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Fast Times at ESD

How an underage day-drinking party at the headmistress’s house eventually dragged the elite Episcopal School of Dallas into the Texas Supreme Court.
By Jessica Pishko |
Stan Fellows
When the Episcopal School of Dallas hired Meredyth Moredock Cole as its headmistress in 2013, the board of directors must surely have thought it had found the perfect woman to lead the institution beyond the student-teacher sex scandal. The ugly matter that generated headlines had just been settled at great cost a year earlier. Cole, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is a no-nonsense woman who was described in the board’s introductory letter to the ESD community as “an avid runner, tennis player, outdoors enthusiast, and reader.”

She had worked for 23 years at The Madeira School, a prestigious boarding and day school in the Washington, D.C., area that was founded in 1906. That letter went on to describe how Cole headed up Madeira’s communications and branding efforts for more than 18 years; how she was “deeply respected and beloved at Madeira for her integrity, her wisdom, her warmth, her compassion, her collegial sensibility, her passion for the education of young people”; how she “believes the ‘search for truth’ in the Episcopal tradition can and should play a powerful role in a great school.” The letter was signed by four of the biggest names in Dallas society: W. Plack Carr Jr., Ken Schnitzer, Nancy Perot Mulford, and J.H. Cullum Clark.

Cole’s tenure at ESD would be a short one, though. She didn’t last five years at the school, leaving in the wake of another headline-generating lawsuit. This time, it involved a protective, widowed father; the expulsion of his allegedly pot-smoking, school-skipping son; and a crusade over the unchecked use of discipline by faith-based schools, a fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Texas.

The lawsuit raised a question, and not strictly a legal one: just how far should a rich parent go in defense of his misbehaving son?

A year before Cole moved to North Dallas with her husband and two high school-age children, ESD had agreed to pay a former student millions of dollars to settle allegations of sexual assault against a student under the age of consent. Though the precise amount of the settlement was not made public, a jury had earlier awarded Jane Doe more than $9 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Doe had been a 16-year-old sophomore when a history teacher began an eight-month sexual relationship with her that was discovered in 2009. A nearly two-month civil trial implicated not just the teacher but administrators at ESD who’d looked the other way and then, making matters even worse, forced Doe to withdraw from the school after the situation became the subject of gossip. Some members of the ESD community rallied to the school’s defense on blogs, calling the victim disruptive, accusing Doe’s parents of wanting a payday, and arguing that outsiders didn’t understand the school or its culture.

Prior to Cole, Fr. Stephen Swann had been the only person to serve as ESD’s headmaster. The year of the jury verdict, 2011, he stepped down from his post, as did prominent board members John Eagle and Joe Colonnetta. (Swann died in September 2018.) After a D Magazine story about the Jane Doe case, Eagle said that ESD planned to review its expulsion procedures to “make sure it’s a thoughtful process.” Despite some changes, though, those expulsion procedures appeared to remain in place.

Cole was well aware of the lawsuit and its impact on the school’s finances when she started at ESD. In her letter to the students and parents, she wrote, “Building on the themes of academic excellence and faith-based education, I look forward to building partnerships, working together, and capitalizing on strengths and talents. My goal is for ESD—including its faculty, leadership, and programs—to be recognized globally as a leader in 21st century education.” She professed her commitment to the school’s religious mission and extolled a strategic planning process that would “ensure long-term financial sustainability.”

Costing up to $30,000 per year, ESD has educated prominent Dallas families since Swann founded the school in 1974. With more than 1,000 students in grades pre-K through high school, and with its own chicken coop and a butterfly garden, it’s one of the largest co-ed private schools in Dallas. It’s also a place that’s “all about the money,” according to former students and ex-employees. A former student described the social scene as a “caste system,” with wealthy students at the top throwing parent-sanctioned, alcohol-infused parties at their palatial houses.

Or the party could be thrown by the son of the new headmistress.

Come to light: A few days after his son was forced to withdraw from ESD, Dan Patterson hired attorney Larry Friedman, kicking off a case that cost him in the high six figures.

At the end of Cole’s first school year at ESD, her son, Peter, decided to have some classmates over to his house while his parents were out of town. (Except where noted, all minors in this story are identified by pseudonyms.) Peter was a junior and played lacrosse for ESD. He called it a “DARTY”—a day-drinking party—and advertised it on Twitter. His schoolmates texted screenshots of the post to each other. Peter would later say he intended to have only a few lacrosse buddies over to play video games, but the situation got out of hand when, according to some kids present, a group of sophomore boys—including Paul Patterson, along with some of his classmates—rolled up with beer in hand. Between turns at beer pong, some of the kids smoked weed. Around dinnertime, the party wound down, and Peter cleaned up before a house sitter arrived.

But word got around. Cole learned of her son’s DARTY from Schnitzer, the board member, who called her and suggested that she needed to resolve the situation fast. Cole confronted her son, and he confessed. Schnitzer took the lead in the ensuing investigation, recruiting Jeff Laba, assistant head of upper school, and Donna Hull, head of upper school, to figure out which students were involved and, more specifically, who was drinking and how much.

