A highly sensational case filed recently against the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., may end up raising interesting legal questions about the responsibility of private schools to supervise the actions of their school psychologists. In the $10 million civil suit filed in D.C. Superior Court, Arthur Newmyer, father of a kindergarten student at Sidwell, alleges that Jack Huntington, while working as the school psychologist and counseling Newmyer’s daughter, carried on a sexual affair with Newmyer’s wife, Tara, a former associate attorney at Dickstein Shapiro LLP, a large Washington law firm. So far, at least three judges have recused themselves from the case, apparently due to their close ties to the prestigious institution.
Earlier this year, Huntington left the school. The lawsuit contends that he was fired after the school learned about sexually explicit e-mails that Huntington sent to Tara Newmyer from the school’s computer system. According to the complaint, Huntington and Tara Newmyer arranged “play dates” for the girl so that they could meet and carry on their clandestine affair. The counseling sessions, the complaint says, occurred off school property.
A spokesman for Sidwell has said that the school will “vigorously defend” itself against allegations that he said were “completely without merit.” The explosive allegations in the lawsuit filed by Arthur Newmyer, himself a Sidwell graduate who has been extremely active in supporting the school over the years, have become a major topic of discussion at the private school, whose students include President Obama’s daughters Malia and Sasha.
Psychologists’ ethics rules require them to put the needs of their clients first; in this case, that would be the kindergarten student. The ethics rules in Maryland and the District of Columbia, the relevant jurisdictions, prohibit a psychologist from having an affair with a parent of someone he is counseling.
So why sue the school? The complaint charges the school with “negligent supervision” — claiming that the school had an obligation “to supervise the employees under its control in order to prevent them from harming students in its care.” Thus, any emotional harm to Arthur Newmyer and to his daughter as a result of Huntington’s actions could be legally placed at Sidwell’s door. The complaint says that school officials knew that Huntington was counseling the girl, knew of the affair, and consented to the affair, continuing “to support his actions for nearly a year” until he left the school.
Expect the school to contest these allegations. Tara Newmyer’s attorney has said that Huntington was not treating her daughter “in any professional capacity,” and according to The Washington Post, the school sent a letter to parents asserting that it “does not believe that anyone it employed ever had a therapeutic relationship” with the girl. So this interesting and sad case will require some factual development before anyone can predict its end. Still, one has to wonder: if the situation described in the Complaint caused the young daughter so much “emotional distress, mental anguish, humiliation, [and] embarrassment,” then is filing this high-profile lawsuit really the best thing for her?