Payment Ends Mrs. Rogers' Ties to School

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 Sharon Rogers will not be returning to her fourth-grade teaching position at the La Jolla Country Day School.

Speaking at a news conference, the Rogerses sharply denounced the exclusive private academy for bowing to an apparent act of terrorism.

Under the terms of a severance agreement with the school, Sharon Rogers, a 12-year veteran teacher there, will receive a lump sum payment of $135,000, plus $5,000 for her attorney, and will not return to the campus, where school officials believe her presence would pose a risk to the safety of students and faculty.

The FBI has been investigating the van 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.

"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 staff that safety was the prime motivator in the school's decision that Sharon Rogers should 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."

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 following the attack.

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

Other than confirming that the explosive device was a pipe bomb, FBI agents 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 rear-ended, she had jumped from the vehicle 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.

The Rogerses were escorted to the press conference at a Mission Valley hotel by a large contingent of security officials from the Naval Investigative Service. When they sat down before the microphones, the security detail posted itself at both entrances to the room and in the parking lot.

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

Asked why the board agreed to pay her $135,000, when her current-year contract is for $32,400, 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."

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

"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."

He also said he sympathized with the intense media and community scrutiny his wife had 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.

While Mrs. Rogers said that recent events have dramatically changed her life, she said she plans to immediately 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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