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A Student at Saint Ann’s Committed Suicide. Was the School to Blame? | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

Ellis Lariviere was an eighth grader at Saint Ann’s, an elite private school in Brooklyn Heights, and he had a lot going for him. Teachers praised him as an “abundantly talented” artist, in a school that trumpeted the arts, and they described him as a positive presence in his classes. He had friends at school and an older brother who was thriving there. Ellis liked to cook for his family, and he imagined himself one day being a professional. He also had dyslexia and an attention deficit disorder, and he struggled to express complex thoughts in writing.

On Feb. 3, 2021, the school informed his mother by email that, “despite recent progress,” he could not return for ninth grade.

Ellis asked his parents if it was the school’s decision or theirs. When they told him, “he just cried a lot,” his mother, Janine Lariviere, said. “He didn’t want comfort from me. He was very hurt. This is the most painful thing for me, because I didn’t know how to protect him.”

Three months later, in the family home in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Ellis ended his life. He was 13.

This April, his parents filed suit against the school, its head and its trustees, arguing that its practices caused their son’s death and demanding changes in school policies. In their suit, they quote the last line of Ellis’s suicide note: “Don’t let the school do an assembly about this.”

The suit pits a prestigious private school’s right to select its student body against its responsibilities to the students under its care. If a student develops a learning disability after being accepted, does the school still owe him the attention and education it promised?

For Ellis’s family, the suit also keeps him present in their lives and provides shape to their grieving process, as they seek meaning in his death and their own pain.

Suicide is a complex act, with multiple contributing factors that can be impossible to know. But of one thing his family is convinced: “Had they said he could go to the high school,” his grandfather said, “he’d be alive today.”

Saint Ann’s, a secular school founded in an Episcopal church basement in 1965, has been a proud outlier among New York’s private schools. It does not give students grades, and it promises parents and students, “We celebrate each child’s attributes — talented musician, gifted reader, remarkable artist — while encouraging all of our students to believe that they can excel in myriad pursuits.”

The school’s iconoclastic founding headmaster, Stanley Bosworth, who used to tell prospective parents that he did not like bankers’ children but would admit those of artists, articulated the house philosophy: “If the student learns best under the table, you’d better get under the table with him.”

It is a package that has served New York’s creative community, including Lena Dunham and Jennifer Connelly and the children of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins and the painter Julian Schnabel. The school has balanced this loosey-goosey, no-grades ethos with a no-nonsense record of placing graduates into elite colleges. In 2004, The Wall Street Journal named it as the nation’s top private school in the percentage of graduates it sent to the most selective colleges. Tuition starts at $53,750 for kindergarten.

For Roger Gural and Ms. Lariviere, the school’s focus on the arts made it an appealing choice for their two sons. Ms. Lariviere is an artist; Mr. Gural, the son of one of New York’s major real estate developers, ran the lavishly praised Arcade Bakery in TriBeCa until rheumatoid arthritis drove him to close it in 2019. A giant loom dominates the family’s otherwise spare living room. (The couple are married; the boys take Ms. Lariviere’s last name, with Gural as their middle name.)

“I didn’t want to send my kids to prep school,” Ms. Lariviere recently said. “The emphasis on art implied that they would be accepted and nurtured as individuals. ‘Art’ to me was kind of code for not neurotypical. Not that I thought of my kids that way, but I thought there was room to be not conventional people.” She also liked knowing that her sons could remain at the school from kindergarten through 12th grade, avoiding the fraught circus of applying to New York’s middle schools and high schools.

(My son attended Saint Ann’s from 1998 to 2006.)

For his first two years at Saint Ann’s, Ellis flourished, according to his teachers’ reports, which Mr. Gural shared with The Times. Ellis was an “outstanding student,” one wrote, and “obviously artistically gifted.” Teachers praised his empathy and care for other students.

Then in second and third grades, his dyslexia and problems with language formation started to require extra attention, his father said. The family hired a tutor to work with him.

The school recommended a neuropsychological evaluation and suggested an evaluator, who found that he had a high I.Q. and good reading comprehension but that he had trouble retrieving letters and numbers when writing, Mr. Gural said.

Ms. Lariviere asked the evaluator whether Ellis belonged at Saint Ann’s, or whether the family should consider a school for students with learning differences. “She said, ‘He can do it with support,’” Ms. Lariviere said. “I asked, ‘What about these specialized schools?’ And she said, ‘That would be overkill,’” and that Ellis might be bored.

Saint Ann’s thought otherwise. One month into third grade, Gabe Howard, the head of the lower school, told the couple that Ellis should go elsewhere for fourth grade, adding, “We just don’t think we can help him,” Ms. Lariviere said.

