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Disillusioned ex-Waldorf parent

By Margaret Sachs

July 15, 2004

This is my first post at Waldorf-Critics. I want to share our Waldorf experience because I think it is yet another example of the Waldorf circle-the-wagons and defend-the-"insiders"-at-the-cost-of-the-"outsiders" routine that I have heard about from other people. Our former Waldorf school seemed to have an endless succession of crises, each one of which was followed by talk of "healing and moving on." It began to seem like such a cliche to me that I wondered if it was perhaps the school motto.

Our daughter attended K-3 (age 4-8) at a Waldorf school and then we took her out for financial reasons. Because we were concerned about behavior issues within the student body at the high school she attended in 9th grade, we enrolled her again at the Waldorf school for 10th grade (age 15-16) in September 2001. Although it was our impression that the academic education was substandard, we had always thought the school provided a good social environment for children. Our son had attended from K-8 (with an unhappy year at public school in 7th grade) and had fond memories of his time there. His experienced class teacher showed us respect as parents and went out of his way, far beyond the call of duty, to help our son when things were difficult for him.

During her second week in 10th grade, our daughter told me that her two class sponsors were being mean to her. We were puzzled because we had never had to worry about her behavior outside the home. At her other schools teachers had always told us what a pleasure she was to have in their classrooms and her friends' mothers have always carried on about how nice she is and how much they like having her over, etc. It was many months later that I found out about a situation that I believe was behind the initial mistreatment of our daughter. A tiny group of parents had allegedly campaigned for the expulsion of numerous students throughout 1st-8th grade. The class teacher had been firm that she, not the parents, decided who deserved the education she was providing. Things apparently changed when the class entered high school. According to one mother, she was offended at meetings with the sponsors when these parents were allowed to press their case for not allowing new students in the class because, not being accustomed to the Waldorf manner of doing things, they might be disruptive. One of these parents, a Waldorf graduate and the daughter of anthroposophists, had a daughter who managed to garner adult attention by complaining about various other children during grade school. I had heard her making statements about a certain boy slapping her face that I knew were untruthful. On another occasion she claimed my daughter had gouged her arm but, when I investigated the matter, it turned out to be untrue. In fact, this young girl actually broke other children's bones during "rough" play on two separate occasions. Nonetheless, when the girl made complaints about other children at home, her mother would angrily repeat the stories to other parents. A close mutual friend told me she thought the daughter was telling these stories as a way to get her busy mother's attention. In December 2001, I learned that the girl's mother was again repeating the untrue story that my daughter had gouged her daughter's arm and saying that she did not want my daughter at the school. It's not hard to see how the sponsors might have been poisoned against my child, in addition to feeling pressured to get rid of any children the meddling mothers did not want sharing the same school as their offspring.

Tenth Grade started the year with a Native American block taught by two male teachers, one of whom has a full time job outside the school and used to come to teach the course once a year. At the end of September, the 10th grade went to Colorado for a week on the school's traditional 10th grade Native American trip. A few days after the trip, I learned from another mother that the part-time male teacher, who had accompanied the class sponsors and the students, had placed his hand on one girl's buttock, had run his fingers up and down the bare skin of a second girl's thigh, and had rested his legs on the thighs of a third girl while she was sleeping and when she awakened allegedly refused her repeated requests to remove them. One of the girls was my daughter. I asked her about it and she said, yes, it was true and, in fact, prior to the trip, older students had warned 10th grade girls to stay away from the teacher, saying that he was "weird, said inappropriate things to girls, and
touched them." The mother who had alerted me to the situation told me that she had spoken with a class sponsor about it and the sponsor was coming up with inappropriate ideas about how to handle it (asking the girls what they wanted to do about it, suggesting a meeting between the girls and the male teacher to discuss it) when by law the sponsors were required to report it to law enforcement authorities immediately upon learning about it. (I cannot think what excuse there could be for their not knowing the laws since the school had just been through a big upheaval over another situation involving potential sexual abuse.) A couple more days had passed by the time I had spoken to the girls involved - and their parents - and had confirmed to my satisfaction that the stories were true. None of us knew to whom to turn.

