Disillusioned ex-Waldorf parent

By Margaret Sachs

July 15, 2004

Our son attended a Waldorf school from kindergarten through 8th grade and our daughter from kindergarten through 3rd grade. The transition to non-Waldorf schools was particularly hard for our daughter because she found herself far behind her 4th grade classmates academically. She could neither read nor write. I was shocked to discover she did not know about the concept of letters representing sounds. Once I had explained it to her, she got busy using the concept to read the books I had read to her at bedtime over the years, starting with the easiest books and working her way up through more difficult books. She was highly motivated to learn. She insisted on staying up late every night and putting in hours on weekends to struggle through her school homework. She was glad that—unlike the Waldorf school—her new school graded her work because it helped her know how she was progressing. Thanks to her determination, it took her almost a full school year, but she finally achieved her goal of catching up with her classmates.

Because we were concerned about threats of violence by an expelled student at the high school she attended in 9th grade and the school’s failure to carry out promised safety precautions, we enrolled her again at the Waldorf school for 10th grade. Although it was our opinion the academic education was not what we would wish for, we thought the school would at least provide a safe environment for her.

Each high school class at the Waldorf school had one or two sponsors—faculty members supposedly responsible for the social well-being of the students during the entire four years of high school. There were two female sponsors for our daughter’s class.

Tenth Grade started the school year with a Native American block taught by two teachers, one of whom—a man at least in his fifties—had a full-time job outside the school and came to the school to co-teach the block in September of each year. Toward the end of September, the 10th grade went to Colorado for a week on the school’s traditional 10th grade Native American camping trip. The students were accompanied by the two class sponsors and the part-time teacher.

A few days after the trip, I learned from another mother that the part-time male teacher had grabbed one girl’s bottom, had run his fingers up and down the bare skin of a second girl’s thigh, and during a train ride had rested his legs on the thighs of a third girl while she was sleeping and had refused her repeated requests—when she woke up—to remove his legs from her lap. My daughter confirmed to me that she was one of the girls and explained that, prior to the trip, older students had warned her and some of the other 10th grade girls to stay away from the man, telling them he was weird, said inappropriate things to girls, and touched them inappropriately.

The mother who had alerted me to the situation told me she had spoken with one of the class sponsors about it and the sponsor was coming up with inappropriate ideas about how to handle the situation, such as asking the girls what they wanted to do about it and suggesting a meeting between the girls and the male teacher to discuss it. The sponsors were required by law to report such complaints to law enforcement authorities instantly upon learning about them. I cannot think what legitimate excuse there could be for their not knowing the laws, especially since the school had only a few months before been through an upheaval over a bad situation involving a teacher’s pedophile family member, something my husband and I did not learn about until a few years later.

A few more days had passed by the time I had spoken to the girls involved, as well as their parents, and had confirmed to my satisfaction that the stories were true. Since Waldorf schools do not have principals, none of us knew who we should report the matter to.

I called a good friend, who was an anthroposophist with years of experience at the 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 many years previously because, when the part-time teacher had been a full-time teacher there, he started up a sexual relationship with a high school student. He and the student claimed to have waited until she turned 18, so the parents were not able to do much about it. According to my anthroposophist friend, he resigned after another teacher (the same one with whom he was co-teaching our daughter’s class) advised him to do so.

My friend recommended I set up a meeting with the College Chair. Since the other parents in the group were angry about the part-time teacher’s actions and other bizarre things that had happened on the trip, she asked me not to tell the other parents about his history as she did not want me to inflame the situation and damage the school’s reputation. I agreed, trusting that everything would be worked out in a professional and appropriate manner.

Since I wanted to raise the issue of the teacher’s history with the College Chair, I went to the meeting alone, without the other parents. 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 of Teachers. She told me we would be receiving an apology and made the notification to law enforcement herself.

The following day, I learned that just hours before I attended the meeting with the College Chair, the sponsors had brought the 10th and 11th grade girls together in a meeting during which the victims were humiliated and bullied into backing down and conceding there was nothing to it—the male teacher didn’t intend anything sexual, he was a very spiritual person, etc.

