“Obviously it has affected his personal and professional life,” says employment law attorney, Bryan Arbeit from the firm of Douglas Wigdor LLP, in New York City, which now represents Alan Cohen in a lawsuit filed against the school, its administrator and board members.
“He’s been an administrator for many years. He’s never experienced anything like this before and he certainly was not going to stand by and do nothing,” adds Arbeit.
Speyer is an exclusive private school with kindergarten to grade 8 program geared to intellectually gifted children. It has a $40,000 year school fee and advertises itself as having an “impressive curriculum” with a “top-flight” roster of 50 teachers who are “talented and fearless”.
In March of 2015, the interim Head of the Speyer Legacy School, hired Cohen as the Assistant Head of the School and Head of the Lower School, grades K-4.
In the fall of 2015, some 7 months after he was hired, and after new Head took over the school, Cohen found himself answering questions about his sexual orientation. The new Head of School, Dr. Barbara Tischler told Cohen that the school psychologist had informed her that one of the faculty members was asking about Cohen’s sexual orientation.
It became increasing apparent that his sexuality was being discussed widely. In fact, one of the board members offered to fix him up on a date with a male friend of hers. Cohen complained to Dr. Tischler about the ongoing discussions about his sexual orientation but nothing was done to correct the situation.
Cohen knew that sexual orientation was of factor in school promotions because earlier in the year he had worked directly with Dr. Tischler on hiring a new Director of Admissions. The best candidate was lesbian. Dr. Tischler told Cohen the board was showing some resistance to the appointment because of the woman’s appearance. She asked Cohen to speak to her about altering her dress. Cohen had refused.
“My understanding is the woman is still working there but it is indicative of what they are looking at in their hiring,” says attorney Bryan Arbeit. “She was the most qualified for the position but it was difficult to get her in that position because of the way she looked because of her sexuality.”
Under the terms of Cohen’s contract the school had to inform him before March 1, 2016 if his contract was not going to be renewed.
On or around April 4, 2016 Dr. Tischler met with Alan Cohen and told him, “Speyer would not be renewing his Agreement”. According to the complaint, Dr. Tischler told him “the reason was that he was not a good fit”.
He was immediately replaced by a younger, married woman with fewer qualifications.
The school then sent out a memo telling parents and staff that Mr. Cohen would be leaving for personal reasons. They also instructed Cohen not to talk about his reason for leaving.
“I can only speculate as to what their motivation might have been. At the time they said he wasn’t a good fit,” says Arbeit. “He is an excellent administrator, he was loved by the parents, got along with the faculty and the only reason he was characterized as not “a good fit” was more along the cultural lines.”
The Cohen suit alleges that the defendants violated the New York City Human Rights law and the New York State Human law both of which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The suit also alleges breach of contract.
There has been, as of yet, no answer to the claim from the defendants.
“The school didn’t provide justification for terminating Mr. Cohen,” says Arbeit.
As to what happens next Arbeit says, “We will be litigating this in court.”