Thursday, April 18, 2019

Child welfare in New York City: Fieldston’s failure

Parents of a biracial 6th grader complain about discrimination at the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools. The posh private school allegedly retaliates with a false allegation of child abuse. When the family sues, the school attacks the family in a mass email.

The school says everything it did was legal. But was it ethical?

 By Richard Wexler, NCCPR Executive Director* 

The Fieldston Middle School
The Fieldston School, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, one of the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools (ECFS), is one of those private schools that the New York City tabloids like to refer to as “posh” or “tony” or “ritzy.”  (The New York Times tends not to do this, probably because a lot of Times journalists send their children to Fieldston.) These adjectives tend to make alumni cringe. They also happen to be accurate. 

            I know this because I’m one of those alumni (class of 1972).  My relationship with the school has always been ambivalent.  While I was there, the school and I had a prolonged difference of opinion over which of us was underachieving.  But never in the nearly 47 years since I graduated have I been as ashamed of Fieldston than I am right now.  But not, perhaps, for the reason those who have read about the school lately may think.

            If the name of the school seems familiar it’s probably because in March students of color and their allies took over a building and locked administrators out.  The immediate cause was the failure of the administration to respond adequately to a racist video, but that was only the final straw.  Other concerns go far deeper (you can read about it all here).  The administration agreed to all of the student demands, and a geyser of conciliatory rhetoric has burst forth in emails to “the school community” from the administration, particularly Head of School Jessica Bagby.

            But months earlier, Fieldston did something far worse than the way it handled the racist video.  At least the video was initiated by a couple of students. The earlier incident involves actions of staff and administrators, including Bagby.  And this time Bagby’s rhetoric has rubbed salt into a family’s wounds.

            The family alleges that, in retaliation for their raising issues involving racial bias, Fieldston filed a false allegation of child abuse against them; causing enormous trauma for the child and his younger sibling.   Then, after the family sued, the school attacked the family in a mass email.

            The school denies any retaliation or racial bias.  It uses the same justifications authorities always use when families are harmed by false allegations, justifications that boil down to: We were just trying to keep children safe and anyone who wants to call us out doesn’t care about child safety.  In fact, though of course it wasn’t their intent, if anyone made children less safe it was a person or persons at the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools.  All of the time, money and effort wasted on the false allegation initiated by someone at ECFS was, in effect, stolen from finding some other child in real danger.

            Unfortunately, it is not unusual for schools to use reports alleging child abuse as leverage during disputes with parents.

            But Fieldston styles itself as a cut above other schools, especially when it comes to ethics. “Ethical” after all, is the school’s first name.
Founder Felix Adler said the goal of the
Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools is
"to put it boldly, to train reformers."

            Fieldston is a school that prides itself on being a leader in “progressive” education. It is a school whose stated mission is to “inspire … ethical individuals who aim to make the world more humane and just.” It is a school whose founder, Felix Adler, declared that its mission is “to put it boldly, to train reformers.” Yet late in 2017, the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools unleashed on one of its own students and his parents the full power of a system – child protective services – with almost no checks and balances, a system that regularly runs roughshod over due process and civil liberties, a system that is permeated with racial and class bias. 

At best, the reasons presented by administrators reflect a disturbing ignorance of how much harm can be done to children by a child abuse investigation.  At worst - and this is what the family alleges -- it was a deliberate act of racial discrimination and retaliation.

But Fieldston doesn’t just defend its behavior in this one case.  A school which just saw one of its buildings occupied because of its insensitivity to racism now offers enthusiastic endorsement of a massive system of reporting of families to child protective services  – a system so rife with racial and class bias that a recent study found that a majority of African-American children will be caught in its net at some point during their childhoods.  (And by the way, a system put in place with no scientific evidence of effectiveness.)

To what extent does that bias in child abuse reporting extend to Fieldston’s “grassy banks and wooded ways”? (That’s from the school song.)  One of the questions I posed in an email to Bagby was how many times during the 2017-2018 school year employees of ECFS called the state child abuse hotline – and the racial breakdown of the alleged victims.  The school did not reply.

But a school truly committed to progressive values, a school dedicated to training reformers, would be fighting to reform this system, not extolling it. 

           Imagine if a school that proclaims itself a champion of social justice allowed its security guards to stop-and-frisk a Black student without cause.  Then, in addition to defending the individual guard, the school proclaimed that stop-and-frisk is essential to public safety for the entire nation and any complaint about it risks jeopardizing this vital part of law enforcement.  That is analogous to Fieldston’s behavior in this case.

            Last month, a judge denied Fieldston’s motion to throw out the suit before trial.  The school has appealed.  After I contacted Bagby by email with a series of specific questions and a request to see any documents the school wanted to share, she passed my request on to the school’s lawyer.  He provided Fieldston’s brief for the school’s appeal.  But he said “it would not be appropriate for me to provide other details at this time.”

The case

            In the fall of 2017, Columbia University Professors Hillary Hallett and Chris Brown were looking forward to sending their son, whom I’ll call Adam (not his real name) to Fieldston.  Prof. Brown took a second job so the family could afford the $53,000 tuition.  Brown says that Adam, too, was “really excited about the opportunity to go there.” He’d done extra work and “invested a lot of hope and enthusiasm.”