I called a very good friend who was an anthroposophist with years of experience at the Waldorf school on many fronts. Her reaction was: "Well, this is no surprise. There's history." She told me there had been a ruckus at the school about 15 years previously because when he was a full time teacher at the school, married to one of the kindergarten teachers, this man had an affair with a high school student but "waited until she turned 18" so that in the end the parents did not (or could not?) press charges. According to my friend, he resigned at the suggestion of another teacher that he do so. (It's my opinion that perhaps this suggestion was made because school parents told me that there had been a huge shake-up when a different teacher at the school ñ a class teacher - who was also married to a teacher there and was a grandfather, had sexual relations with a child at the school. I'm basing my opinion on an assumption that the class teacher incident occurred before the part-time
teacher's original incident, but do not know the chronology for sure. Anyway, after a dispute between teachers who had forgiven the class teacher and parents who wanted him fired, there was apparently some sort of compromise and the man left the school, subsequently taking a position as a class teacher at a nearby Waldorf school!) Back to our story about the part-time teacher: he was probably in his mid-fifties at least in 2001, so I think he would have already been middle-aged at the time he had the affair with the high school student. My anthroposophist friend told me he had been married five times (although another anthroposophist said she thought it was only four times). I thought this interesting. I read on the Internet that men who are inappropriately attracted to adolescents sometimes have trouble maintaining long-term relationships with women their own age.

Anyway, my friend recommended I set up a meeting with the College Chair and a member of the Care Committee. Since the other parents in the group were in a state of fury about the part-time teacher's actions and other bizarre things that had happened on the trip, my friend asked me not to tell the other parents about his history as she did not want me to inflame the situation. I agreed, trusting that everything would be worked out in an intelligent manner. Since I wanted to raise the issue of the teacher's history with the College Chair and Care Committee member, I made the disastrous mistake of going to the meeting alone, without the other parents. Even though, at my request, I was promised anonymity because I was concerned about any backlash my daughter might suffer, I had no idea that the sponsors would be given enough information about how the college chair had learned of the incident for them to be able to figure out it was me.

Just hours before I attended my meeting, the sponsors brought the 10th and 11th grade girls together in a meeting at which the victims were intimidated into backing down and conceding that there was nothing to it - the male teacher didn't intend anything sexual, the butt-grabbing was accidental, he was a very spiritual person, etc. When I went to my meeting, the college chair seemed outraged that the sponsors (mandated reporters) had not only failed to notify the authorities as they are required to by law but had also failed to inform the college. She made the notification herself the next day. LAPD interviewed the girls but, since the events occurred in another state on Native American land, they merely forwarded their report to the Native American police there and no further action was taken. The LAPD detectives told us it would be very difficult to prove intent in court and that our best bet was to get a group of parents to band together to make sure the teacher was dismissed.

The college chair told me the school was doing their own internal investigation and would be interviewing the sponsors at length. In addition to the male teacher's inappropriate behavior, the sponsors and the 11th grade teacher, according to a law enforcement detective specializing in child abuse, had committed at least three misdemeanors: failure as mandated reporters to report suspicion of child abuse immediately to law enforcement, breach by mandated reporters of the involved parties' legal right to confidentiality (talking about it with various students and convening a student meeting to discuss the incidents), and interference by mandated reporters with a legal investigation (instead of fulfilling their legal obligation to report it, intimidating the students into backing down). Well, you can guess the outcome. No one from the school ever contacted us again about the matter. Every time we tried to bring it up we were either ignored or rebuffed. At a meeting, we heard the
sponsors lie to class parents about the incident. It didn't help our case that some of the parents who were anxious for certain students to be expelled were at the meeting and that one of those parents worked for the part-time teacher at his full-time job. When those of us who knew the truth tried to speak out, the sponsors refused to let us discuss the matter. The arrogance and hostility we perceived in one of them when she silenced us was particularly extreme, in my opinion, and reinforced my understanding of how painful it could be for any child to be at the receiving end of her disapproval.

