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Private School Fires Gay Educator After Gossiping About His Sex Life: Suit

By Maya Rajamani | September 21, 2016 12:34pm
 The Speyer Legacy School at 925 Ninth Ave., at the corner of West 59th Street.
The Speyer Legacy School at 925 Ninth Ave., at the corner of West 59th Street.
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DNAinfo/Maya Rajamani

MANHATTAN — An elite private school fired its lower school administrator for being gay after its staff and board of trustees "openly" gossiped about his sexual orientation, as well as asking him to convince a lesbian staffer to look more feminine in order to earn a promotion, a new lawsuit charges.

The Speyer Legacy School at 925 Ninth Ave., at West 59th Street, hired Alan Cohen, 63, as its assistant head of school for kindergarten through fourth grade back in March 2015, the suit says.

But after Cohen’s sexual orientation became a topic of discussion among the school’s faculty and board of trustees members, the school fired him and replaced him with a less-experienced, straight teacher, according to the suit, filed Tuesday in Manhattan Supreme Court. 

Cohen also charges that the school refused to reimburse him $11,000 worth of business expenses he was promised, claiming its director of finance threatened to withhold the money if he didn't "behave" following his termination.

The "intellectually gifted" students at the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school pay more than $40,000 in tuition each year, the suit says.

Cohen, who worked as a city Department of Education employee for more than two decades, was the head of the lower school at the Portledge School in Locust Valley for four years before starting at Speyer, and he currently serves as co-chair of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Principals’ Center” for school leaders, the suit says.

“Unfortunately, [Cohen's] wealth of administrative knowledge and insight became substantially less important once conversations began about… Cohen’s sexual orientation,” the suit claims.

Last fall, Speyer Legacy's recently appointed head of school Barbara Tischler told Cohen the school's psychologist had given her a report saying a staff member “was asking about… Cohen’s sexual orientation,” the suit says.

While Cohen said he was upset that his sexual orientation was being discussed, he acknowledged to Tischler — who didn't explain why she brought up the report — that he was gay.

After the meeting, Cohen noticed that the school’s faculty and board of trustees were discussing his sexual orientation amongst themselves, according to the suit.

A board of trustee member’s wife even tried to set Cohen up with a male friend of hers, an offer that further bothered Cohen, the lawsuit says.

Cohen told Tischler about the incident, but the head of school “[didn’t] do or say anything in response,” the suit says.

Additionally, Cohen was asked by Tischler to speak to the school's assistant director of admissions about “altering her hair and clothing selections” to appear more feminine in order to be promoted to director of admissions. 

Tischler was "having trouble convincing" the school board to promote the assistant director — who was lesbian —  because the staffer didn't "fit the bill,” the suit says. 

Cohen’s sexual orientation also came up during an internal review the school launched after a staff member complained he had made a racist remark, according to the suit.

The school’s director of finance and operations ultimately decided the allegation was “baseless,” but "offered his unsolicited opinion that even if… Cohen said something racist… he was 'protected… because of [his] sexual orientation,'" the suit alleges.

When the school first hired Cohen, it promised to provide him a contract for the 2016-2017 school year on or before March 18, 2016, unless he was given written notice stating otherwise on or before March 1.

The school also said it would provide him an “annual allowance” of $11,000 to cover any business expenses the educator racked up during the 2015-2016 school year, according to the suit.

In March of this year, Cohen saw a document in the school office that said his contract would be renewed with a 3 percent pay raise, the suit says.

But on April 4, Tischler informed Cohen the school wouldn’t be renewing his contract, despite the positive feedback he had received about his work there.

Tischler said Cohen was “not a good fit” for the school, an excuse the employee found “highly suspect” given the prior experience he’d had with the head of school, the suit says.

A day after Tischler told Cohen his contract wouldn’t be renewed, the school sent a letter to its approximately 300 families informing them Cohen would be leaving the school due to "family health issues,” the suit says.

A week later, Tischler told Cohen the school would be replacing him with a married, heterosexual first-grade teacher, who had "no experience as a school administrator,” according to the suit.

When Cohen asked Speyer’s director of finance and operations about the $11,000 the school had promised to reimburse him for expenses, the director told him he’d have to “behave” if he wanted to get the money, the suit says.

After an attorney hired by Cohen sent a letter to the school in May “outlining his claims of sexual orientation discrimination,” the school told Cohen not to return after June 10 and refused to reimburse him the money, according to the suit.

The law firm of Wigdor LLP, which is representing Cohen in the suit, issued a statement saying it is "fully committed to vindicating... Cohen's right to work without consideration of his sexuality."

"When schools are supposed to lead by example, the Speyer Legacy School miserably failed at doing so in this case," the firm said in a statement Tuesday. "This action... will hopefully serve as an example that discriminatory animus against the LGBT community has no place in a public or private school setting."

The Speyer Legacy School did not respond to requests for comment.