Lies, Damned Lies, and Steiner Education

Steiner-Waldorf schools have a reputation for offering a kinder, gentler alternative education, where the “whole child” is taken into account in beautiful surroundings, and where communities “live through deeds of love and let others live with tolerance for their unique intentions” (Rudolf Steiner). Readers of this site will know that there’s another side to this coin.

A letter sent to the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools in March 2013 by Rachael Colley, a former staff member of the Waldorf-inspired Desert Sky Community School, revealed some of the inner workings of Steiner-Waldorf schools. One particular part rang a very disturbing bell:

“Understand that you will be lied to, and some people at Desert Sky believe that they know more about your child and what is best for him/her than you do. Many (parents) are referred to in negative terms behind their backs”.

But she isn’t the only one who’s spoken out against how families are treated within Steiner communities, and those anecdotal testimonials are not only revealing, but also consistent...

All That Glitters

Margaret Sachs, a former Steiner parent, described her own experience on the Waldorf Critics list in September 2010: “you would get conflicting testimony because you would get the lies spread around the school to counteract the damage that could be done if people knew the truth. I heard many stories as to why children and their families were to blame for situations that led to their leaving our Waldorf school. I sometimes heard the parents' side of the story but usually gave the school the benefit of the doubt because I was one of those people who thought the school was wonderful and could not believe that any school could be capable of some of the things parents claimed had happened. Then it happened to my family, and then I heard the lies that were going around the school. That's when I learned for the first time that truth and integrity — things I value — were not valued at our Waldorf school. Since then, I've heard many, many stories from parents around the world that indicate deception and lack of integrity are systemic in Waldorf education.”

Another parent, using the pseudonym Compos Mentis, confirmed in a conversation with us that Margaret's experience wasn't an isolated one: “when I began to voice my concerns, life became extremely difficult, the parents would look the other way, or speak using the latest Steiner must have NVC non-violent communication (passive aggressive woo), they were 'indigo!' or as one Steiner mother put it "every child gets what it needs." I felt I was going slowly insane being surrounded by mindless loons, who thought they held higher knowledge and were so very wise.”

In an email she sent us, Margaret elaborated: “there is nothing in your story that I have not heard many times before from parents of children at Steiner schools, except the specific detail of an axe being involved. The one big difference is that you have documented it so well. It seems to be standard operating procedure that when parents draw attention — no matter how courteously and discreetly — to inappropriate behavior or inadequate supervision by teachers at Steiner schools, their children are made to suffer, the parents are shunned, and the children and/or their parents are badmouthed to the rest of the school community. It all too frequently ends with the children being booted from the school, if the family has not already left in anger. Over a period of 12 years, I saw it happen to other families at our Steiner school. I know many parents who have seen it at other Steiner schools. […] It seems not to matter how bad the wrongdoing of the teachers; they typically circle the wagons and defend their fellow Anthroposophists at the expense of innocent children.”

This was further corroborated by Carol Wyatt: “Instead of the teachers and the head of a school handling terrible situations caused by a specific teacher (or even the head of a school), Waldorf does the opposite. They turn the victim and victim's family into criminals worthy of expulsion. They literally demonize the whole family and create gossip and injury to the children.”

More recently, the latest events at Te Ra Waldorf School revealed in July 2014 that “those raising [concerns] were vilified to the point where their continued involvement with the school became untenable for them and for many others.”

Discerning A Pattern

An anonymous commenter on Carol Wyatt's blog described in August 2010 a typical response from a Steiner school when faced with parents asking difficult questions:

“In order to try and understand what happened I have spoken with many families worldwide over the last few years. What is striking is when a family complains and begins to ask too many questions there appears to be a pattern:

1. When the parents complain and request a meeting, the school deliberately procrastinates delaying the parent alerting the authorities.

2. A meeting is finally arranged where a very different (Anthroposophical) interpretation is given by the teachers/trustees in an attempt to manipulate the parents into thinking there is no problem.

3. The parents become so frustrated they make contact with the authorities.

4. The school may expel the child at this point and start a smear campaign telling the community (including the children) there is something wrong with the parents/child who has filed the complaint.

