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Elite NYC private school faces gay rights lawsuit

Speyer Legacy School in New York
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A former administrator of a roughly $40,000-per-year New York City private school for gifted children filed a lawsuit last week claiming his contract was not renewed because he is gay. But people connected to the Speyer Legacy School say it is an LGBT-inclusive environment and the administrator’s sexual orientation had nothing to do with his departure.

In a city where the one percent jostle for the opportunity to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for elementary school, Speyer stands out for its focus on “accelerated learners.”

A “group of high-powered mothers” that includes Malena Belafonte, the daughter-in-law of singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte,started the K-8 school in 2009, according to the New York Times. (Belafonte declined to comment on the lawsuit and referred questions to the school. “We just launched our fashion platform, which is what we are focusing on,” she said.)

But despite its powerful benefactors, Speyer is relatively new, and the high-stakes lawsuit could hurt its reputation and cause parents to opt for the school’s older, more established competitors — especially if the allegations are true.

Alan Cohen, 63, served as the assistant head and head of the lower school, grades K-4, for about a year, ending in June 2016.

Cohen told The Huffington Post he has been an educator for more than 30 years, and was attracted to the job because of the opportunity to work exclusively with gifted children, a population that has been “swept under the rug,” he said. “These are our future leaders.” (New York City offers a public school program for gifted kids, but there are not enough slots for qualified applicants.)

But Cohen soon encountered problems at Speyer, according to his lawsuit. Cohen claims that Barbara Tischler, the head of the school, met with him last fall to discuss a report she received from the school psychologist that a staff member was asking about Cohen’s sexual orientation.

Cohen was upset that he was being asked this, but acknowledged he was gay, according to the lawsuit. (Tischler did not respond to requests for comment.)

Cohen says staff members discussed his sexual orientation and the wife of a board member offered to set him up on a date.

In the lawsuit, he cites a case in which a staffer he says it was “common knowledge” was gay was up for a promotion, but Tischler allegedly suggested Cohen talk to the staffer about how she could dress more feminine.

Cohen claims to have seen a document in March showing his contract was going to be renewed and he was getting a 3 percent raise.

But the next month, he says, his contract was not renewed. He says Tischler told him he was “not a good fit,” which came as a shock, because he says he had only received positive feedback about his work. He claims he was replaced with a female teacher who is married to a man and has “far less experience.” (This person only holds an interim position, according to the school’s website.)

Cohen said it was not one person at the school who had a problem with his sexual orientation, but instead “systemic.” The school “was not progressive” in “any form or fashion,” he later added.

But current and former employees of the school, who asked to remain unnamed because of pending litigation, disagree with that characterization.

A senior administrator at Speyer who identifies as LGBT told HuffPost that she has never felt discriminated against because of her sexual orientation. “They’ve never mistreated me, they’ve always respected me and they value me as a person,” she said.

A former Speyer administrator who also identifies as gay said the school was happy to have her openly out because she provided a role model for students who may be exploring their sexual orientation.

When her son was born, her wife received a “lovely basket” with onesies and other baby gifts, her family was invited to school events, and she felt like her performance was judged on its merits, she said.

“It’s really a wonderful place,” she added. “That’s an emphasis that they have. It’s important that kids feel safe, and you can’t help kids feel safe unless the grown-ups feel safe.”

If Cohen’s allegations prove true, the discrimination would be a “clear violation” of New York City and New York State Human Rights Laws, said Samuel Bagenstos, a law professor at the University of Michigan, in an email. Under federal law— which is not implicated in this case — the issue is less settled. The EEOC says discriminating against people due to their sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the courts haven’t fully resolved whether they agree, Bagenstos added.

The burden of proof will still be on Cohen to show he was intentionally discriminated against based on the fact that he’s gay, said Merrick Rossein, a law professor at CUNY. The second stage would “require the school to come forward with a legitimate non-discriminatory reason” his contract was not renewed, Rossein added.

“This, for me, is putting my integrity on the line,” Cohen said. “This is about being very proud of who I am.”