BY LISA DONOVAN, Suntimes.com September 14, 2012
Fourteen-year old Larry “Max” Saulsberry didn’t go to school this week, though it wasn’t because of a teachers strike.
The one-time student from Hyde Park has yet to see the inside of a classroom this school year because of what his mother calls a racial dispute that’s landed in the courts and has pit her family against the boy’s private Jewish day school.
Last week, Tamara McCullough sued Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School, claiming the principal didn’t re-enroll her son because he’s male and black.
Simmering tensions between the family and the Hyde Park school nearly turned to a boil last year when staff turned a blind eye to a racial epithet allegedly hurled at Max, McCullough alleges in the lawsuit and also told the Sun-Times in an interview.
“When another student called Max a … racial insult, the [s]chool refused to discipline the student,” the lawsuit filed in Cook County circuit court states. “When Max wanted to run for student body president, a teacher told Max only a white student could be student body president.” The suit also claims that Max wasn’t given a math textbook in seventh grade, “resulting in his receiving poor math grades.”
The suit also states the school’s principal, Miriam Schiller, called the family’s rabbi in hopes the rabbi could dissuade the family from enrolling Max in sixth and seventh grade at Akiba. “Schiller called Max’s rabbi, Capers Funnye, and asked him to advise MAX not to enroll for his sixth grade school year, stating Max would not be a ‘good fit,’” the lawsuit states.
The family sent him back to school that year anyway. But Schiller allegedly called Funnye again before the 2011-12 school year with the same request.
Schiller didn’t respond to requests for comment. A school board member also couldn’t be reached.
But Funnye, reached at the South Side’s Beth Shalom temple on Friday, confirmed the lawsuit’s account of the calls. He said after the calls, he reached out to McCullough about the principal’s request.
“Max’s mother said, no, that’s not what she wanted, and that was the end of that,” Capers said.
McCullough, who is an alum of the school, is puzzled by the treatment of her son.
She said it was always a diverse school when she attended, and her 16-year-old daughter also was a student. The suit claims the student body was one-third black about 25 years ago, but as of last year, her son and one other students were the only African Americans.
“Last year, things went downhill. It seemed like there was — how should I say it — an anger, and a dislike for him that wasn’t there with my daughter,” said McCullough.
Despite the alleged problems, in April, McCullough said she paid the re-enrollment fee for the coming school year.
But as the Aug. 27th start date approached, McCullough became concerned she hadn’t received a re-enrollment packet. She called Aug. 20, but didn’t hear back from the principal until Aug. 24, when the two had what McCullough described as a terse exchange.
Schiller said she “did not believe Max was returning,” the suit claims. When McCullough said he was, the principal then instructed her to pay $9,260 to enroll Max, but said he would have to repeat seventh grade. McCullough agreed to both.
“Schiller then said Max doesn’t belong here, and he is not a good fit,” the lawsuit alleges. Later that day, the suit continues, “Schiller called back and said, ‘We don’t have room for Max in this school.’”
Max said in a phone interview Friday he believes the problems come down to race.
“They don’t want me back in because of the whole African-American thing. At first I didn’t want to think like that but now I think it’s because I’m an African-American male,” he told the Sun-Times.
“They treat me different — at least different from African-American girls. They don’t treat me bad, but they don’t treat me well, either. They treat me like I’m invisible.”
Nevertheless, he still wants to return: “I think that I can go back and do what I’m there to do.”
More than anything, he misses his pals. That hit home little more than a week ago when he celebrated his bar mitzvah, the ceremony and celebration of marching into adulthood in the Jewish faith, with old school chums.
“I want to go back and I want to be with my friends because I’ve been in school since kindergarten and I know everybody,” he said.
McCullough’s attorney filed for an injunction on Thursday, detailing the alleged discrimination and asking a judge to order the school to re-enroll the teen and treat him fairly.
Funnye, the family’s rabbi, said he’s worried about some of the problems Max has alleged.
“My concern, overwhelmingly, was for Max and his comfort. School should be a place that is welcoming and comfortable for a child,” he said.
Still, he said he didn’t know why the school allegedly wants to direct the teen elsewhere.
“He’s a wonderful kid,” he said.