5. The authorities request the notes, the school 'loses' the notes.

6. In order to further suggest the parents/child are at fault a trespass notice is issued.

7. When all else fails the schools have been known to make anonymous calls to social services.”

Of course, this commenter’s assessment, however many people they spoke to, is still anecdotal. So does this list compare with a similar Steiner experience that has been tested through Human Rights process, such as ours?

Every single point of the anonymous commenter’s list is corroborated, although not in the same order:

1. The school told us to wait, to trust them, that they took bullying very seriously, to give them time to sort matters out. The pressure not to call the authorities was very strong, mostly from other parents. After all, no one outside of the Steiner community understands them, so calling outsiders could be disastrous for the school.

2. A meeting was suggested by Mark Thornton, the school’s manager, which took weeks to organise. It got delayed and pushed back more than once, while the unchecked bullying carried on regardless. But we never managed to actually attend it since it got cancelled the day it was finally supposed to happen. The school expelled our children on that same day, including our middle child who had just turned five in the Kindy she had happily been in for over a year. When we implored her teacher, Sheryl Mace, who less than a month before had held a private birthday party for her at which she had given her personal handmade gifts, not to expel her, reminding her how much she loved her friends and Sheryl herself, she answered “sometimes you have to say goodbye when you don’t want to”;

6. Rather than explain why they expelled our children without warning, the school issued us with trespass notices in June 2009. Over the course of the next few months, those trespass notices - which anyone can give out without even involving the police - magically morphed into restraining orders, something much more serious and only actionable by a judge. This lie persists to this day, despite an assurance to put that right back in September 2010 from Paddy Delaney, one of the trustees and a former lawyer;

4. Shortly after the expulsions, a meeting was organised on school grounds by Mark Thornton, and our eldest daughter’s teacher, Susanne Cole, where families from that class were encouraged to smear us and lay all the blame on us, the parents. And smear they did. Destructive insinuations were made which were spread into the local community, affecting our entire family for years to come. As Paddy Delaney told us, “you are being blamed for everything that is wrong in the school rather than seen as the catalyst of change that is needed”. Despite such a positive statement, he too sided with management;

3. We did contact the authorities afterwards but neither the Ministry of Education, the Education Review Office, nor Health & Safety showed any interest whatsoever. It’s as if unchecked bullying, including threatening a child with an axe, was of no concern to anyone. As a journalist on Seven Sharp said much later, “if you’re wondering how widespread and prevalent bullying is in New Zealand schools, well, too bad: the Ministry of Education tells us schools are not required to report it unless it results in suspension or stand down”;

5. When we used the Privacy Commission to ask the school for any information they held on our children, neither Mark Thornton, nor any teacher could give us any. They apparently couldn’t remember anything at all on the matter, claiming just eight months after the expulsions that “time passing makes detailed recollection not readily retrievable”;

7. To our knowledge, they didn’t call social services, but they did involve the police. A historical police document we got hold of years later described the situation thusly: “they were embroyled [sic] in a dispute with the Titirangi Rudolf Steiner School...They were protesting over what they called a “bullying” issue at the school.” Putting bullying in inverted commas in a police report pretty much says it all.

But it didn't end there. The list of lies, distortions and attacks is extremely long; here are but a handful of additional examples:

As word trickled out about how our family had been treated, staff would always minimise questions from concerned parents. One was told the outright lie that what happened to our eldest daughter was “just a bit of teasing between girls”; when another saw us protest outside the school, they were merely informed that we “were a bit upset at the school and were causing trouble”.

Even worse, Pauline McCoy, the wife of another trustee, and someone who had been fully behind us up to the expulsions, wrote to us five months later: “alot [sic] of what happened was [your eldest daughter] meerly [sic] acting out the expectations of her parents with regards to the bullying. […] The kids in class 3 & 4 have all settled down now and are getting on fine.”

Unbeknownst to her, a new parent at that school would shortly be contacting us about their son whom they’d placed in the same class our eldest child had been in, and who was there as Pauline was writing her letter to us. This boy had left a previous school due to traumatic bullying, and Mark Thornton had assured his family that “we have no bullying here”. It didn't take long for the truth to be laid bare: “[my son] kept telling us that these boys called him "dumb", "stupid", closed a desk lid on his hands, told him that he's an idiot, slow, stuff he didn't even have to deal with at the other school. During the lunch breaks he was subjected to more gang bullying by those several boys from his class.”

