The Dalton School, now in its 102nd year, has had more than its share of unwanted notoriety.
On a cold February morning 12 years ago, the brilliant 17-year-old Teddy Graubard jumped out of an 11th-floor window at the school to his death on the East 89th Street sidewalk below. He was an ambitious athlete who apparently had cheated on a Latin test and been caught by the school’s invasive-technology department, which had been monitoring his laptop. A bunch of Dalton fourth-graders, going outside to play, were among the first to find his body.
Ten years later, in August 2019, the presumed suicide in a Manhattan jail cell of another member of the Dalton family—Jeffrey Epstein—would bring still more attention to the school that it could do without. It seems that sometime in 1974, Dalton’s lame-duck headmaster, Donald Barr—the father of Bill Barr, the two-time U.S. attorney general—hired Epstein to teach math and physics, starting in September 1974. Epstein hadn’t graduated from college, and it has never been made clear how he was able to sweet-talk Barr into hiring him.
In any event, according to The New York Times, “Mr. Epstein’s time at Dalton was brief, and an administrator said it ended in a dismissal.” Epstein would later be charged with the sex-trafficking of young women, and people remain fascinated over his ability to separate so many billionaires from their money.
For those living outside the 10021 Zip Code, Dalton is considered the toniest of the Upper East Side private schools. It is also one of only a handful of Manhattan private schools that is co-educational (another being Trinity, on the Upper West Side). Among Dalton’s alumni are Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Anderson Cooper, Chevy Chase, and the late artists Helen Frankenthaler and Bruno Fonseca. Students are drawn largely from the neighborhood, which is stuffed with investment bankers, lawyers, private-equity moguls, hedge-fund managers, and ladies who lunch, or who will again one day soon.
It’s part of a very insular, very protected world of—yes—predominantly white privilege. It is the kind of school that can pay its former headmaster more than $1 million in compensation.
Go Forth … Unafraid?
These days, many in the Dalton community think the school is busy committing political suicide and that the school’s motto—“Go Forth Unafraid”—has been rendered ironic at best and irrelevant at worst. What started nobly and innocently enough last summer with a commitment from Jim Best, the Dalton headmaster, for Dalton to become “a visibly, vocally, structurally anti-racist institution” in the wake of the senseless murder of George Floyd, has in the ensuing months engulfed the school in yet another unwanted scrum. Just this week, after Air Mail went to press, the New York Post reported that Domonic Rollins, the school’s head of diversity, was leaving “in pursuit of other opportunities,” some 18 months after he joined from Harvard, where he worked for the president’s office on issues of diversity, racial equality, and inclusion.
Pitted against each other in social-media warfare is a vocal and demanding group of faculty members and school administrators and an equally vocal and outraged group of parents and outsiders who see the forced imposition of structures at the school—both administrative and pedagogical—to try to get Dalton students to become more racially sensitive to be both intellectually insulting and far removed from the reason they are spending $55,210 this academic year in tuition to educate their little darlings.
The battle for East 89th Street had been brewing throughout the fall. The first salvo came in early October when parents wondered why they were paying so much money for Zoom teaching, especially when other private schools in Manhattan had in-person classes. A group of about a dozen parents—who described themselves as physicians—wrote Best a letter saying they were “frustrated and confused” about why classes for the school’s 1,300 students and 250 teachers were being held digitally. A petition signed by another group of more than 70 parents also complained. “Zoom-school is not Dalton,” they wrote. “Our children are sad, confused and isolated, questioning why everyone around them gets to go to school when they do not.”
Best was trying to solve differential equations: parents who wanted their kids in school and teachers who were wary of the spreading coronavirus. Many of the teachers were members of the Black, Indigenous, and people of color—or BIPOC—community and believed their longer commutes from distant communities on public transportation made them more susceptible to the virus. Best reached a compromise: he agreed to reopen Dalton for in-person classes in January, giving students the option to attend either physically or digitally. Teachers, Best allowed, did not have to teach in person if they felt “uncomfortable.”
Among Dalton’s alumni are Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Anderson Cooper, and Chevy Chase.
