04.14.11

What's Really Behind the Prep-School Mom's Twitter Meltdown

What started as a routine dispute at the nation’s No. 1 prep school has gone nuclear on social media. Nick Summers on what’s really behind the outlandish accusations.

Private schools and parents often clash. And in New York, where there are the best schools and the wealthiest parents, those clashes can get ugly. But at Manhattan’s Trinity School—the storied, 300-year-old academy that has educated Rupert Murdoch’s son Lachlan, Truman Capote, and Yo-Yo Ma, among a long line of notable names—one parent is taking her fight to an unusual, and very public, extreme.

This disgruntled mother has gone beyond drop-off huddles with other moms and dads, turning instead to Facebook, Twitter, and parenting message boards to unleash a series of what are widely viewed as outlandish charges against Trinity’s board, without any hard evidence to support them. But supported or not, her accusations are now percolating through the gossipy private-school community. For an institution like Trinity, ranked the No. 1 prep school in the country and accustomed to resolving its squabbles in private, this is wildly uncharted territory.

The parent is Seema Kalia, whose daughter has a prized position in the second grade at Trinity. Last year Kalia, a law school graduate and former TV host who has also written for The Huffington Post, feuded with a school staffer, telling Trinity that she thought the woman’s credentials were phony. Trinity, as powerful prep schools often do when challenged, came down hard. The headmaster told Kalia and her husband, fund manager Vedula Murti, to stop talking about the subject in the small Trinity world—or else their daughter would be in danger of expulsion.

“If you are unwilling to meet with us,” wrote headmaster John Allman in an Oct. 13, 2010, email, “I cannot see how the school can continue its relationship with your family.” Trinity believed that Kalia agreed to drop the matter. Just to make sure, though, Allman underlined the school’s warning again the next day by email: keep up the smears, and your second grader is out.

In December Trinity chose not to offer a kindergarten spot to the family’s young son—and things got nasty from there. The parents furiously protested. Kalia says that school officials dissed her at faculty meetings, and waged a “horrible kind of hate campaign” against her. The school says that in January, Kalia, who is of Indian descent, wrote emails to fellow parents accusing the school staffer of “racism and incompetence”; claiming that the family was withholding a large financial gift until the woman’s firing; and describing Trinity’s board as “overt bully unintelligent racists.”

The patrician Trinity School is caught in a social-media dilemma: respond to the allegations and legitimize them, or stay silent and allow them to fester.

The school came down hard again: the family would have to leave Trinity at the end of the school year. And their daughter would be ejected immediately if Kalia kept up her campaign. But Kalia has instead escalated, going to war with hundreds of posts on Twitter, Facebook, and the rumor-hungry forums of UrbanBaby.com—and offering a whole new set of allegations that Trinity’s trustees have conspired to commit tax and accounting fraud.

Little if any evidence has emerged to support Kalia’s many accusations. Asked repeatedly for documentation or even an explanation of how she came to believe there was financial wrongdoing, she has declined. In an interview and email correspondence, Kalia refused to back up her claims with what could be considered legitimate proof, and she rarely dwelled on any one charge long enough or coherently enough to examine it before moving on to the next. Trinity, for its part, denies each of her charges in unequivocal language.

Nonetheless, Kalia’s incessant postings since April 4 have roiled the tiny, super-elite world of the New York City private school system. The patrician school, observers say, is caught in a social media dilemma: respond to the allegations and legitimize them; or stay silent, and allow them to fester.

The tweets are strident and often grandiose. “Trinity trustees:Don't take a great school down with you.RESIGN TODAY.You failed us all, don't destroy the School too,” reads one from Monday. Another: “Controlling internet? Seizing email? CongratsTrinity Trustees are now an ‘oppressive-foreign-dictator-level’ of crazy.” Often, Kalia appends the hashtag #trinitytrusteesfraud. Longer posts with difficult to follow arguments and inaccurate information appear on her Facebook page.

Despite the rancor, Kalia’s daughter remains enrolled at Trinity. The school has avoided speaking about the situation until now, but agreed to talk to The Daily Beast.

“All the allegations that I’ve seen are utterly baseless, and absolutely false,” says Trinity’s spokesman, Kevin Ramsey. Told that Kalia had repeatedly questioned on Twitter why Trinity had not denied that it was the subject of an IRS investigation, Ramsey laughed. “I’ll deny it right now,” he said. “We have received no letter. There’s no investigation, there’s no audit, there’s been absolutely no communication from the IRS regarding Trinity School.” An IRS spokesman said that as a matter of policy, the agency does not confirm or deny whether it is investigating any given person or organization. Ramsey flatly denied Kalia’s allegation that Trinity’s trustees voted themselves compensation and tuition breaks. (At tony schools like Trinity, trustees are typically expected to help bring in millions of dollars in donations, not take $35,000 tuition credits for themselves.)

Some who work in the New York private school scene think Trinity has waited too long to speak. “Parents in general go on ‘all rumor is based on truth.’ So if somebody’s talking this much about it, there’s gotta be some truth to it, and people want to listen,” says Dana Haddad, an educational consultant who helps students get into schools like Trinity, and who has been following the fracas. “Every school, if they’re not stupid, should be worried about social media. They [Trinity] have been going on ‘Let’s not respond,’ but I don’t know how well that’s working.”

In addition to deluging Twitter and Facebook, Kalia has also sought out the traditional media and has hired a public relations firm. By Trinity’s count, seven New York newsrooms, print and broadcast, have begun looking into her allegations. So far, none has bit. (Kalia did not approach The Daily Beast, which began reporting this story upon learning that her charges had become a topic of discussion among parents.)

Murti, Kalia’s husband, is silent on her campaign. “No comment,” he said when reached at his office, a $200 billion Canadian institutional fund manager. “I have nothing to add.”

It is, of course, possible that she will deliver on her proof and deal the 300-year-old school a serious blow. But in Kalia’s world, proof seems always just around the corner. As she tells it, a crossing guard overheard an administrator whisper about trustee resignations “tomorrow.” She has damning IRS documents, but says they can’t be released for 60 days. On Twitter, she advises her followers to “Wait for it…”

Working the gossips of UrbanBaby into a lather is a low bar; losing them lower still. Posters there have now turned against Kalia. “SK should write a clear, chronological account what she knows, how she knows, with links to the evidence. This [linked] Facebook posting is barely literate, and definitely incomprehensible … There is clearly nothing to her ‘allegations.’”

New York private school parents regularly make headlines for their outrageous behavior—last month a Manhattan mother sued her 4-year-old’s preschool for not adequately preparing her for an admissions exam. But the Kalia situation, observers of this world agree, is something new entirely.

“The most normal people can absolutely go insane when it comes to their child’s education,” says Suzanne Rheault, the founder of Aristotle Circle, an educational consultancy in New York. “For this woman it’s gone to a whole ’nother degree.”

Nick Summers is a senior writer for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Previously, he was the media columnist for The New York Observer, founded the blog IvyGate, and was editor in chief of the Columbia Daily Spectator.