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Campus Dispute Comes to a Head

Controversy: Teacher's choice of hats leads to shuffling of special ed students, his removal.

October 10, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANNING — He swept into the desert a decade ago like Patch Adams on a renaissance kick. Next thing this Riverside County community knew, Bach and Beethoven were booming from John Maurer's special education classroom. There were Shakespeare performances, even a "Sonnet of the Day" club, and Maurer's disabled students were taking part right along with the rest of the school. To hear their parents tell it, life will never be easy for Maurer's students--but it sure was better.

And then, one day last spring, Maurer wore a hat to school, the wrong kind of hat, and the whole thing fell apart.

Maurer's relationship with school administrators has dissolved into a bitter dispute that seems to have begun with his choice of head wear and continues to separate him from his special education class.

The children, meanwhile, may be affected more than anyone. Not only have they been separated from their teacher, but they've been forced to change schools at least three times. Some of their parents say they now have to ride buses that take three hours, round trip, each day. One mother goes so far as to say she believes that the stress boiled over for her son--leading to a seizure from a heart condition that she said previously had never surfaced.

"He doesn't understand why his teacher isn't coming back," said the mother, Marcelle Shelton, a Cabazon resident whose 17-year-old son, Richie, suffers from a syndrome that attacks his nervous system. "He keeps asking me: 'Why? Why?' And I keep telling him: 'I don't know.' I think the whole thing is ridiculous."

Banning Unified School District Supt. Kathleen McNamara and Robert Nunez, the Riverside County Office of Education's assistant superintendent for personnel, declined to discuss the case, calling it a private personnel matter.

The saga began a year ago, when Maurer, now 56, was beginning his 10th year at Banning High School, between Beaumont and Cabazon along Interstate 10. A new principal, Dr. Jim Broncatello, had just arrived. With him, some teachers say, came a strict approach to education--and a policy that hats worn on campus could only be one of the school colors: white, black, green or yellow.

Maurer said he was unaware of the policy and showed up on campus one day wearing a beige hat.

Maurer said special education children, because of disabilities, often have a hard time getting enough exercise and can suffer from weight problems. So he tries hard to get them outside. To protect himself from the sun, he often wore the wide-brimmed beige hat.

Broncatello, Maurer said, asked him not to wear it anymore.

"He called me into his office," Maurer said. "And he called it a bonnet. A bonnet! He said: 'John, the bonnet is unacceptable.' "

Broncatello and other school officials declined to discuss the dispute.

Maurer said that at first he agreed not to wear the hat, and he began abiding by the policy by wearing a white hat.

"But it bothered me," he said. "It just got under my skin. Finally, I just said, 'Forget it.' "

In February, he wore a blue Dodgers hat to school. Broncatello spotted him again and reiterated the policy, Maurer said. And that, the teacher said, is when the silly turned serious.

Maurer had been preparing to put together a Shakespeare festival, and needed Broncatello's permission to use space at the school on weekends to rehearse. Suddenly, after the hat incident, Maurer said, the principal told him he was being stubborn and confrontational and then told him he couldn't have the rehearsal time he wanted.

Maurer's response the next morning: a red hat.

"Broncatello blew a gasket," alleged Mark Blankenship, Maurer's Riverside attorney.

"In my 29 years of education, you are the most unprofessional person I have ever met," Broncatello reportedly told the teacher, according to Maurer's lawsuit.

Within days, Maurer said, a truck "just backed up to my classroom." The special education program, he and the students were told, was being moved to the nearby Milo P. Johnson Center for Learning--a so-called alternative school that serves teenage parents and students who have been expelled from other schools.

After years of struggling to devise ways of bringing his students together in after-school activities, from drama clubs to piano recitals, Maurer said, the move to the new campus was devastating. He said his class was segregated and ostracized; his students had a separate lunch table.

Norm Diggs, principal at the Johnson Center, declined to comment, referring telephone calls to the Riverside County Office of Education, which had previously declined to discuss the case.

Under some interpretations, federal law requires educators to perform assessments on special education students before moving them. That wasn't done in this case, parents and Maurer's attorneys allege. Maurer was quick to point out that alleged failing to the parents of his 10 students, and they, by all accounts, threw a fit.

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