I composed a letter to the board that a number of parents were going to sign. A former school parent warned me that our daughter would "not be invited to return to the school" if we sent any kind of letter. Her family had gone through a similar situation years before when she and her husband were part of the parent group that tried to get the school to fire the class teacher who ended up teaching at the nearby Waldorf School. Even without the letter, I believe it was already obvious to the Waldorf people involved that I was one of the parents most actively looking for action to be taken to remedy the situation. One by one the other parents chose not to proceed with the matter. Some told us that, after meetings with the sponsors about their children's grades, behavior, etc., they felt their children's positions at the school were in jeopardy. Only one parent told me she felt the matter had been adequately dealt with and that there was nothing to be gained from proceeding. On the other hand, another class parent kept telling me that we were dealing with a cult and if her daughter had been involved she would have hired a lawyer immediately. Our problem was this: our daughter had not wanted to leave her last school. Conceding that she would get used to being at the Waldorf school, she made us promise at the beginning of 10th grade that we would not make her leave unless she chose to do so. As the year progressed, we repeatedly told her that she only had to say the word and we would take her out of the school. She did not want to give up her new friendships, however, and thought she would be able to tough it out with the sponsors. She did not want to let them get away with what they were doing. After numerous futile efforts to talk to a member of the board with whom my kind and concerned anthroposophist friend had recommended I should try to work things out, there were three families left who were ready to sign the group letter to the board. At that point, my husband and I were the ones who dropped the matter because of our daughter's request that we not do anything more to rock the boat.

Other students corroborated that the sponsors systematically and unfairly picked on our daughter and another girl, giving them the impression they were trying to drive them out of the school. A parent also told me that her child had observed this bad treatment and told her about it. It is my opinion that the sponsors knew that we and the other targeted girl's parents were not people they could manipulate and control. When my husband asked a parent/staff member if she had heard what the part-time male teacher had done on the field trip, she replied that she had heard that some girls who were getting into trouble for bad behavior and getting bad grades had made up stories about him to cause trouble for the teachers. On top of being subjected to unwanted touching by an adult man and the breaking of laws designed to protect them, these children were now being slandered.

In our meetings with the sponsors we sensed a negative attitude toward our daughter. On one occasion my husband asked that she be given the opportunity to make up some work she had missed because of an absence. Right in front of her, one of the sponsors dismissed the request, saying something to the effect that she was not capable of doing it. My husband said she was going to a tutor to help her make up the missing work. The sponsor said that she still would not be able to do it. Instead of supporting and encouraging her, it seemed to us the sponsor was setting her up for failure. It was no wonder to us that her self-esteem had plummeted and yet in non-Waldorf schools she had done well academically.

The sponsors sent us a letter telling us our daughter was not invited to return the following year (although by the time we received the letter she had already decided to leave because she could not stand their meanness any longer and had become severely depressed). The primary reason given for "not inviting her to return" was that "the faculty is gravely concerned that [our daughter's name] does not meet the requirements for the rigorous curriculum and work required for success in the eleventh and twelfth grade years." She was not failing any classes at the time the letter was written, although her end-of-year report showed some failing grades because, after we received that letter, she became too depressed to continue going to the school and some teachers gave her F's for all the assignments she missed as a result. The secondary reason given in the letter was that "There's also concern that [our daughter's name] does not understand the appropriate boundaries for behavior at school." She had kissed her boyfriend (a classmate) on the campus where younger children might have seen it had they been present and she and another girl had sung a racy song about a boy who was tape recording it; no one else would have heard it, I believe, but the sponsors confiscated the tape recorder and heard the song when they played it back. I am not denying that these activities were inappropriate on a school campus but neither were they criminal or especially unusual behavior for teenagers. There were students who had done far worse things than our daughter's petty indiscretions but who were not kicked out of the school. It was our opinion that, in breaking laws designed to protect children, it was the male teacher and the mandated reporters who did not "understand the appropriate boundaries for behavior at school." Parents and students had told me about several other things these sponsors had done (nothing to do with our daughter) that shocked me. Based on that knowledge, their hypocrisy was mind boggling to us.

We are still working to heal the emotional scars from our daughter's experience at the Waldorf school. Nonetheless, after leaving the Waldorf school, with the help of a good teacher, she went on to become an A student and even scored in the 98th percentile on her English college placement test.

In spite of hearing that the part-time teacher was insulted at being "accused" of touching girls inappropriately and that the school had found no wrongdoing on his part, I later learned that he would not be teaching at the school any more. The official reason given was that he wanted to stay closer to home with his wife, young daughter, and soon-to-be-born baby.

Margaret Sachs

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