The Division on Civil Rights announced today that the private Waldorf School of Princeton will pay a learning-disabled student and her parents $58,000 to resolve allegations that it unlawfully discriminated when it expelled the girl, without prior notice, after seven years as a student because of her mother’s aggressive advocacy on her behalf.
In addition to paying the student and her parents, Waldorf has agreed under the settlement to review and revise its non-discrimination policy, provide training for all employees on addressing reasonable accommodation requests, and modify the school's records to remove any indication the girl was expelled.
As part of the settlement, Waldorf also has agreed to welcome the student back to participate in alumni events with the classmates who learned alongside her, and who would have comprised her eighth-grade graduating class had she remained at Waldorf. The girl is now enrolled in a public school system, where she reportedly completed the ninth-grade with an “A” average.
Waldorf provides education for children from early childhood through grade eight.
School officials told Division investigators that Waldorf’s curriculum is more artistic than most traditional public and private schools, and its method of instruction reflects a different view of child developmental stages. For example, the school does not routinely use text books or technology, and its students usually stay with the same classroom teacher from first through eighth grade.
The parents of the girl, whose name is being withheld by the Division because she is a minor, told investigators they were initially attracted by Waldorf’s emphasis on practical and fine arts. They enrolled their daughter as a first-grader for the 2005-2006 academic year, and moved from Union County to Princeton to be closer to the school.
When the girl was in third-grade, she was diagnosed as having a learning disability. For the next three years, her Individual Services Plan (ISP) – under the supervision of the same classroom teacher each year – included a number of accommodations such as “seat student near source of instruction and visual displays” and “allow extended time” for both classroom and standardized testing.
The student advanced each academic year, and at one point, the girl’s classroom teacher wrote a note thanking her mother for “working so hard with me to make her successful.”
With a switch of primary teachers in sixth-grade, however, things changed and there was less communication – particularly face-to-face communication -- between the student’s mother and her primary classroom instructor.
However, the girl still succeeded and advanced – despite some concerns noted by her new teacher regarding certain areas in need of improvement – and the student was the subject of positive overall assessments at the end of both her sixth and seventh grade years. Among other observations, the girl’s teacher said she had done well with vocabulary testing, continued to improve in math and was “incredibly artistic.” She finished the seventh grade with a B average.
Even during this period of overall success and advancement, however, there was an undercurrent of tension between the girl’s mother and the Waldorf staff, both sides agreed.
The education professionals at Waldorf chafed at what they viewed as an overstepping of boundaries by the mother, as well as what they perceived as an occasionally disrespectful – even abusive – tone of communication.
The mother, meanwhile, indicated disappointment with what she perceived as a reduction in communications by staff, a lessening of regard for her concerns, and a diminished amount of attention focused on her daughter’s needs.
Then in May 2012, despite providing re-enrollment paperwork and a financial aid package to fill out -- and despite noting in a written, year-end assessment that various accommodations “should be continued” for the girl in her final academic year -- the school wrote to her parents explaining that she would not be invited back for eighth grade.
The stated reason was that Waldorf was “not the appropriate environment” based on assessments by certain “outside evaluators.” However, there also was a reference to a “history of an unproductive relationship” with the mother, and a “lack of consciousness about appropriate boundaries” on the mother’s part.
In response, the girl’s parents offered -- as part of an extensive list of proposals for making the situation work -- to “remove ourselves from the scene” in favor of an appointed educational guardian. Waldorf declined. School officials sent an e-mail to the parents of the girl’s classmates announcing the decision.
The parents subsequently filed a formal complaint with the Division on Civil Rights alleging that their daughter had been expelled in retaliation for their engaging in protected activity -- advocating on behalf their disabled daughter.
The Division investigated and, in September 2014, issued a Finding of Probable Cause against Waldorf in which the Director wrote, “It appears that Waldorf engaged in a good faith interactive process with Complainants for six-and-a-half years until May 2012, when it unilaterally determined that a limit had been reached, and that no further accommodations of any sort would be provided.