            But that would change quickly.  Except as otherwise noted, all of the following are allegations from the lawsuit:

            The problems began shortly after Adam, who is biracial, enrolled in sixth grade. Adam was upset when another biracial student told him a white classmate he’d known before coming to Fieldston -- and thought of as a friend  -- had made racist comments. Adam asked his white friend what had happened.  In addition, Prof. Hallett complained to the school about practices she felt encouraged segregation.

            Then, in November 2017, the white child’s parents complained to the school about their son being questioned by Adam.

            Shortly after, Adam injured his arm while playing football during recess.  The injury was minor.  His parents did everything asked of them by their own pediatrician and by Fieldston, and Fieldston had full documentation for this.  Furthermore, the parents had signed forms allowing the school itself to obtain medical care for Adam if he never needed it and contact information for Adam’s doctors.

            But a few days later, someone at the school reported Adam’s parents to the New York State Child Abuse Hotline, alleging that the parents failed to properly respond to the injury and also that Adam had twice arrived at school hungry – notwithstanding the fact that the school provides breakfast to every student who wants it.  (Let me confess here and now:  There were days when I skipped breakfast before heading to Fieldston – and back then you could not get breakfast at the school. Nevertheless, my parents were never reported as alleged child abusers.)

            Three days after the call to the hotline, at 8:30 p.m., the family found at their door a caseworker from New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).  The worker said ACS had received a report from someone at Fieldston. Adam was put through all the inherent trauma of a child abuse investigation.  He was left emotionally distraught; terrified that he would be taken from his parents.

The report was wrong

            Perhaps it was just coincidence that a report based on so little was phoned in to the hotline  But this much we know for sure: The report was wrong.
just days after the parents started complaining about things that were happening at the school.

            We know this because the ACS caseworker declared the case unfounded.  In New York you have to be demonstrably innocent for that to happen. 

In New York, as in every other state, a finding that abuse or neglect is “substantiated” (in New York the term is “indicated”) does not require a trial.  It does not require both sides to present evidence, and it does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  It doesn’t even mean that the worker has to think it is slightly more likely than not that abuse occurred.

            In New York “indicated” means only that a caseworker believes that there is “some credible evidence” of abuse or neglect. Even if there is more evidence of innocence, the worker is supposed to check that “indicated” box.  But in this case – and, indeed, in more than 60 percent of cases investigated by ACS, there was not even “some credible evidence,” so the case was deemed unfounded.

Prof. Brown said in an interview that the family pediatrician was “horrified” that Fieldston had rushed to call the hotline.  “She could not understand why the school had not talked to her first.” 

            The only abuse suffered by Adam was the emotional abuse of the investigation, an investigation initiated needlessly and, the parents allege, maliciously, by the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools.

The damage done 

            The ACS investigator interrogated Adam, and a younger sibling.  He physically examined them and photographed them.  The next day, the investigator showed up at Fieldston to interrogate Adam again.

            But first, according to the lawsuit, his Fieldston guidance counselor pulled him out of class to talk to him.  At age 12, Adam was old enough to understand what ACS can do.  He told the counselor he was terrified of being taken away from his parents. 

Initially that fear caused sleep disturbances.  Then, as the school year progressed Adam suffered from what his mother describes in an email as “a cascading series of psychosomatic symptoms at school.”  There were headaches and stomach aches.  He began seeing a therapist to help him cope.

            One day in January, 2018, Adam experienced chest pain at school – but he wouldn’t tell anyone at Fieldston – because, the suit says, he was afraid it would lead to “further retaliation against the family.”  The chest pains got worse, and by the time he got home they were so bad the family had to seek emergency medical treatment.

            He wasn’t the only one who was fearful. One day Adam had some slight swelling near his eyes because of a mosquito bite.  Concerned about further retaliation, Adam’s father, Prof. Brown, got a note from Adam’s pediatrician explaining what happened – and delivered it personally to an assistant principal.

            Later that day Adam’s science teacher notified his mother, Prof. Hallett, that Adam appeared upset.  She called the guidance counselor to ask her to let him speak to Adam to be sure he was o.k. But, the lawsuit says, the counselor would only let Adam talk to his mother on speakerphone – so the counselor could monitor the conservation.
            Through it all, Adam never knew who, exactly, had called the hotline. So he felt he could trust and confide in no one at Fieldston’s middle school.  Eventually, an agreement was reached that when he had a problem he would see the nurse or counselors at Fieldston Lower – the elementary school on the same campus.

            Repeatedly, the parents allege, they would ask for help so Adam could better cope with the stress caused by the false allegations and its effect on his schoolwork. They say they got none.  Says Prof. Hallett: “They never showed any interest in the welfare of a newly 12-year-old kid who was brand new to the school and navigating the pressures of just starting middle school.”  Prof. Brown says the school “just left him kind of dangling.”

            The parents think the school wanted to be rid of the family – and in that much, they have succeeded.

            But not before the family filed their lawsuit.

