“It’s a very good education, the teachers are top notch, it really prepares kids very well for certain kinds of education,” said the lawyer Ed Hayes, who is perhaps most famous for being the real-life basis of the lawyer in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities.
He was talking about Riverdale Country School, the chi-chi private school where tuition is $33,000 a year and which counts MSNBC’s Dan Abrams, The New Yorker’s theater critic John Lahr and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell among its alumni.
But there’s just one problem with the place, he said. They discriminate!
And now a judge in the Bronx is giving Mr. Hayes an opportunity to take his argument to court.
Bronx Supreme Court Justice Dianne T. Renwick has ruled that Mr. Hayes can proceed with a discrimination case he’s brought before a Bronx court on behalf of his client, the school’s former admissions director Shereem Herndon-Brown.
The case has one of the city’s most flamboyant lawyers representing a client in a discrimination case against one of the city’s most expensive and exclusive private schools.
“It draws from a tiny element in society,” Mr. Hayes said of the school. “They really did wrong this guy. It’s wildly undiverse, you see?”
Mr. Herndon-Brown brought a breach-of-contract suit against the school last November, according to The New York Law Journal, which also broke the news of Justice Renwick’s ruling on April 12.
The plaintiffs, who also include Mr. Herndon-Brown’s wife, Keri, and their son, Kerry, believe the school offered the directorial position to Mr. Herndon-Brown, who is African American, “as window dressing.”
“What they really wanted was to see a black face before a program that’s not designed for diversity,” Mr. Hayes said. But after a while, “the message was pretty clear: we don’t want you here.”
The plaintiffs also assert that Riverdale Country School’s headmaster, John Johnson, is guilty of both poor school governance and insidious bigotry.
“[H]e wanted more full-paying Asians and non-Jews (an apparent reference to the school’s large percentage of Jewish students),’” the suit reads. “Specifically referring to students at rival school Horace Mann, Johnson cautioned plaintiff husband that ‘certain celebrity African-American parents would not be a good addition to the parent body. Rap artist Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs and director Spike Lee both send their children to Horace Mann.”
Kerry Herndon-Brown is named in the suit because of Mr. Herndon-Brown’s claim that that their son suffered physical harm as a direct result of living in two residences provided to the family by the school.
First, the family claims in the case documents, “a large shade tree suddenly uprooted and crashed into the dwelling. It cut off the roof, thudded down from the third-floor to the ground floor of the home, and hurled the chimney across the road. Plaintiff wife grabbed the infant and, in her panicky retreat, fell on top of the baby.”
Then, after moving back into their smaller former residence, the Herndon-Brown family was exposed to ‘“high [lead] levels in 34 of 57 surfaces tested with the highest readings in the nursery,”’ the suit alleges.
Asked about the proceedings, the school’s communications director, Mary Ludemann, sent an email to The Observer.
“Regarding the allegations about Mr. Shereem Herndon-Brown's housing, between dealing with the tree accident and responding immediately and comprehensively to the lead-based paint matter in the premises, Riverdale acted more than responsibly–and at a cost to the school of more than $300,000,” the statement read. “In addition, the allegation that our head of school decided to hire Mr. Herndon-Brown to increase diversity ‘knowing the school was not diverse enough’ in reality only underscores our commitment to continue making the school even more diverse.”
“The truth is that Mr. Herndon-Brown was treated exceptionally well during his tenure,” the statement continued, “as he himself acknowledged at the time he chose to leave Riverdale. We are surprised and saddened that Mr. Herndon-Brown asserts that he was wronged despite all evidence to the contrary.”
“He’s a nice young man from a nice family,” Mr. Hayes said of his client. “He went Wesleyan, his wife went to Spellman, he’s not like a trouble-maker.”
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