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Posted September 18, 2004 

J. Steven Alter
Wilmette, Illinois

August 28th, 2004

To the Editor:

I am saddened and dismayed to learn of the lawsuit filed against John Dewey Academy and its leadership. While I recognize and accept that the scope and details of the lawsuit are newsworthy, I am nonetheless troubled by its nature and content, and the defamatory consequences that will doubtlessly be endured by the academy’s graduates, students and faculty.

In the interest of honest and full disclosure, I am a graduate of John Dewey Academy (Class of ’92). After twelve years in academia and investment banking, I returned to John Dewey Academy, and have spent this summer working with students and doing my best to contribute and give back to my alma mater. This summer has been a very intense, deeply fulfilling experience during which I have had the honor and opportunity to share in the growth and renewal for a small number of very special, bright yet destructive adolescents. I have come to care about all these dynamic students, and have a special fondness for many, and do not wish for these students to suffer or be diminished by actions that, in my opinion, are motivated by the base and avaricious aims of an embittered former student and his family.

I write in the interest of these students, and in defense of the academy and its faculty, because these are worthy of my support. The academy, its students (both prior and current) and its faculty have permitted me great successes and indeed a life that I would have surely forfeited were it not for the John Dewey Academy. Be not mistaken, were it not for my experiences at John Dewey Academy, I would now be in an institution, in jail or dead.

Why? Because, when I arrived at John Dewey Academy in 1989 I was an angry, frightened, self-loathing adolescent who had all but given up on himself (as many others had already.) By this time, I had already struggled with the suicide of my sister, the attempted suicide of my parent, and the divisive and destructive divorce of my parents. I had been in treatment since the age of five, and had become jaded and cynical with regard to psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers. I had been institutionalized for nearly three years at the renowned Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas as well as facilities in Illinois. I had failed out of my sophomore year at my high school and, as a result, I had been recommended for remedial, special education classes. I engaged in a multitude of self-destructive behaviors and had generally resigned myself to a life of failure and (at best) mediocrity. I felt helpless, hopeless and powerless to change.

But John Dewey Academy was unlike any place I had been before. Contrary to my prior experiences, the onus of responsibility and accountability was placed squarely on my shoulders. I was expected to grow up and behave in a moral and responsible manner. The students and faculty, including Drs. Bratter and Steiner, demanded honesty and integrity, and consistently raised their expectations – thereby facilitating my own drive to achieve and succeed. I was not treated as a failure, or as damaged goods; rather, I was confronted on my poor decisions and forced to take ownership of my choices and actions. Contrary to my past endeavors, therapeutic and otherwise, I was empowered. I was empowered to take control of my life – to eschew the patient/victim mentality through which I had resigned myself to any number of disorders and diagnoses that essentially stripped me of choice, self-determination and (most significantly) personal accountability.

Once I accepted that I was personally accountable and responsible for actions – once I engaged in positive, productive decision-making and chose to change my life for the better – I quickly excelled personally, emotionally and academically. Upon graduation, I attended University of Chicago and will be completing my MPhil with Honors in Political Science and Economics at a prestigious university in the United Kingdom.

The point that I am endeavoring to make is that while I may have been capable of change without John Dewey Academy, the school, my community and the faculty served as necessary role models for integrity, honesty and decency. They provided a safe and supportive environment that, while stressful and demanding, encouraged and facilitated a renewal – a true and achievable opportunity to overcome my past failures in favor of a meaningful existence and a lifetime of success. I owe a great deal to John Dewey Academy, Drs. Bratter and Steiner, and the others who invested in me when other had given up and written me off as a bad investment. Therefore, it pains me to witness this sincerity, humanity and integrity called into question through what I believe are unfounded and rapacious claims. It may be that these events occurred, but I categorically reject the notion that members of the school, and in particular Drs. Bratter and Steiner, were aware or had knowledge of these behaviors. Had such activities been revealed or disclosed, the school, its students and faculty, would have demanded the immediate resignation of the Ms. Hampton and the expulsion of Mr. Helfand. There would have been no discussion, no negotiation, and most certainly no complicity on the part of Drs. Bratter and Steiner.

Indeed, it should be noted that the academy asserts three (3) cardinal rules that extend to all students, faculty and staff – whether on or off campus. These cardinal rules are simple and unyielding – no drugs or controlled substances (including nicotine and alcohol), no violence and no sexual acts between members of the community (this includes students, faculty and staff.) These rules are not merely handbook entries, but are core tenets of the therapeutic community. That such behavior may have occurred is reprehensible on the part of the parties involved. To believe that such actions would be tolerated by the community is plainly absurd and thoroughly inconsistent with the very nature of John Dewey Academy.

In my opinion, the lawsuit brought by the Helfands is tenuous, unsupported and motivated by greed. This is an unfortunate matter, but more destructive than the sheer nuisance of the lawsuit is the toll it may take on John Dewey Academy; it endangers a school that is dedicated to assisting young men and women achieve control and success in their lives – a school which has helped countless students in its short history, and continues to empower angry, gifted adolescents to be productive and successful members within their communities. It is unfortunate that Mr. Helfand chose to engage in destructive behaviors after (and perhaps during) his residence at John Dewey Academy, and it is also unfortunate that these actions contributed to his expulsion from college – I extend my empathy to his family for this tragedy and encourage Mr. Helfand to again take control of his life – but to claim that John Dewey Academy, or its faculty, are responsible and liable for these actions and behaviors again strips accountability and responsibility from those involved. It perpetuates the notion that Mr. Helfand is a victim and unable to control himself. Helfand made choices, admittedly poor choices, and has incurred consequences accordingly. That he or his family are unhappy with these consequences is understandable; that they have chosen to place blame for these action on John Dewey Academy, its dedicated faculty and students is unconscionable.

J. Steven Alter

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