The school’s response

            It’s worth comparing the immediate response to that lawsuit to the response to the recent student protests.

            After the group called #StudentsOfColorMatter occupied a building and issued their demands, gained a ton of well-deserved support and generally created a p.r. nightmare for Fieldston, Bagby, the Head of School, went into full conciliation mode – praising the protestors and putting enormous emphasis on the need for civility.

            In one email to the entire “school community” – students, parents, faculty and alumni – she wrote about the need for “…eschewing within our own school community the sanctimony and mean-spiritedness of our current national discourse that resorts to attacks on individuals” and stressing the need to avoid branding anyone with “labels and reprisals from which they cannot recover.” 

            Compare that to the email Bagby sent to the same “school community” in late March, 2018, right after the family filed its lawsuit.  Bagby contented that the school was simply acting in accord with state law which makes educators “mandated reporters” of child abuse. 

But New York State law does not require even mandated reporters to report anything and everything.  It requires them to report only when they have “reasonable cause to suspect” abuse or neglect. 

Bagby then declares that the demonstrably racially biased system of mandatory reporting “is vital to the safety and security of students across the country.”  Again, to see the problem with this, substitute “stop-and-frisk” for “mandated reporting.”

But even with that, had Bagby simply claimed the school had no choice, was following the law, and supporting child safety she would have been wrong, but at least the tenor of the email would have been in keeping with her own later statements about civility.  But she didn’t stop there.  She wrote:
 While the family has now filed a lawsuit, you should be assured that our school's child safety policies will not be compromised. We are saddened that anyone in our community would try to undermine this important system with a baseless lawsuit that puts profiteering ahead of students' safety.

            So now, a 12-year-old boy gets to read that he and his parents are engaging in “profiteering” in an email to the entire “school community.”  He can read a similar statement from the school in a story about the case in the New York Post.

            That prompted the family to amend their lawsuit to add a claim for libel.  In its response Fieldston denies that the statement about “profiteering” is libelous under New York State law.  But my concern, as an alumnus of the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools is not just whether the statement was legal. My concern is: Was it ethical?

           Even if a court rules that the statement was not libelous, it was still gratuitous, cruel and unworthy of an “ethical culture” school.

            The very first sentence of Fieldston’s appellate brief declares that “This case is an assault on the mandatory reporting system that protects children in New York against potential abuse and mistreatment.”  In fact, the suit is nothing more than an attempt to seek redress to the harm done to one child by one school’s alleged abuse of the system.

            But more disturbing to me is the fact that, over and over and over Fieldston’s brief doesn’t just defend but extols the “mandatory reporting system.”  Again, substitute “stop-and-frisk” and you can see the problem. 

            By the way, there is no actual scientific evidence that mandatory reporting improves child safety.  The laws were passed decades ago, with no study, in the midst of a wave of hysteria over child abuse.  As the National Research Council explained in 1998:

“Mandatory reporting requirements were adopted without evidence of their effectiveness; noreliable study has yet demonstrated their positive or negative effects on the health and well-being of children at risk of maltreatment, their parents and caregivers and service providers.”

So there is actually no scientific evidence in support of Bagby’s claim that the mandatory reporting system “is vital to the safety and security of students across the country.”

And if this system really makes children safe, how, exactly, is Adam safer now than he was before he enrolled at Fieldston?

“The impact on him is lasting,” says Prof. Brown. “And the impact on our family has been lasting.  It’s hard for me to imagine a white family being treated the same way.”

            Indeed, to the extent that anyone wound up jeopardizing safety here it was a person or persons at ECFS.  Caseworkers at ACS, like their counterparts in most of the country, constantly complain about being overloaded.  When there are high-profile tragedies, it’s almost always because of that overload.  False allegations divert workers from real child abuse in the same way false alarms divert firefighters from real fires.  

            So truly keeping children safe, truly allowing “this important system” to function well, requires that mandated reporters know when to report and when not to report. In New York, that means reporting when there is “reasonable cause to suspect” abuse or neglect.  I have seen nothing to indicate that this case qualifies.

The school’s defense on appeal

            Since Fieldston declined to provide any response beyond a legal brief, I know only its response concerning the law.  Fieldston’s legal defense boils down to this:

            Yes, state law says you can’t make a malicious false report of child abuse. But state law also protects the identity of reporters.  So even if a report was made maliciously, unless you happen to know who did it, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it!  In this case, the family argues that a number of school officials share responsibility. Fieldston says only the person who made the actual phone call is responsible, the family doesn’t know who that is – so tough luck. (And, of course, they say, this Catch-22 is vital to keep children safe.)

            In fact, it is for just this reason that, for decades, NCCPR has proposed an exception to reporter confidentiality when a family can persuade a judge that a report was, in fact, malicious.  One would think a school committed to civil liberties and racial justice would embrace such a proposal.

            But again, to this alumnus even if Fieldston is legally right, that’s not good enough.  The question is: Is Fieldston ethically right?

            Asked what he thinks of Fieldston now, Prof. Brown quotes one of the students who took part in the recent protests: “The school is not the place it pretends to be.”

*-I write all of the posts on this blog, but in this case, I thought a byline was appropriate