I called the College Chair to let her know about it. She told me the school was doing their own internal investigation and would be interviewing the sponsors at length

The local police department interviewed the girls individually. We were not given notice when the interviews were to take place and were not given the opportunity to be present. Instead, a Waldorf teacher sat in on them. My daughter later told me she felt intimidated by the teacher.

Since the events occurred in another state on Native American land, the police merely forwarded their report to the Native American police in Colorado and no further action was taken. Detectives told us it would be 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.

According to a law enforcement detective specializing in child abuse, in addition to the male teacher’s inappropriate behavior, the 10th and 11th grade sponsors had committed at least three misdemeanors: failure as mandated reporters to report a complaint of child abuse immediately to law enforcement, breach by mandated reporters of the involved parties’ legal right to confidentiality (talking about it with multiple 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, attempting to bully the students into renouncing their allegations).

The promised apology never came. No one from the school ever contacted us again about the matter. Every time we tried to bring it up in person or by phone, we were either ignored or rebuffed. At a class meeting for parents, we heard the sponsors lie about what happened. When those of us who knew the truth tried to speak out, the sponsors spoke over us and refused to let us talk. The arrogance and hostility exhibited by one of the sponsors seemed particularly extreme and reinforced my understanding of how traumatizing it could be for any child to be at the receiving end of her disapproval.

I composed a letter to the board that a group of parents were going to sign. I mentioned the letter to a former school parent who warned me 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 a group of parents who had tried to get the school to fire a different teacher—a grandfather whose wife was also a teacher at the school—for having sexual relations with a student. Apparently, after a dispute between school personnel who had forgiven the class teacher and parents who had 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 Waldorf school in a nearby town.

One by one, other parents in our group chose not to proceed with the matter. Some told us that, after meetings with the sponsors about their children’s grades and/or behavior, they feared their children were at risk of being kicked out of the school. 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 10th grade class parent told me we were dealing with a cult, and if her child had been involved, she would have hired a lawyer immediately. I asked her why she kept her child at the school if she thought it was a cult school. Her answer was that her child was artistically inclined and the emphasis on art suited her.

Our problem was this: Our daughter had not wanted to leave her previous school. Conceding that she would get used to being back at the Waldorf school, she had made us promise we would not make her change schools again unless she chose to do so.

After numerous futile efforts to talk to a member of the board with whom my kind and concerned anthroposophist friend had recommended I try to work things out, there were only 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 do nothing to rock the boat.

Some students told us the sponsors systematically and unfairly picked on our daughter, giving the impression they were trying to drive her out of the school. A parent also told me her child had observed this bad treatment and had told her about it.

When my husband asked a parent who worked at the school if she had heard what the part-time male teacher had done on the camping trip, she replied that she had heard 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 children, these girls were now being slandered.

Three weeks before the end of the school year, 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 endure their bullying 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. Her end-of-year report, however, showed some failing grades because, after we received that letter, she became too depressed to go back to the school for the last three weeks and, as a result, some teachers gave her F grades for all the assignments she missed.

The secondary reason given in the letter was “There’s also concern that [our daughter’s name] does not understand the appropriate boundaries for behavior at school.” A teacher had seen her kissing her boyfriend (a classmate) on the campus where younger children might have seen it had they been present, and on another occasion 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. Tape recorders are not allowed in Waldorf schools because of the supposed connection of technology to a demon named Ahriman.

I am not denying these activities were inappropriate on a school campus, but neither were they criminal or unusual behavior for teenagers. There were students who had done far worse things than our daughter’s petty indiscretions but who were not expelled. 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 our accumulated knowledge about the sponsors, their hypocrisy was mind-boggling to us.

I don’t know how many other children in that class were either “not invited to return” or voluntarily taken out of the school by their parents in the aftermath of the camping trip, but I know of one who left after being falsely accused of disposing of feminine hygiene products in the woods, which was considered desecration of sacred Native American land.

Our daughter is still working to heal the emotional scars from her experience at the Waldorf school. Nonetheless, after leaving the 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.

We heard 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. Shortly after that, we learned he would not be teaching at the school anymore. The official reason given was that he resigned because he wanted to spend more time with his family.

It’s my opinion that the lesson likely to have been learned by the girls at our child’s Waldorf school was that if you are the victim of unwanted touching by a man, don’t tell anyone, because if you do you will be doubly victimized.

Margaret Sachs