The couple were shocked by this, since the neuropsychologist had just said that he could succeed at Saint Ann’s with tutoring and other support. Also, Mr. Gural said, the school’s position seemed to be at odds with its rhetoric.

“They spend so much time saying, ‘We’re about, Each child has their own path to reach their own potential, no two experiences are the same,’” he said. “She should’ve said, ‘Here’s our plan for your son to succeed.’ Instead, it was just, ‘Find a new school.’”

Through its director of communications, Saint Ann’s declined to answer questions about Ellis’s experience or the school’s general policies and procedures, including those around teacher training for students with special needs, citing the family’s lawsuit. In a letter to parents in June, the school said the suit contained “a number of inaccurate and misleading allegations” and that it would “vigorously defend itself against any false allegations contained in this lawsuit.”

On a May afternoon in the family’s home, Mr. Gural spoke wearily, with palpable anger. He wore a stained yellow hoodie, his reddish hair and beard a little shaggy. Still deep in loss, he seemed held together now by what he sees as a great wrong. His pandemic project, an acoustic guitar, rested beside the couch.

Unlike schools that give grades, Saint Ann’s had no formal standards that it required students to meet, Mr. Gural said. Moreover, Ellis’s third-grade teachers continued to give him positive reports, even as the administration said he should look elsewhere. So Mr. Gural asked: What benchmarks was Ellis not meeting?

The school ultimately allowed him to return for fourth grade. When Ms. Lariviere told an administrator that Saint Ann’s should inform parents that it sometimes asked students to leave, she said she was told, “‘We can’t do that because the parents would be stressing out their kids.’ And I said, ‘I wouldn’t have applied to the school if I knew that this happened.’”

It was the start of a tense relationship with the school that would culminate five years later, when Ellis was in eighth grade.

Private schools are not legally required to keep students through high school graduation, especially when a student develops disabilities that overmatch the school’s resources, said David C. Bloomfield, a professor of education leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.

“But the school makes an ethical commitment,” he said. “Schools like Saint Ann’s are not just educational institutions. They’re communities with human commitments to the children in their charge. Saint Ann’s thrives on being a community, and one would think that Saint Ann’s would be wholly transparent about standards and expectations, academic as well as behavioral.”

In the days following Ellis’s suicide in May 2021, the grief Mr. Gural felt was “really intense and overwhelming physically,” he said. He wrote to the head of the school, Vincent Tompkins, describing how he lifted his son’s lifeless body and placed it on his bed to cover it with a blanket.

“You’re just hit with waves of uncontrollable convulsions of pain,” he said recently at his kitchen table in Red Hook. “There’s a tremendous amount of guilt and regret. There’s levels of stress that are so far above what you’ve ever experienced in your life. There’s layers upon layers of the experience that, if you were only dealing with one of them, would be completely overwhelming, and you’ve got 50 layers.”

The family searched for answers. How was it that a school that prided itself on nurturing the talents of every student could tell their son after nine years that he no longer had a place there? What responsibility did the school have, to them and to other families, to disclose its process of “counseling out” certain students who did not meet unspecified criteria?

The parents also questioned themselves. Ellis had always had been “up and down emotionally,” Mr. Gural said, and they had shielded him from some of their conversations with the school. When they told him that the school would not allow him to return the next year, “it was devastating,” Mr. Gural said.

“I look back now and I think, like, should I have been more sensitive to this day when he got upset?” Mr. Gural said. “But there was not any marked difference in his personality or behavior right before he committed suicide.”

Ms. Lariviere was frustrated that a school that had been very supportive when Ellis came out as gay in fifth grade could not accommodate his learning differences, even with the family paying for tutors and learning specialists. “Why is his neurodiversity beyond the pale?” she asked.

The questions were particularly acute during the pandemic, when young people were already dealing with severe emotional disruptions. Suspected suicide attempts among adolescents Ellis’s age were up 49 percent in 2021 compared with prepandemic levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Gural demanded that Mr. Tompkins explain to the community how, “in the middle of all this talk of D.E.I., three professionals got together and decided that their institution has no place for a bright, creative, caring gay child because he has learning differences.”

When the school informed parents that a student had died by suicide, without also telling them that the student had recently been asked to leave the school, Mr. Gural was incensed.

“I was apoplectic,” he said. “Because it did not contextualize in any way what the issues were in my son’s suicide. And it says the school is being proactive to deal with this mental health crisis. Here they are, presenting information about my son’s death in the most flattering way possible. Totally dishonest.”

