Rogers Won't Return to Country Day School : Teacher, Husband Say Administrators Bowed to Terrorism; She Gets $135,000 in Severance

Times Staff Writer

In their first public appearance since the March 10 bombing of their van on a La Jolla street, Navy Capt. Will Rogers III and his wife, Sharon, said Friday that she will not return to her fourth-grade teaching position at La Jolla Country Day School.

The Rogerses, speaking at a news conference, sharply denounced the exclusive, private school for bowing to what apparently was an act of terrorism.

Under a severance agreement, Sharon Rogers, who taught 12 years at the school, will receive a lump sum of $135,000, plus $5,000 for her legal fees, and will not return to the campus, where school officials believe her presence would pose a risk to students and faculty.

The FBI has been investigating the bombing as a possible reprisal for Capt. Rogers' order to shoot down an Iranian passenger jet that neared his ship, the guided missile cruiser Vincennes, in the Persian Gulf last summer. All 290 people aboard the plane were killed.

'Simply Just Disappointed'

"Over the past weeks, I have felt many different emotions, but today I am simply just disappointed," said Sharon Rogers, fighting back tears. "More disappointed than I can possibly express. I will miss my relationship with the school. But most of all I will miss my students and their courageous and thoughtful parents."

Both Capt. Rogers and his wife said they believe the van bombing was an act of terrorism. Mrs. Rogers added that the school, by barring her from campus, was sending out a message that it was bowing to terrorism.

"I feel very sad for our country," she said.

Bernie Fipp, president of the school's board of trustees, said in a letter Friday to the school's parents and staffers that safety was the prime reason for the school's decision that Mrs. Rogers not return to teach her fourth-graders.

"The school believed and continues to believe that Sharon's presence on campus would pose an unreasonable risk to the children at the school," Fipp said. "The school believes that the presence of the 24-hour federal protection now being offered to Sharon is evidence of the risks involved."

School Action Criticized

The school, with 700 students and 67 teachers, has been the subject of intense criticism, both in San Diego and across the country--including a pointed comment from the White House--in the weeks since the attack.

One of the toughest questions facing the school administration was why it moved so quickly to remove Sharon Rogers from the faculty, without waiting to see whether the FBI determines that the bombing was indeed a terrorist act.

Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, other than confirming that the explosive device was a pipe bomb, have declined to reveal the status of their continuing probe.

Sharon Rogers was not injured in the van blast. Feeling a jolt and thinking that her van had been hit from behind, she had jumped from the van moments before it was engulfed in flames. But she described that incident as a "life-altering event," highlighted by the ensuing battle over whether she would be allowed to return to her job.

Sharon Rogers and her husband were escorted to the press conference at a Mission Valley hotel by a large contingent of security officials from the Naval Investigative Service. She wore a red dress and he wore a blue blazer and red slacks. When they sat down before the microphones, the security officers posted themselves at both entrances to the room and in the parking lot as well.

Sharon Rogers maintained that the school would be secure with her there because of the added NIS protection.

"I think they would be very safe with the NIS agents there," she said.

Timothy M. Burns, the school's headmaster who came under sharp criticism from some parents and teachers over his handling of the Rogers affair, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Richard Roth, a Pasadena public relations specialist hired by the school, said the 18-member board's vote Friday morning "was not unanimous but overwhelmingly in favor of approval" of the decision to sever ties with Sharon Rogers.

He said that the headmaster normally approves or rejects teaching contracts without board action.

"But this was not a contract issue," Roth said. "This was a legal issue, and it's appropriate for the board to take up matters of legal consideration."

Asked why the board agreed to pay her $135,000, when her current contract is for $32,400 annually, Roth said:

"We want to avoid a legal action. Instead of paying legal fees (from a lawsuit), we believe it is more appropriate to provide Sharon with this compensation."

After the bombing, the school told Mrs. Rogers not to return to the campus for the rest of this school year. Faced with criticism for making her a victim a second time, the school offered her two contract options for the school year beginning in September. Both were contingent on being assured that safety concerns could be met.

Sharon Rogers submitted a counterproposal, asking for $200,000 over five years if she were prevented from returning to school because of safety concerns.

Capt. Rogers said he is disappointed in the way the school treated his wife. But he said he is proud of the way she held up after suffering the horror of having a terrorist "light a fireball under her van."

"She's a lady of iron," he said, placing his arm around her shoulders whenever she choked back tears. "There's a lot of grit here."

Both Sharon Rogers and her husband said they are convinced that the bombing was a terrorist strike.

"I think that someone in the dead of night put a bomb on the undercarriage of my van, and, whoever that person was, is a terrorist," Sharon Rogers said.

Her husband added: "I think they will run aground, and they will be brought to justice. Whether it's a state-sponsored act or an individual act or a disgruntled sailor, whatever it will be, it will all come to light.

"Even if it's a high school kid experimenting with a PVC bomb or the Revolutionary Guard, the problem is there. It's terrorism, no matter how you cut it."

But he said he had fully expected the school to welcome her back.

He also said he sympathizes with his wife for the intense media and community scrutiny she has faced.

"I had the misfortune of being at the center of my 15 minutes of fame earlier," he said, referring to his decision to shoot down the Iranian plane.

"But time does heal a lot of things. And you take a step at a time. So I was very disappointed when the reaction on the part of the school occurred."

Although Mrs. Rogers said recent events have dramatically changed her life, she said she plans to begin seeking work at another school in the San Diego area.

"I'm going to start pounding the pavement next week," she said. "I'm going to update my resume and hit the bricks on Monday."

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