New York’s Lycée Français on 75th Street and York Avenue boasts several famous alumni, including romance novelist Danielle Steel, investment banker Michel David-Weill and bassist Nikolai Fraiture of The Strokes.
But the prestigious private school is currently embroiled in a legal controversy involving Jeff Oppenheim, the writer and director of the 2005 romantic comedy Funny Valentine, starring Anthony Michael Hall.
Last January, Mr. Oppenheim and his wife, Dijda, were summoned to the Lycée—to discuss, they assumed, disciplinary problems involving their son, then a 14-year-old freshman (their 10-year-old daughter was also enrolled there, both children since kindergarten). Instead, Yves Thézé, the head of school, and Mark Cunha, chair of the school legal committee, accused Ms. Oppenheim of writing a series of venomous, threatening letters calling Mr. Thézé “Little Napoleon” and “Little Hitler” and the school’s site a “cancer hole.” (In 2001, after AKRF, a private environmental consultancy firm, discovered contaminants in the bedrock of the Lycée’s new site near the East River, Ms. Oppenheim attempted to bring the report up at a PTA meeting and was told, according to her husband’s recollection, that a discussion of school uniforms took precedence. “Has something come up in the soil and they worry that the town criers … are going to sound the alarm bells again?” Mr. Oppenheim said from Southampton. “Quite honestly, I would!”)
“The full board [of directors] has determined that your children will not be reinstated next year,” Mr. Oppenheim remembered Mr. Cunha saying at the conference. Additionally, he told the Transom, the couple was instructed to notify the school every time they wished to visit the grounds, so security staff could monitor their movements.
The family promptly decided to take the Lycée to court. The administration “have placed the vendetta squarely on Ms. Oppenheim and we’re not sure why,” said Bryan Rozencwaig, the plaintiff’s attorney, who denies that his client wrote any of the letters. One was postmarked Paris, where the Oppenheims haven’t been in several years, he said, and another Albany, where they’ve never been. Mr. Rozencwaig added that the Lycée had refused Ms. Oppenheim’s offers to undergo DNA testing and take a polygraph test, instead relying on a handwriting analyst in New Mexico. Because French is a gender-specific language, a sentence in one of the notes that indicates a male author should absolve Mrs. Oppenheim, the attorney suggested.
“Their written school policy is that for the child to be disciplined, there has to be an open dialogue,” Mr. Rozencwaig said. “The child has to be presented with an opportunity to be heard and none of that has happened.”
Several calls from the Transom to the Lycée’s lawyer, Shelley Kehl, were not returned; nor were repeated calls to Mr. Cunha. When Mr. Thézé was finally reached by phone, the head of school breathed heavily into the receiver for a few moments before abruptly hanging up.
A judge will rule to uphold or overrule the expulsion of the two Oppenheim children on Friday, Aug. 24. In the meantime, the couple is frantically trying to find another private school as backup.