So much for settling down and getting on fine…

Speaking Out

Should families have notions of speaking out, Alicia Hamberg can set them straight about the potential consequences of doing so: “among the more serious consequences that might occur, it is worth looking at a few examples. For what it’s worth, they are not made up, and they are only examples. They are all things I have seen or read people report, some of these things occur again and again. You might get intimidating messages or threats (to life and limb, sanity and health; yes, even threats of violence occur); you might either get threatened with a lawsuit (and significant loss of money, some thug might claim — erroneously, but what does it matter? how do people know, unless they spend money on a lawyer?) or you are actually sued (it happens, as we all know) and the intention might not even be to win, but to scare other potential critics and to destroy your life; you might find yourself the subject of frivolous reports to police or social services; your property might be destroyed; your children might no longer be welcome to see their old friends; your employer might get phone calls or mail with accusations or insinuations about various things; if the rest of your family is still involved in waldorf or with anthroposophy, you risk losing contact with them (example of an actual threat: if you complain to the media, your children won’t ever see their grandparents again); you will be called a wide variety of ugly names; then, of course, there is general smearing and defamation of character — in private and in public you will risk being dragged into the gutter: you are not only ignorant or hateful or bitter or vengeful or a darned materialist, which speak to your lowly character, perhaps you are also some kind of crazed sex maniac or you are debilitated or you are mentally disturbed or you are guilty of criminal acts or you suffer some other moral or mental decrepitude or derangement.”

Such smearing could take the form of an apparently innocent conversation between two parents where it’s explained that the real reason a family left the school suddenly was because the mother couldn’t stop shaking due to her constantly giving her children sugary drinks.

But it can also have much more sinister implications as shown by Professor David Mollet’s experience at the hands of the Christchurch Rudolf Steiner School, back in 1985: “I just didn’t agree with the kind of things that were happening in different relationships between teachers and between teachers and parents and so on.

“And I found that especially one person, perhaps I should say it, but he had to my knowledge at least six affairs with different teachers and parents and here he was, teaching children. But suddenly, they were spreading the most wild rumours about me, that all my qualifications were fraudulent, and I’d actually been deported from the USA. I mean, they were all just vile lies - that’s why I mentioned the CV, because if you want to check it, you can!

“So, I left the school. I really felt I was dealing, quite honestly, with people who had no integrity, no morality, no conscience. All I could see is that they were motivated by self-interest.

“It had to go up to Wellington and in the end, I had to fly up and see the head of immigration in Wellington.

“It’s very hard to forgive the Christchurch Rudolf Steiner School for causing that amount of distress. And sadly I have to say, it was easily the worst experience that I ever had on this planet.”

What’s worse is that rumours of Professor Mollet being a danger to children started circulating at that school and persist to this day, as the ex-husband of a former pupil revealed in May 2012: “evidently, he used to make inappropriate advances to the girls in her class. She actually shivered when she told me about him.” Since the school was so keen to get rid of him, why didn’t they reveal this to the authorities and get him arrested, instead of insinuating his qualifications were forgeries, and failing to get him deported as a result? That in itself shows where the truth really lies...

Furthermore, the actions the Norwich Initiative Steiner School took against Jon Heeds’ family are truly shocking, as revealed in a letter he sent to the school community in April 2013: “A few days later came the aforementioned meeting and another chance to put things right. Unfortunately even after a few days to think of sensible solutions to the original issue the school had failed to come up with any sensible suggestions. I had a few suggestions which they agreed to consider and feed back to me afterwards. I expressed my displeasure at the way the school had handled both the initial problem and my complaint but for a brief minute felt we were getting somewhere. Then at the end of this meeting I was informed that the school had raised a child protection issue against me concerning improper sexual conduct with my daughter. I don’t think I either need to or even could accurately describe how I felt upon hearing this. I still now even weeks later cannot truly believe that an organisation that deems itself fit to look after children could stoop to such disgustingly low standards.”


