Two Black alumni have sued Ethical Culture Fieldston School for what they claim is racial discrimination dating back to 2016, according to a pair of lawsuits filed in a Manhattan federal court.
Madison Mason, a 2020 graduate, joined her mother Janine to file their suit Feb. 20 against the school, former administrator Jessica Bagby, and former high school principal Nigel Furlonge.
Mason’s classmate, Serene Wright, filed her own suit March 3, also naming the school, Bagby and Furlonge. While the suits themselves are separate, both Mason and Wright are represented by the same civil rights and constitutional law attorneys — Nathaniel Smith and John Lenoir.
“As a student of color at ECFS, Madison and Mrs. Mason were exposed to false, pervasive and racially biased stereotyped attitudes held by white students, their parents, and the ECFS faculty, staff and administrative employees,” according to the Mason suit.
Neither Smith nor Lenoir would comment on the suits. However, a spokesperson for Ethical Culture Fieldston issued a statement claiming the allegations “date back many years and were previously addressed by the school. We take all allegations extremely seriously, and thoroughly investigate any instances of alleged discrimination or bias.”
The school “was founded on and is deeply committed to our values and goals of diversity, equity and inclusion,” the spokesperson added. “We have been working hard to foster an environment where all members of our community feel welcome, and every one of our students can thrive.”
These suits follow others filed between 2018 and 2021 which were either resolved or settled. The plaintiffs in each were represented by The Cochran Firm — the legal group founded by the late Johnnie Cochran, best known for his work in acquitting sports superstar O.J. Simpson of murder charges in the mid-1990s.
Wright alleged in her suit that white classmates called her an “angry” Black girl, and a “scholar kid who couldn’t afford tuition.”
Mason’s suit also claims classmates declared students of color were “unfairly receiving financial scholarships, and not paying the full or fair cost of tuition.”
Tuition for Ethical Culture Fieldston ran about $55,510 during the 2020-21 academic year, and is now $63,020, according to the school’s website.
Mason’s lawsuit goes on to list specific allegations of the use of racial epithets, actions and adoption of “policy” that counteracted discipline for some of the defendants.
In Fall 2016, the suit charges, a white student called a Black student the “N- word” in the presence of Madison and others in a math class.
“Although the use of the slur violated the school’s code of conduct, the teacher … did nothing whatsoever to address the matter,” the suit stated.
In another instance, as part of a “senior prank,” white students brought several dozen large watermelons into the school and littered the office of a Black mid-level administrator with them, according to the suit. Even though the administrator was shocked by the action, the school did not punish or discipline the students for the “stunt,” the suit added.
Mason charges that, in 2020, the school formalized a “policy and practice” that, no matter the circumstances, if a student or parent complained about discrimination, then those investigating it would be required to:
• Establish a “defensible position” regardless of the circumstances.
• Conduct an invasive and needless investigation about the complaining student’s background in order to tarnish the victim as a wrongdoer.
The spokesperson for Ethical Culture Fieldston told The Riverdale Press the school has an online reporting tool for students and parents who witness or are victim of a breach in the school’s code of conduct. That website is Report.ECFS.org
As for the cases, Judge J. Paul Oetken is hearing both suits.