Former student's mother sues girls school

Oldfields denies claims, plans defamation action

July 12, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A Tennessee woman has filed suit accusing a Glencoe private school for girls that her daughter attended of promoting a homosexual atmosphere and injuring her horse in its riding program.

Deborah Van Eaton of Saulsbury, Tenn., says she withdrew her 16-year-old daughter from Oldfields School in January because the school "has a permissive homosexual agenda which is encouraged by a number of the faculty members."

School officials deny the allegations and said they plan to countersue Van Eaton.

"We are not going to stand by and take this lightly," said Alan Kerry, chairman of Oldfields' board of trustees.

Kerry said that he was "shocked" by the suit and the school will countersue for defamation, probably in the next few days.

Van Eaton's suit, filed last week, alleges that students walk around campus holding hands and have engaged "in sexual activity in their rooms" and that one instructor in a health class described "safe lesbian sexual techniques with her class of girls."

Van Eaton said yesterday that she withdrew her daughter in January after two years because of concerns about the atmosphere at the school that seemed to promote lesbian relations.

Her daughter, now 16, plans to attend a boarding school in England next fall, she said.

"I started asking questions and I wasn't getting any answers," said Van Eaton.

But school officials said Van Eaton sued after she complained that her horse was injured and was unhappy when the school refused to meet her demands.

"This is really a story about a horse, and the rest of it is based on salacious rumors," said Ret Talbot, a school spokesman.

Kerry said that when Van Eaton discussed problems with school officials before she withdrew her daughter, she tried to demand a two-year scholarship.

"If the school was such a bad place, why did she want to keep her daughter there?" he asked.

Kerry said that school policies prohibit sexual contact among students and that administrators and teachers are aware that sexual orientation is a private matter.

"We do not have any kind of agenda, certainly none regarding sexual orientation that we would promote with our students," Kerry said. "We're there to educate these young ladies, and sexual orientation is a private matter.

The 136-year-old school has an enrollment of 185 girls in grades eight through 12 and boasts a faculty-student ratio of 1 to 4. Tuition is $19,000 for day students and $29,000 for students who board.

In the suit, Van Eaton alleges that horseback riding instructors injured her $100,000 mare's hoof in December. The 6-year-old cross-bred mare, named Pocahontas, was taken to the McDonogh School track in a van and ridden over 16 hurdles after throwing a left rear shoe, the suit says.

The school staff "was negligent in having taken the horse over jumps, especially on cold, hard December ground, when the horse was not properly shod," the suit said.

Kerry said that two veterinarians examined the horse after the training exercise and determined the mare was not injured.

Van Eaton is seeking a total of $410,000 in damages on separate claims of negligence, breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation. The suit alleges that Oldfields breached its contract by damaging the horse and by promoting a homosexual atmosphere despite promises to "develop the intellectual, ethical and social nature of each girl."

No trial date has been set.

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