Parents sue elite schools for 'indoctrinating' their children with anti-racism curriculum - BNN Bloomberg (2023)

(Bloomberg) - When Jerome Eisenberg enrolled his daughter at the Brentwood School in Los Angeles, where Adam Levine met some of his Maroon 5 bandmates, the investment manager expected her to receive a traditional liberal arts education.

But after the killing of George Floyd, the $50,000-a-year school said it was reconsidering its purpose "with anti-racism in mind" and Diversity, Justice and Inclusion (DEI). According to Eisenberg, Brentwood was trying to lure the parents. He sued the school last year for breach of contract, civil rights violations and emotional distress.

"The curriculum change shifted away from teaching critical thinking skills — how to think — and began indoctrinating them in what to think based on Brentwood's current political fad," Eisenberg said in his lawsuit.

Brentwood managed to submit the lawsuit to private arbitration in November. A school representative declined to comment.

War on "Woke"

Republican politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have pushed legislation to limit teaching of gender, sexuality and racial identity in public schools. Private schools aren't subject to these laws, but that doesn't mean they're immune to the culture war. Conservative parents have expressed opposition in other ways, including filing lawsuits.

"Parents are increasingly interested in using the legal process to fight for their children in ways that just weren't as common before," said Sara Goldsmith Schwartz of Andover, Massachusetts-based Schwartz Hannum PC, which frequents private schools represents .

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David Pivtorak, an attorney for Eisenberg, also said he believes lawsuits against private schools over DEI have increased, but added that the actual number may be underestimated due to arbitration clauses like the one in Brentwood.

Others see a distortion. Jin Hee Lee, director of strategic initiatives at the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, said the legal and political battles fought paint a "misleading" picture of opposition to DEI orders.

"The majority of parents want their children to attend a diverse and inclusive school," Lee said, "and the majority of Americans understand that we have a very tragic legacy of slavery, Jim Crows and racial oppression that we still live with." have to contend with in this country.”

breach of contract

Parents determined to challenge private school teachings and policies face a number of obstacles. Public school parents may argue that the government is violating their First Amendment rights by forcing DEI or similar instruction on their children. Parents largely forego these rights when they enroll their children in private schools.

"Private schools are bound by their own policies and not by the US Constitution," said Jennifer Rippner, associate professor of law at Indiana University, Bloomington's School of Education.

When parents sue private schools, it's usually for breach of contract, says New Hampshire education attorney Linda Johnson, who represents independent schools and advises them on how to manage their legal risk. The process sometimes begins with "a 10-page, one-line letter addressing anything that the parents feel the school did wrong to justify a tuition refund," she said.

Many of the disputes stem from school discipline, Johnson said. In the current environment, that can have political undertones.

The Spence School in Manhattan, which costs $60,000 a year and is Gwyneth Paltrow's alma mater, was sued by Adam and Michelle Parker in 2019 after their daughter was fined for posting a text exchange on Instagram in which she and some friends joked about dressing up as enslaved and indigenous people for Halloween.

Her punishment was to "reflect at home" for half a day, and the school held several inter-class meetings to discuss what she had done, the Parkers' lawsuit says.

"False Narrative"

The Parkers say their daughter mocked racism, not flaunted it. They claim Spence disciplined the girl before she even saw the post and perpetuated a "false narrative" after they saw it. According to the lawsuit, the school admitted to the Parkers that it "made a mistake" and that Spence failed to convene a "community standards committee" as stipulated in her enrollment contract.

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The lawsuit was dismissed in 2020. Then, last year, a New York City appeals court reinstated a breach of contract lawsuit, dismissing allegations of defamation, defamation and emotional distress.

An attorney for Spence declined to comment, and the Parkers' attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

Johnson said lawsuits that narrowly focus on unequal or arbitrary disciplinary action could succeed. If the handbook provides guidelines for violations but doesn't include a disclaimer that "we retain the flexibility to deal with them as we see fit under the circumstances," the school could be legally exposed, she said.

Steven Ludwig, a Philadelphia-based education attorney, sees no viable legal avenue when it comes to parents challenging private school curriculums they believe are misguided. Finally the parents decided to send their children to this school.

"If someone doesn't like what's being taught, they can go somewhere else," Ludwig said.

To where?

It's not always that easy. Private schools that have instituted DEI are also often the ones with the best academic reputations and the best track record of placing graduates in the Ivy League and other elite colleges -- which in turn have been criticized as bastions of vigilance. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a well-known anti-DEI crusader, was accused of hypocrisy when it was revealed he had sent his daughters to a Houston preparatory school where DEI is taught.

Former investment banker Andrew Gutmann caused a stir two years ago when he wrote a letter to other parents at the Brearley School in Manhattan, urging them to reject Brearley's "racial obsession" and saying he would remove his daughter Lauren from the senior school take. where the tuition is about $60,000.

Brearley Principal Jane Fried sent an email calling the letter "deeply offensive and harmful" and reaffirming the school's commitment to being "inclusive" and "anti-racist".

Gutmann said in an interview that his family was "not looking for a conservative education." He said they "just want what anyone would call a traditional liberal arts education."

A Brearley representative did not respond to a request for comment.

"Parent Movement"

Since withdrawing Lauren from Brearley, it has been "almost impossible" to find a school that is academically challenging but not "politicized" for his daughter, Gutmann said. He tried a small private school in New Jersey and then another in Florida before deciding to homeschool them this year. He plans to send her to a British boarding school in the fall.

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Gutmann obviously has no regrets. He now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., and is even running for Congress on that issue, as a Republican in Florida's 22nd congressional district — which, he notes, includes Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate. His main campaign announcement begins with the narration of his letter to Brearley.

"My words were read by millions across America and helped ignite what we now call the parenting movement and the fight against waking education," Gutmann said in the announcement. He named other groups he said he was proud to call allies, including Moms for Liberty. The Florida-based parental rights group has been at the forefront of efforts to ban certain books and give conservatives control of school boards.

"Awake" to failure

"We have a nation that is now aware of the rampant educational failures happening in our schools and the fact that they have become centers of indoctrination rather than places of learning," said Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty.

Lee of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund believes the opposite is true.

"It's not like school districts and private schools are necessarily doing everything they should when it comes to racial justice or a more inclusive or representative curriculum," she said. "They should be doing more, but what little they are doing is now being attacked."

Although the efforts of Justice and other conservative activists are focused on public schools, Myra McGovern, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools -- whose membership includes Brentwood, Spence, Brearley and the Dalton School -- said private schools can't help but be impacted as well be.

"Every school across America, and in many ways around the world, is struggling with this increasing polarization," McGovern said.

Schwartz sees this in her Massachusetts law practice, too. With no complaints, private schools have had to deal with "an incredible increase in the intensity, rate, and volume of complaints in general from students, parents, and graduates," she said. "The world is at the end."

(Adds Lee's quote in last paragraph.)

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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