School story: Peabody Mom gets son expelled

Last December, when Joni Raskin found out her son had been accepted on a scholarship at Peabody, the school for intellectually advanced kids, "I became overwhelmed with gratitude," she recalls.

Eight months later, the warm feelings have ended. "They expelled my son because of something I said," she says.

And that's one of the differences between private schools and public ones.

"In private schools, we have contracts that say if the family is not cooperative, that's grounds for dismissal," explains Harriet Kaplan, principal and founder of the Peabody School.

Kaplan describes Raskin as "belligerent" and "threatening the safety of the school." She ordered Raskin to leave the property and not to come back or she'd call the police. "Her behavior precipitated the immediate ending of his Peabody career," says Kaplan.

"She said to take your kid with you," says Raskin. "She went to him said, 'Nicolas, you have to leave through no fault of your own.'"

That drama took place two weeks before Nicolas, 12, was to finish the sixth grade at Peabody. Raskin already knew that her son's scholarship to Peabody would not be renewed after the sixth grade.

"They didn't think he was working to his potential," she says.

Kaplan calls Nicolas a "sweet kid," and says, "He wasn't taking advantage of the education being offered here for us to turn down someone else who would."

However, she's adamant about one thing: "We've never turned anyone away for financial reasons." And Peabody parents The Hook spoke to confirm that families who couldn't afford the school's $7,500 tuition paid $10 a month like Raskin did.

Joni Raskin, a former massage therapist, moved from California to Charlottesville with Nicolas in December 2001 after astrocartography– a process using astrological charts– determined this was the best place for them to relocate.

Nicolas attended Stone-Robinson Elementary without incident, but when he started Burley Middle School last fall, he didn't want to go to school because he was being bullied, his mother says.

And that's what thrilled her when she heard he'd been accepted at Peabody. "The safety of Peabody is remarkable," says Raskin. "There's no bullying, and nobody makes fun of you."

Still, Raskin has a laundry list of complaints. At the top of the list is poor communication. In particular, she alleges that she wasn't advised Nicolas wasn't doing homework. "They do not do what they said they were going to do, and was written in their handbook," she says.

Kaplan acknowledges that emails the handbook promises might not have been sent. "This is the first year we started doing that," says Kaplan, "and it's not foolproof." However, the principal notes that Nicolas had missed so many days and had fallen so far behind that "We said, there's no way he'll catch up. We're not going to stress him out, and we're not going to overload him." Kaplan points out that Peabody is an accelerated program and "If you're not doing the work, it's easy to fall behind."

Raskin contends that when Nicolas was admitted last December, she was told the teachers would help him catch up, but that only the French teacher did so.

"I would bet my bottom dollar the teachers helped him," says Kaplan. "He was so far behind."

The Peabody handbook asks that parents not go into the classroom, says Raskin, who admits she did. She believes that's a factor in her son's ouster.

"Every school has a protocol on how to interact with teachers," Kaplan says. "[Raskin] was unwilling to follow any reasonable protocol. It wasn't one incident. It was a series of things." The first thing in the morning when children are coming in or at pick-up time when there are 50 cars in line are times she mentions as not appropriate for a conference.

And she defends her decision. "If a child is not working out, or a family is being disruptive, you can ask them to leave."

That's not uncommon at private schools. "It's becoming more the standard to set expectations for working relations between schools and families," says George Conway, headmaster at St. Anne's-Belfield.

And while he's never expelled a child because of the parents, "We've had relationships that we didn't feel were serving the child well because of the relationship with the parents."

Conway declines to comment on the parental ouster at Peabody, other than to observe, "It must have been an extraordinary situation."

Pauli Hayes' son attended Peabody, and he also had a hard time with its challenging curriculum at first, but then, she says, he learned to accept responsibility for his work. She believes Peabody deserves its reputation for academic excellence and says she would "absolutely" recommend it.

Ultimately, Nicolas finished the school year at Peabody after Carlton Gregory at the Legal Aid Justice Center's "Just Children" office intervened.

"They were very cooperative," Gregory says. Raskin, however, was not allowed back on the property.

Nicolas, who estimates he's been to 12 or more schools, will be back at Burley this fall for the seventh grade. Of Peabody, he says, "I would have liked to stay... It was challenging. I thought I was doing a lot better at the end of the year."

Kaplan, who started the school with 13 students, begins her 10th year with an approximate enrollment of 145. She says she's never had to deal with a situation like this before.

"It's hard," she sighs, "when you feel like you've done a good thing, and it turns out like this."