Psychologist Sues Manhattan Private School

by Shamir A. Khan, Ph.D. on January 17, 2010

In one of the most talked about lawsuits within the NYC private school community, Dr. Gabriella Johr, school psychologist, recently sued MetsSchools, Inc. and Claremont Preparatory School in Lower Manhattan. The case has implications for any institutions which employ mandated reporters in New York State and across the country.

Met Schools, Inc. & Claremont Preparatory School
MetSchools, Inc. is a for-profit company which operates ten private schools in Queens (Sunshine Developmental School, Sunshine School), Brooklyn (Metropolitan Child Services, Inc., Vernon Avenue Children’s School, Williamsburg Northside Pre-School), and Manhattan (Aaron Academy, Aaron School, Claremont Children’s School, Claremont Preparatory School, Rebecca School). The CEO of the company is Michael C. Koffler .

Claremont, founded in 2003, was a 2009 winner of the Blackboard Awards in area of Community Service. Headmaster Irwin Schlachter, an experienced school principal who ran Rodeph Shalom for 25 years prior to coming to Claremont, and Jane Eisenstadt, Head of Middle School, who has 30 years of experience as an educator and administrator, are named in the suit.

Child Physical Abuse
Physical abuse

is non-accidental physical injury of a child inflicted by a parent or caretaker which ranges from superficial bruises and welts to broken bones, burns, serious internal injuries and in some cases, death. The definition of physical abuse includes actions that create a substantial risk of physical injury to the child.

New York State Mandated Reporters
According the the NY State Mandated Reporter Resource Center:

New York State recognizes that certain professionals are specially equipped to fulfill the important role of mandated reporter of child abuse or maltreatment. Mandated reporters are required to report suspected child abuse or maltreatment when, in their professional capacity, they are presented with reasonable cause to suspect child abuse or maltreatment.

Mandated reporters include physicians, therapists, police officers, and any:

* School official including (but is not limited to):
* school teacher
* school guidance counselor
* school psychologist
* school social worker
* school nurse
* school administrator or other school personnel required to hold a teaching or administrative license or certificate

Legal Issues Regarding Mandated Reporters

Immunity from Liability
If a mandated reporter makes a report with earnest concern for the welfare of a child, he or she is immune from any criminal or civil liability that might result. This is referred to as making a report in “good faith.”

Protection from Retaliatory Personnel Action
Section 413 of the Social Services Law specifies that no medical or other public or private institution, school, facility or agency shall take any retaliatory personnel action against an employee who made a report to the SCR. Furthermore, no school, school official, child care provider, foster care provider, or mental health facility provider shall impose any conditions, including prior approval or prior notification, upon a member of their staff mandated to report suspected child abuse or maltreatment.

Penalties for Failure to Report
Anyone who is mandated to report suspected child abuse or maltreatment—and fails to do so—could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor and subject to criminal penalties. Further, mandated reporters can be sued in a civil court for monetary damages for any harm caused by the mandated reporter’s failure to make a report to the SCR.

Johr v. Metschools, Inc. Lawsuit
According to Johr’s lawsuit, she was employed as a school psychologist by Claremont Preparatory School from September 2007 until June 2009. On Wednesday, April 8, 2009 Johr received her Letter of Employment from Claremont’s Headmaster, Irwin Schlachter, formally offering her continued employment at Claremont for the 2009-2010 school year. The letter also provided that Johr’s salary would be raised.

Later that day (April 8th), Johr was called by Claremont’s School Nurse to evaluate “John Doe,” a middle school student who had “mutiple scratches on both arms and a swollen right eye.” Doe reported to both Johr and the School Nurse (separately) that these physical injuries were caused by his mother on April 5. Jane Eisenstadt, Head of Middle School, allegedly corroborated this account with Doe’s mother. Johr’s lawsuit documented other incidents and reports from other staff that Doe also had a history of “behavior problems, erratic school attendance, and ongoing family issues.”

After April 8, Johr, a NY State madated reporter, claims that on multiple occasions she insisted that someone from Claremont notify the NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) about the suspected abuse. Johr alleges that Claremont’s Head of Middle School and Headmaster refused any report to ACS, and further pressured Johr not to report the incident.

At that point, according to Johr’s suit, she consulted with another school psychologist at Claremont and the Assistant Head of Middle School for advice. On April 14, based on those consultations, Johr gave a letter to Eisenstadt that documented her concerns regarding Doe and her recommendations to report the suspected abuse to ACS. The letter was also signed by the School Nurse, and restated Johr’s and the School Nurse’s ethical and legal responsibilities to report to ACS, in compliance with their roles as mandated reporters. “[The School Nurse] and I are also concerned that if we went against your instructions and called ACS there could be repercussions and a lack of school support.” In a later meeting on April 14 where Schlachter was present, Johr claimed that Schlachter threatened, “If you are wrong about this you are going to be in big trouble, there will be hell to pay….You don’t want to get on my bad side, when you do I’m vicious.”

On the same day, the School Nurse, using an anonymous hotline, called ACS and the representative advised the School Nurse to report the incident.

On April 14, 11 days after the incident, and 6 days after finding out about it, Johr finally reported the incident to ACS. On April 22, 8 days later, Headmaster Schlachter fired Johr and rescinded her offer of employment for 2009-10 school year. Johr was allowed to remain in her position until the end of the 2008-09 school year.

Johr filed her lawsuit on December 22, 2009 in State Supreme Court of New York to “remedy retaliation for reporting suspected child abuse to ACS.”

The Potential Impact of Johr v. Metschools, Inc.
Since first reported by the NY Post, the case is compelling many schools to revisit their policies and staff handbooks on reporting suspected cases of abuse and neglect. Among the many questions being discussed: How do school officials and personnel handle suspected cases of child abuse and neglect? How are staff trained and are they aware of their state’s mandated reporters guidelines? What are the repercussions for not reporting suspected abused and neglect? What is stated in staff handbooks vs. how are these situations “truly” handled? How are conflicts between school officials and other mandated reporters handled?

Besides the roles of mandated reporters, the case is also raising questions for school communities as a whole. What roles do other students or parents have, if any, in doing or saying something, to keep children safe?

This lawsuit has potential implications for both public and private schools, not just in New York City, but across the country. We expect that it will be closely followed.

About the Author: Shamir A. Khan, Ph.D., is the Founder & Publisher of the NYC Private Schools Blog.

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