The ink was barely dry on that agreement when a new front in the battle between parents and the school opened up, this time on the “anti-racist”-agenda front. After Best’s pledge to make Dalton an anti-racist school, many in the Dalton community wondered just what he meant. His answer? “Like each of you,” he wrote on the Dalton Web site, “I want Dalton to be a place where all community members thrive and reach their fullest potential.” Best—who is paid $850,000 per year—is in his third year as Dalton’s headmaster, having worked the previous 13 years at the school as a senior administrator. Over the summer, he had numerous conversations with members of Dalton’s bipoc community.
“Unfortunately,” they told Best, “we have much work ahead of us.” He committed Dalton to achieving a set of “goals and vision” through “action.” Under the imprimatur of the Dalton board of trustees, Best issued a set of five more or less innocuous platitudes—among them, students will be “full participants” in the Dalton community and will “flourish free from bias and disparities” and will also have a “deep historical understanding of racial and structural inequities” in the U.S., with a particular emphasis on “anti-Black racism.” He wrote that members of the Dalton community would be “held accountable” for not meeting the school’s “anti-racist” standards.
On December 7, Best published a “progress report” about what Dalton had accomplished since the summer and the work that still needed to be done. Among the “completed” tasks, Best checked off having had “honest conversations” with students, faculty, alumni, staff, and parents to “understand better how Dalton is and is not achieving [its] DEI”—Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion—“goals.” In the “started” category, Best put “Implement English and History curricular changes for more diverse representation and richer understanding of culture and history of BIPOC people” and a need to “increase College Office engagement and programming for BIPOC students.”
The Naked Dollar Weighs In
The shit really started to hit the fan 10 days later. That’s when Scott Johnston, the proprietor of something called the Naked Dollar blog and the author of the 2019 novel Campusland—“smart and hilarious,” according to Kirkus Reviews—wrote about how Dalton was “in a full meltdown” after a group of about 120 teachers and administrators issued an eight-page list of 24 “proposals” that the group said it believed would “complement and extend” Best’s “anti-racist” agenda for the school.
The teachers quoted the Aspen Institute’s definitions of structural racism and institutional racism and also quoted the best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates’s observation that “black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it.” The group quoted Black historian Robin D. G. Kelley: “Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.”
Best—who is paid $850,000 per year—is in his third year as Dalton’s headmaster.
Among the list of “proposals,” which read like demands, were the expansion of Dalton’s D.E.I. office to include “at least” 12 full-time positions and an additional full-time employee whose “entire role is to support Black students who come forward with complaints and/or face disciplinary actions.” The logic for this suggestion: “The outpouring of pain from current students and alumni reflect ongoing trauma in the Dalton environment that has been underappreciated and unaddressed. Black students deserve to have a full-time advocate to support and validate them as they navigate a predominantly white institution.”
Other suggestions included:
• paying off the student debt of incoming Black faculty;
• rerouting 50 percent of the donations to the school to public schools in New York City;
• hiring multiple psychologists who specialized in helping “ethnic minority populations”;
• reviewing all of Dalton’s vendor and third-party relationships to make sure the school partnered with Black-owned businesses wherever possible;
• eliminate so-called “advanced placement” classes if Black students don’t score as well as white students, and reduce the tuition for Black students who appear in Dalton promotional materials, such as catalogues, brochures, or videos.
The signers of the document concluded: “Much of the discourse surrounding equity and inclusion in schools focuses on reducing interpersonal racism, training faculty about implicit bias, and diversifying the curriculum. We heartily affirm the importance of these anti-racist efforts, especially in light of student testimony detailing microaggressions, careless remarks, and blatant racial prejudice.”
While a spokesperson for Dalton told me that the “proposals” were a “starter document” created by a “subset of faculty and staff,” which was never “formally presented” to the school’s administration or “ratified” by the full faculty, the publication of the list made people go berserk. Johnston reported that teachers were refusing to return to school until the demands were met, parents were in “an uproar,” threatening to remove their children from school, the board was “in turmoil” and major donors to the school, which had total assets of $255 million as of June 2019 and an endowment of $64 million, were “balking.”
Johnston continued: “What you may not know is that Dalton has long been one of the most progressive schools in the country. They have actively encouraged the sort of thinking that is now biting them in the ass.”
