwhelmingly” in support of Sharon Rogers and upset with the actions of the school in firing her.
“People are concerned, angered and afraid,” she said.
The calls have been so vitriolic, she added, “that one person said the school should be renamed the ‘La Jolla Wimp School.’ ”
Falkenthal said public opinion seemed to view the school administrators as having caved in to terrorism.
Another target of callers’ venom, she said, was the media, which was blamed for sensationalizing the case.
“Callers said if the media hadn’t made such a big deal out of this, the situation wouldn’t be half as bad,” she said. Callers voiced their disgust with reporters who flocked to the school and “bugged and frightened kids” by trying to interview them after the van explosion.
Money Was a Factor
On Wednesday night, KFMB-TV Channel 8 sponsored a telephone poll that showed 77% of its callers objected to Mrs. Rogers’ dismissal from the school. 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?”
Although publicly school officials seized on the safety issue for their decision to let Mrs. Rogers go, an anonymous school official told The Times this week that financial considerations also held sway. Scared parents threatened to pull their children from the school, which charges at least $6,000 a head in tuition, the official said.
In his comments Thursday, Fitzwater referred to the question of whether Mrs. Rogers was fired or had left the school as part of a “mutual decision,” as originally announced by Country Day administrators.
“Part of the problem here is the school, as I understand it, denies they fired her, and I’m not sure what the facts of the case are.
“But, in a generic sense, this is a very unfortunate case, that’s for certain.”
Asked whether the fears about student safety were the entire issue of Mrs. Rogers’ dismissal, Fitzwater said:
“No, it’s not the whole issue. There are a lot of issues there. It’s a very complicated kind of matter that needs to be considered and sorted out. But there are a lot of issues there.”
In another development Thursday, Navy officials said that Capt. Rogers would be leaving the helm of the Vincennes in mid-May in a “routine shift” for a new assignment.
Cmdr. David Dillon said the change in assignment comes after Rogers completes his normal two years of service commanding the Vincennes. He is scheduled to take over as commander of the Tactical Training Group on Point Loma.
Navy Chief Petty Officer Craig Huebler said there is 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.”
Times staff writers David Lauter in Washington and Leonard Bernstein in San Diego contributed to this story.