Racial discrimination lawsuit filed against Bronx private school

EVANDO THOMPSON | 4/11/2019, 12:04 p.m.
A student at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a K-12 private school in the Bronx, announced that he and his ...
Students from Ethical Culture Fieldston School Contributed

A student at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a K-12 private school in the Bronx, announced that he and his parents filed a lawsuit against the institution Monday, April 1, in United States District Court, Southern District of New York, with the demand that the Head of the School Jessica L. Bagby and other administrators resign or be terminated.

The last straw for senior Malakai Hart, it is alleged, was when a student blatantly used the ‘n’ word. When Hart confronted higher faculty about the issue, no steps of further discipline were taken. One of the attorneys at The Cochran Firm, which will serve on the behalf of Hart’s family in the lawsuit, claimed that multiple grievances had piled up to that point. Hart’s mother Robin and father Carl alleged racial discrimination, retaliation, aiding and abetting unlawful practices and negligent hiring, training and supervision.

“The school failed to address the student involved in the incident, to be able to show himself [on a video recording] among other students and refer to my client as a ‘ni*r’,” said Derek Sells, one of the three Cochran attorneys. “For that reason, he wanted to sue and did not want to deal with the administration anymore as he felt they had let him down. Now, he is going to the courts to try and rectify this situation.”

For Malakai Hart, this is not the first incident in which he has been discriminated against by other students. He has attended the school since kindergarten and has faced similar situations before.

Last year, Fieldston also was in court for a similar lawsuit, this time in which a 12-year-old student voiced racial discrimination allegations, but the school retaliated by making false allegations to Child Protective services. The case is still ongoing.

“We had received some complaints from parents about bringing false claims to administration about what happened to the students,” said Sells. “The school claimed that the parent sent the kid to school hungry so as a result, there was an investigation launched into that. There was a threat that the child may be taken away from his parents, but the investigation found that the claims were unfounded. The school then sent a school wide emailing that they were sorry and had said untrue things about the family.”

Last week, a large group of students held a sit-in at Fieldston to protest the treatment of African-American students. Hart did not participate in the sit-in although he was very supportive of the students who initiated it. Hart believed that taking it to court would be more significant than the talks due to the lack of progress in the past.

The newly issued lawsuit echoes incidences of the past and reflects the issues that Fieldston School has had before. Head of School Jessica Bagby recently distributed an email to parents of students acknowledging that there has been a “multi-year racial trauma” at the school.

The Ethical Culture Fieldston School issued a statement, in light of the recent charges that have been put against them.

“One day we’ll have a better understanding about why this particular lawyer finds it productive to file frivolous lawsuits against Fieldston, but for today we can say without reservation that this is meritless and does not reflect the truth about our school,” said Clio Boele, on the behalf of the school. “Jessica Bagby is not going anywhere and does not deserve to be blamed or scapegoated for whatever this family’s concerns may be.”

Sells listed the specific reasoning for the lawsuit and what the family is suing for, among the future they hope to engender through the case.

“We alleged that federal civil rights were violated, human civil rights were violated, the New York State human rights were violated among other causes of action,” said Sells. “We are also asking the court not only for damages to be awarded for what my client has suffered but also, we are asking the court to tell Fieldston to stop discriminating against African-American students there.”