Many of the people who posted comments to what Johnston shared publicly were viciously against the list of “proposals.” The reactions ranged narrowly from “Bunch of scared white people. Speak up idiots and speak with your wallet. Teachers should be back in class teaching and if not. FIRE them all. Fuck them” to “Wow! The complete idiocy prompted by this list of ‘demands’ is unbelievable. I’m wondering if the staff and/or teachers have come back to school to perform their jobs that the students’ parents pay $54,000 to attend? No? Then I’m wondering if this list of ‘demands’ is intended to be a barrier so they can continue collecting their paychecks while not working. Hmmm. Because there is no way any group of people is this idiotic.”
In a letter to the Dalton “community” the day after Johnston’s blog post, Best wrote that the Naked Dollar “blatantly and erroneously mischaracterized diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at Dalton.” Best wrote that he felt “compelled to set the record straight lest it—and any additional media coverage that may follow—be taken seriously.” His letter reiterated what Dalton’s spokesperson had told me—that the teachers’ document was just a “thought starter” and that it was never presented to, or considered by, the school’s administration.
“Bunch of scared white people. Speak up idiots and speak with your wallet. Teachers should be back in class teaching and if not. FIRE them all.”
Best gave Johnston some props, although in a self-serving way. “What the blog post does get right, albeit unintentionally, is the spirit of intellectual debate that uniquely defines our community,” he wrote. “Part of Dalton’s magic is that our students are inspired to ‘go forth unafraid’ by educators who aren’t afraid to think boldly.” Best applauded their efforts to respond to George Floyd’s death, even as he wrote that “there are better ways to go about advancing those views.”
In any event, the Naked Dollar blog became much better known on December 29, when Johnston published an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. “Dalton is in turmoil,” he wrote. “The names of board members disappeared from the school’s website within days of my reporting the story.” (He helpfully printed their names in a subsequent blog post.) “Parents, caught between feeling virtuous and an eroding quality of education, are conflicted. Several senior staff members are worried about losing their jobs, and that no one knows when the campus will reopen or what will happen when it does.”
He wrote that the fact that Dalton, which has always prided itself on its progressive pedagogy, should find itself in such a fix was a “palpable irony” and noted that “revolutions eat their own. The uber-woke, demanding purity, come for the moderately woke first. Dalton’s leaders may be coming to realize this. They have heretofore been happy enough to burnish their woke credentials, but now they seek a comity they cannot achieve.” There were nearly 600 comments about Johnston’s Wall Street Journal piece, including: “You know your society has reached peak bourgeois decadence when its ruling class will pay top dollar to learn how to hate themselves.” (Neither Dalton nor Best responded to Johnston’s Journal article.)
A Litany of Grievances
The next fusillade came on January 27, in a lengthy letter to the “Dalton community” from a group of anonymous parents and alumni. It was brutal. “Love of learning and teaching is now being abandoned in favor of an ‘anti-racist curriculum,’” they wrote. The writers derided Best’s “allegiance to a new ideology” that was “untested, and worse yet, untestable.” They questioned a recent curriculum night “where every single class, from science to social studies to physical education, must now be rewritten to embody ‘anti-racism?’”
They bemoaned the letter that so many faculty members had signed that showed “little interest in the education of children, the joy of learning or the kids’ intellectual development.” They complained that “every class this year has had an obsessive focus on race and identity, ‘racist cop’ reenactments in science, ‘decentering whiteness’ in art class, learning about white supremacy and sexuality in health class. Wildly age-inappropriate, many of these classes feel more akin to a Zoom corporate sensitivity training than to Dalton’s intellectually engaging curriculum. Many of us do not feel welcome at Dalton any more. That really hurts to write.”
Since fall classes were on Zoom, the parents had witnessed firsthand what their children were being taught. “The curriculum is being revamped in a rush in the middle of a pandemic,” they continued. “Not once this semester [has] any of us heard (and because the classes are taking place in our homes, we hear) mentioned the joy of reading, of learning, of independent thinking, of curiosity, of discovering math and science, of human cultures. What we have heard is a pessimistic and age-inappropriate litany of grievances in EVERY class. We fear that rote learning of political concepts that must be accepted as gospel is not a nutritious educational experience. In place of a joyful progressive education, students are exposed to an excessive focus on skin color and sexuality, before they even understand what sex is. Children are bewildered or bored after hours of discussing these topics in the new long-format classes.”
“You know your society has reached peak bourgeois decadence when its ruling class will pay top dollar to learn how to hate themselves.”
