U.S. News

02.07.13

Elite Dalton School Breaches Privacy—and Gets Away With It

The school sent a list of rejected and pending applications to alumni, urging them to hit up those parents for donations. Outrageous as it was, Dalton will probably emerge unscathed, writes Eliza Shapiro.

“What the hell were they thinking?”

It was a rhetorical question exclaimed by one recent Dalton graduate after learning on Thursday that the admissions office at Dalton, the elite New York City private school, had emailed alumni and major donors a list of kids rejected by the school for this admissions cycle.

The email apparently urged alumni and donors to lobby the rejected families, whose names were all included on the email, to give money to the school anyway. Dalton charges $38,000 a year in tuition.

"We apologize for and deeply regret the release of this information," Ellen Stein, head of the school, wrote in an emailed statement late on Thursday, noting that she had personally apologized to all 11 alumni who had been affected. (See the full statement below.)

The press had already run away with the story, however. The New York Post broke the news less than a week before thousands of anxious parents are due to receive acceptance or rejection letters from dozens of elite private schools around the city.

“It’s a huge embarrassment,” said Amanda Uhry, owner of Manhattan Private School Advisors, which helps parents get their kids into private schools. Uhry says she’s gotten more than 30 calls since the letters went out, all from prospective Dalton applicants worried they didn’t have the means to get their children into the school.

The parenting website UrbanBaby.com was flooded with posts from New York City parents, speculating in Gossip Girl fashion about who might have leaked the email to the press.

“I feel a smug satisfaction that Babby got hers,” one commenter wrote, referring to Dalton’s infamous admissions officer, Elizabeth Krents, whose nickname for in-the-know parents is Babby. “Those jerks at Dalton.”

The Dalton School, which occupies a stately brick building on the Upper East Side a few blocks from Central Park, is one of New York’s most exclusive and rigorous private schools and boasts an impressive roster of celebrity alumni including Anderson Cooper and Claire Danes.   
  
The email in question was allegedly addressed to some of Dalton’s most generous donors and active alumni, and includes the names of the families whose applications were either rejected or still pending.   
 
Dalton’s communications director, Jim Zulakis, said that the school “does not solicit families who are in the admissions process.”  
  
Error or not, New York private-school consultants and experts say that despite Thursday’s embarrassing headlines, Dalton will still come out on top in the end.   
  
“Nothing Dalton does would dampen desire for this school,” says Emily Glickman, president of Abacus Guide Educational Consulting, another firm that helps kids get into New York’s top schools. “I think this is a mistake and schools make mistakes. Ultimately, no one holds these schools accountable for their mistakes because they want their children to get in.”  
  
Says Uhry: “I don’t know one person who would say, ‘Oh, I’m not applying there now. Dalton is Dalton. It’s the golden ticket.”   
  
Glickman pointed out that Dalton recovered quickly from its most recent wealth-related scandal. In September, the Daily News revealed that application forms for Dalton asked parents to fill in their title—and options included Princess, Senator, and Ambassador.

“Ultimately, no one holds these schools accountable for their mistakes because they want their children to get in.”

One alumnus says it’s a simple reality that elite private schools need money to fill the spending gap between operating costs and tuition per pupil.   
  
“Your kid is more likely to get into any school if you’re a donor,” the alumnus said, “and that’s true anywhere,” including other elite private schools across the country and Ivy League colleges.   
  
Other alumni think the school may not emerge entirely unscathed this time.  
  
Another recent Dalton graduate worried that “Dalton already gets an extraordinarily bad rap for being an elitist country club,” and recent efforts by the school to expand the racial and socioeconomic diversity of its incoming classes will be ignored “because this scandal is just more fun.”

The lingering effects of the email scandal may be felt far outside Dalton alone.   
  
“This sets a disturbing precedent,” Uhry says, that could lead to a “domino effect” of other exclusive schools mining parents for money during the application process and making it impossible for all but the wealthiest families to send their kids to New York’s top schools.   
  
“If Dalton is doing this,” she asks, before referring to another elite private school across Central Park from Dalton, “what’s to stop Trinity from doing it too?”

Stein's email:

Dear Dalton Community,

Some of you may have seen recent reports about Dalton in the media. We would like to clarify the facts relative to these reports.

In November 2012, a committee of twelve alumni from one class met to plan their upcoming reunion and to discuss a class reunion gift. In an effort to be sensitive to alumni families and other applicants, as a matter of practice, we do not involve families in one-on-one philanthropic solicitations while they are in the application process. Following the meeting, minutes were sent to the committee that listed eight classmates’ names and their recent admissions history. Three other classmates were listed as being in the admissions process as of November 2012. We apologize for and deeply regret the release of this information.

We are reviewing our protocols to ensure that information about the admissions status of all Dalton families and applicants is protected and remains confidential. We have reached out to apologize personally to those eleven alumni whose names were listed. We greatly value our alumni families and their active engagement in our school community.

We apologize to our broader community and want to assure all of you that confidentiality and privacy remain fundamental values at Dalton. Rest assured that personal information about Dalton families, faculty, staff and alumni are treated with the utmost respect. Dalton’s strength depends upon the bond of trust among all members of our community.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns.

Sincerely,

Ellen Stein
Head of School