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Student sues Fieldston school claiming racial discrimination

Lawsuit calls for the termination of school head Jessica Bagby

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Just days after protests rocked its campus, Ethical Culture Fieldston school is heading to court after a senior there filed suit, accusing the prestigious private school of racial discrimination.

Malakai Hart and his parents filed the suit Monday in the U.S. District Court's Southern District of New York, demanding not just changes in how Fieldston operates, but also the removal of the school's leader, Jessica Bagby.

The complaint alleges racial discrimination, retaliation, aiding and abetting unlawful practices, and negligent hiring, training and supervision, according to Hart's legal representation from The Cochran Firm, the law group founded by the late Johnnie Cochran Jr., probably most famous for defending O.J. Simpson in his 1995 murder trial.

The complaint cites numerous examples of how Fieldston administrators allegedly systematically discriminated against African-American students or turned a blind eye when white students made racially insensitive comments.

Hart, who is set to graduate this spring, has spent his entire academic life at Fieldston, beginning in  kindergarten, according to his attorneys.  During his years, Hart repeatedly tried to call attention to and rectify what he described as numerous racially motivated issues at the school.

Among myriad incidents cited in the complaint, Hart’s family claims that a Fieldston student called Malakai the "N-word” on a video that was circulated among other Fieldston students. The family argues that this issue, which violated the school's anti-discrimination policy, was never publicly addressed or even acknowledged.

The complaint further alleges that African-American students were disciplined much harsher than their non-African-American peers. Additionally, the family claims the school used video surveillance to spy on African-Americans, created a security policy that allowed African-American students to be stopped and aggressively interrogated by guards, and retaliated against students and parents who complained about race discrimination.

"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," a Fieldston spokeswoman said in a statement to The Riverdale Press. "Jessica Bagby is not going anywhere and does not deserve to be blamed or scapegoated for whatever this family's concerns may be."

Fieldston has come under fire recently for multiple racially motivated incidents, including two separate videos of students using racial slurs, and other issues that have roiled students, parents and the administration. Students organized a lockout and sit-in last week protesting these incidents and what some have described as disparate treatment of African-American students at the school.

Fieldston’s “current situation arises out of multi-year trauma our students have experienced while at our school,” Bagby said in an email to students, families and faculty in the thick of last week’s protests, adding she and colleagues “could not be more profoundly sorry for this reality, which we fully recognize has weighed on the minds, hearts and spirits of our students of color and their families for years.”

Bagby maintained she, as well as the board of trustees and administrative council, take responsibility for addressing “cultural and systemic concerns” at Fieldston to better serve students and faculty of color.

But according to the suit, the damage is long done. Collective discriminatory actions and practices by Bagby and others at the school created a hostile environment for black students, denying them equal rights and benefits afforded non-black students there.

“Fieldston’s discriminatory and retaliatory practices against its African-American students and their families must end,” Hart family attorney Derek Sells said, in a release. “We call on Fieldston’s head of school Jessica Bagby to resign, or be fired immediately, for her complicity in creating this toxic culture.”

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