But even if one somehow manages to get through all of this and get an official judgement against a Steiner school for these types of abuses, it isn’t the end of the line when it comes to “setting the record straight, Steiner style”.

When Jo Sawfoot won her case against the Norwich Initiative Steiner School, Sandie Tolhurst, the school's administrator, went online to give her version of the events, going against the judge’s decision with gusto. Jo Sawfoot and her family cannot respond because, unlike the school, they’ve signed a confidentiality clause.

The Titirangi Rudolf Steiner School did the same once our public settlement grabbed the interest of the media, and Mark Thornton decided that contradicting everything he’d willingly signed in front of the Human Rights Tribunal Director and publicly label an eight year old child a liar, was the right thing to do to convince the world that the school was the “safe, natural and peaceful learning haven” it is advertised as. Without mentioning the settlement, or sharing the joint signed Statement along with his contradictory Open Letter, prospective parents are obviously none the wiser about his duplicity.

More recently, the unreserved apology Michael Park Steiner School made to one of their neighbours, had to be virtually retracted once Dee Whitby, the previous principal, vehemently disapproved of her successor coming clean about how this “valued neighbour” had been so appallingly treated by the school under her management, for over a decade.

As Alicia Hamberg explains, these schools have a “tendency to ignore problems instead of dealing with them. Hoping they’ll just go away. Or that nobody will notice. Or that you can bluff yourself out of a crisis. Waldorf schools have these fantastic communities that everyone has to believe are fantastic, or the image crumbles. Bad things happening detracts from the feeling of being blessed.”

If what former parents or students bring up threatens to challenge the school’s image, it certainly looks like, “basically, anything — invented, half-true or whatever, it doesn’t really matter — that can be used against you might be used against you, in any distorted shape or form; anything to preserve the movement and to rubbish you. It will not be about the validity or the substance of your experiences, claims or arguments — it will be about you.”

Too much evidence shows that vilification of families who speak up is not at all uncommon in Steiner Communities. Reports of reprisals are uniformly personally targeting. Retractions and deliberate distortions after accountability process help to explain the rarity of such events, whilst further enabling supporters to take to the media claiming the evidence of it is all hearsay and anecdotal.

As Margaret Sachs said on the Waldorf Critics list in September 2010, “I warn any satisfied Waldorf parents to pay more attention when families leave the school suddenly or unexpectedly and to dig deep to find out what really happened. Do not accept the school's version at face value. Ask questions. See if your questions are encouraged or discouraged. See if the answers really make sense in the context of the real world, not just the secretive murky world of Waldorf, where everything has meaning that you don't necessarily fully understand. And most importantly, call or write to the parents of the children who left and ask them to tell you about the situation from their point of view.”

Aren’t we sick yet of the claim to champion and support children by people found to be simultaneously targeting, undermining and abusing them? 

How many more scapegoats will be required before such situations are properly resolved?

Will anyone within the Steiner movement be willing to discuss these matters with us, or are they happy to silently condone such actions because, as Alicia puts it,“many waldorf educators -- including those who make videos, including those who seem a bit more enlightened (or have humour) -- feel that anyone who complains or anyone who is or feels hurt must have something wrong with their heads. Either they’re disturbed, or they’re hysterical, or... in any case, the ‘fault’ is with them” ?

The sketch of Adam and Eve being cast out of Eden was taken from Bring the Books;

Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden was taken from Italian Renaissance;

The painting of the scapegoat was taken from Wikipedia.

Update (15-Dec-2014)

We have noticed that the school has finally taken down its “Open Letter”. On the 21st of May 2013 the Titirangi Rudolf Steiner School had assured the Director of the Human Rights Tribunal of New Zealand that “they will take down the letter”. On the 12th of June of that year, they advised the HRT that “the letter has been taken off their website”, which was yet another blatant lie. It took over a year and a half for them to finally do as they assured they had.

Update (22-Sep-2014)

We have discovered that three of the links contained herein are to posts that have been taken down since the publication of this article. This is possibly due to proceedings between us and a number of different parties in relation to defamation. These links will remain broken and we will not make any attempt to re-link them until such time as these proceedings have concluded.

1861-2011 : 150 years of Rudolf Steiner

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