Jeffrey Gural, Ellis’s grandfather, also pressed the school’s board of trustees. The elder Mr. Gural is chairman of GFP Real Estate L.L.C. (formerly Newmark Holdings and Newmark Knight Frank), a major developer with an ownership stake in more than 50 buildings, including the iconic Flatiron Building. On a Zoom call with members of the board after Ellis’s death, he demanded that Mr. Tompkins resign and that the school inform other schools that one of its students had killed himself after being denied a seat in ninth grade.

“I can’t bring Ellis back, but I just want to do whatever I can to make sure that no family has to go through this again,” he said in an interview. After that call, he tried writing to the board but got no answers, he said.

“Literally, I got one response saying, ‘Don’t email the board anymore,’” he said. “From their lawyer. Oh, really? My grandson’s dead. Are you threatening me? What are you going to do to me? What else can Saint Ann’s do to me?”

Without commenting on Ellis’s family’s lawsuit, Lars Mehlum, a professor of psychiatry and suicidology at the University of Oslo, said that the impulse to assign responsibility for a loved one’s suicide is a common part of the grieving process.

“It’s normal, something that is part of the adaptation to grief or to the reality of death,” he said. “But only to a certain extent, because you can also be trapped inside of that, and you can be derailed from adapting to the life you have now that that person is dead. And there can be some reality to it — somebody did something wrong — but very often it’s only partially correct.”

Hardest for survivors, Dr. Mehlum added, can be knowing that the person chose to end his or her life, and to leave them behind. “This causes a lot of pain,” he said, “and if by any means you can find some alternative to this idea that the person did it out of free will, then it can be a comfort.”

In the two years since Ellis’s death, his parents have turned the circumstances over in their heads again and again. Ellis had never been asked to repeat a class or been disciplined for behavioral issues. There was no grading structure in which he had failed. His midyear reports from eighth grade note his problems with writing and organization, but also his progress, and they praise him for his creative thinking and contributions to his classes.

Mr. Gural fixed on messages from the school, like one from Mr. Tompkins: “[W]e believe that differences in aptitude — in one child preternatural dexterity on the violin, in another precocious ability to decode a novel, in a third the ability to create marvels with a brush and canvas — make for the richest possible learning environment.” What if Ellis wanted to be an artist like his mother or a baker like his father? What was the harm to the school in nurturing him for that path?

“What,” Mr. Gural asked, “is the benefit to the institution by not having him there?”

Clara Hemphill, founder of InsideSchools.org, a guide to New York’s public schools, said private schools counsel out students fairly regularly, with few if any restrictions.

“My experience is that none of the private schools do a very good job serving kids with special needs,” she said. “As a generalization, public schools have the will but not the capacity, and the private schools have the capacity but not the will. And if your child has special needs, you’re in a very, very tough place.”

Saint Ann’s declined to answer questions about its practice of counseling out. The board president, Mino Capossela, told Mr. Gural in an email that “there is no single fixed policy” for determining that a student should leave the school, but that each case is considered individually.

One month after Ellis’s death, Saint Ann’s announced that it was forming a working group to review its resources for providing academic and mental health support for students. The review found, among other things, that the school’s staff to support students was proportionally about half that of peer schools. In any year, a quarter to a third of the school’s 1,000-plus students have a psychological diagnosis requiring an accommodation plan. The school asks an average of five students each year to leave, the review found. Since the review, the school added two members to its student support staff.

At the end of 2021, Mr. Tompkins announced that the 2022-2023 school year would be his last as head of school.

The family’s lawsuit, which they withheld until Ellis’s older brother was out of Saint Ann’s and at the University of Chicago, mainly demands that the school overhaul its practice of counseling out, making it more transparent to families and more consistent with the school’s mission statement and literature, and bolster the support staff to match that of comparable schools. The suit also seeks unspecified “compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and costs.” Any money received will go into a foundation to help other students like Ellis, Mr. Gural said.

Mr. Gural compared the school’s treatment of his son to bullying, which was once widely unpunished, but now regularly results in corrective lawsuits.

“Imagine if some student said to my son, ‘You’re stupid, you don’t belong here,’ and we went to the school about it, and the school did nothing, and he took his own life,” he said. “But in this case, it’s the school who’s the bully. The school is saying to my son, ‘You don’t belong.’”

He added, as if addressing the school: “I feel terrible. I made mistakes. I can forgive you. You had this responsibility at the school to be honest and disclose honestly what your policies were and you failed. OK. You’re human, I’m human, I failed. Let’s collaborate. Let’s try to move forward in a way that will make this community better for kids, and make some meaning out of my loss, out of my son’s suffering.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.


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