Many parents, they wrote, were thinking of pulling their children out of the school. “Why would anyone voluntarily send their children to be taught that they are guilty regardless of their decency and kindness?” the letter continued. “A school where they are constantly reminded of the color of their skin, not the content of their character. What Black parent wants the other children to feel sorry for their kid and look at them differently? We have spoken with dozens of families, of all colors and backgrounds, who are in shock and looking for an alternative school for their children.”
The parents and alumni demanded that the Dalton board of directors appoint an impartial and respected ombudsperson to conduct an anonymous survey of the Dalton community to get its honest assessment of the “anti-racism curriculum.” They demanded that Best put the new curriculum on an immediate hold and return to the old-fashioned Dalton curriculum. “It’s quite clear that over the summer, when schools across the country were thinking deeply about how to reopen and teach students, the Dalton administration was on a crusade to radically transform the school’s curriculum and pedagogy,” they wrote. “Many parents and alumni have lost confidence in the administration’s leadership and ability to make independent and unbiased decisions about the content of the curriculum.” (I sent an e-mail to the e-mail address included in the letter, hoping to engage one or more of the authors. But I did not receive a response.)
Megyn Kelly Weighs In
Such is the growing antipathy between many Dalton parents and alumni and the Dalton teachers and administrators that no less a social-justice warrior than Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News anchor, joined the battle on the side of the parents. Never mind that none of Kelly’s three children attend Dalton—her two sons went to the equally tony Collegiate School, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, until November, when she pulled them out in protest of the overly “woke” institution—on January 27, Kelly tweeted to her 2.4 million followers the first two pages of the seven-page manifesto from the anonymous parents and alumni along with the observation: “Parents at Dalton Sch[ool] fight back against ‘anti-racist’ agenda.”
While Kelly did not respond to a request to be interviewed and has not tweeted again about Dalton, a typical response to her Dalton tweet came from Clive Tosser, a self-described public-school teacher with 12 followers: “Anyone else having an odor problem after their gender reassignment surgery? Kinda smells like a burp after eating sauerkraut and diet coke.” (Dalton’s spokesperson dismissed Kelly’s contribution to the debate: “Ms. Kelly is not a parent of a Dalton student and has no affiliation with the school,” the spokesperson wrote in an e-mail.)
On January 29, in a new letter to the school community, Best defended himself and his “anti-racism” crusade as being consistent with Dalton’s long-standing commitment to “honesty, integrity, compassion, kindness, courage, humility, citizenship, justice, and responsibility.” It was hard to argue with his logic. “Our commitment to being an anti-racist institution is a natural extension of these values,” Best wrote. “In its simplest terms, this means creating an inclusive environment where all members of our community—students, faculty, staff, parents, and alums—feel valued, seen, and heard. It’s a belief that every person who walks through Dalton’s doors, physical or virtual, should be treated with dignity and empathy and protected from hatred and ignorance in all its forms. None of that is onerous; none of that is ideological. These are the principles that have guided our school for over a century and that will continue to be our north star.”
Best declined my requests to be interviewed. Instead, Dalton’s spokesperson gave staccato replies to my written questions. Dalton declined to comment on whether Best was surprised by the number of faculty and administrators who signed on to the list of “proposals.” It declined to comment on whether it found any of the “proposals” unreasonable, but it did say that they had been discussed with the various stakeholders in the school. “Those private conversations, however, will remain private,” the spokesperson shared. Asked if the “proposals” and the controversy they generated were tearing the community apart, the spokesperson responded, “Absolutely not,” and wrote that there had been no noticeable change in admission applications to the school.
According to Johnston, on a February 1 Zoom call with parents, Best referred to the Naked Dollar dismissively again, calling it a “blog with a few dozen followers.” Johnston couldn’t resist re-engaging in the Dalton debate, which since December had become the focus of increasing media coverage, from The Atlantic to a troika of Murdoch-owned outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and Fox News. Johnston wanted Best to know that in recent weeks his blog had garnered a quarter of a million hits because of the Dalton story and that “perhaps Best should ask himself why, if the Naked Dollar is so irrelevant, the story could gain such wide coverage. Perhaps because it touched a nerve? Perhaps because it’s saying things that the parents at your school are afraid to say out loud? Your problems were not created by this blog.” His logic was also impeccable.
William D. Cohan is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of numerous books, most recently Four Friends: Promising Lives Cut Short