According to ESD documents that would surface in court proceedings, Laba and Hull interviewed about two dozen students who were allegedly at the party, the bulk of them freshmen and sophomores. Most of them copped to “holding beers,” so as to appear cool, but not drinking much. (A former student told me they all “got their stories straight” before being interviewed.) Paul, a football player, denied bringing beer or drinking. Laba wrote in his investigation notes: “Stonewalled.” For reasons that are unclear, one student, according to Laba’s notes, told him “more information than [he] wanted to know.” The kids who’d gone to the party at headmistress Cole’s house were all punished with a choice of detention or community service.

Paul chose detention. He also wrote Cole an email to apologize. Her response was magnanimous: “Thanks for your note … . As I have said to others, some of our best learning is experiential!”

To Paul, the whole thing wasn’t a big deal. But for Cole, just one year in to her tenure as ESD’s head of school, her son’s ill-advised DARTY was something else. She focused on reforming the “disciplinary matrix,” a document that outlined the punishments for infractions by degree of seriousness. Because ESD is “not a zero-tolerance school” and prided itself on being more accepting than its private school competitors, Cole needed different levels of punishment that would both allow room for rehabilitation and ensure some predictability. The matrix was designed to include options for first, second, and third offenses, the punishment increasing for each. So, for example, the first time a student is caught with drugs or alcohol, the punishment includes “minimum one-day suspension,” increasing to two days for the second offense and “separation from the school” for the third offense.

Not long after her second school year began, in September 2014, Cole sent home a letter to parents. It was a description of the new “reasonable, consistent, and fair disciplinary structure,” along with what was now a five-page disciplinary matrix. The letter ended with a warning and perhaps a premonition: “Gossip is poison; avoid it.”

At the beginning of the 2014 school year, paul patterson was still struggling with his mother’s death. She’d been killed in a car crash just a couple of years earlier. He had racked up a series of demerits, according to ESD documents, but they were all minor. He’d worn the wrong belt, been late for class, kicked a churro under a lunch table, and farted in class.
But there were signs that something lay beneath the surface. Paul was evaluated by an outside expert in contact with the ESD school counselor. At that point, Paul was concerned that he needed help focusing, and school documents note that he had recently started therapy again and was having trouble paying attention in class. Paul began experiencing feelings of sadness and anxiety, and school documents indicate that the school counselor advised that he was having issues and reported that he said, “Sometimes his life feels like it is getting worse and worse.”

Against that background, here is the off-campus jaunt that caused the ruckus: Paul and his friend Mark left school, in violation of school policy, in Paul’s gray GMC Yukon to get a bite at Chick-fil-A. They parked in front of an empty lot on South Better Drive, a block from ESD, and Mark lit up a marijuana pipe.

A stay-at-home mom who lived nearby saw the SUV and called the Dallas Police Department and ESD to complain that the Yukon had been there “quite often.” Within the hour, this tip—as well as the fact that the Yukon belonged to Paul—fell into the lap of Laba, the assistant head of upper school. Laba, who has taught at ESD for almost three decades, is well-liked and genial. One student told me he called him the “sock police” because Laba typically assigned demerits for petty infractions. But Laba and Hull, the head of upper school, hauled Paul and Mark out of class and interviewed them separately.

When asked if he’d gone off campus to smoke pot, Paul denied it. Laba told him that the school’s video cameras would show Paul leaving campus in his Yukon. Paul then conceded he’d left campus but denied smoking weed. Laba asked to search the Yukon for drugs. In the parking lot, Paul asked to call his father. He was concerned about some chewing tobacco and two “old beers” in a golf bag. This is all according to court documents that would later be filed.

Dan seems to have suffered more than his son. He’s lost friends. He can talk about the lawsuit incessantly, pulling each piece out to look at its facets before putting it back with a sigh.

When Paul finally reached his dad, Dan pulled out the disciplinary matrix letter from headmistress Cole and told his son that having alcohol on campus (the “old beers” in the golf bag) wasn’t a huge deal. “You’re going to be suspended one way or another. If it were me, I’d let him search it, but it’s up to you,” he said.

Paul, weighing his options, asked Laba what the punishment was for refusing a car search. Paul says that Laba told him it would result in a one-day suspension. After some internal calculus, Paul took the suspension and went home. The next day, Paul went to campus (even though he was not supposed to be there) and apologized to Laba for lying about leaving campus for lunch but again asserted that he had not smoked weed.

Dan, Paul’s dad, went for a meeting with Laba and Hull, who explained that “expulsion was on the table.” Dan says the school wanted Paul drug-tested; the school says Dan chose to do that himself. Either way, Dan sent his son to have both a urine test (which measures recent use) and a hair test (for distant use) for marijuana. The quick urine test came back negative, and Laba agreed to let Paul return to school until a final determination was made.

The next afternoon, Dan asked his son, “How is the hair test going to come out?” Paul confessed that he had smoked pot over the summer, meaning the hair test would come back positive. Seven days later, as predicted, the hair test showed that he’d used marijuana.

A couple of days later, with Dan present, headmistress Cole pulled Paul out of Spanish class. “This is going to be a difficult meeting,” she began. Paul, she said, needed to withdraw from ESD or he’d be expelled. Paul had to leave the ESD campus without talking to anyone. His online accounts were deactivated within an hour of the meeting. That weekend was ESD’s homecoming. Cole texted her employees Hull and Laba: “Does [Paul] have a date to homecoming?” thinking that his date would be sorely disappointed that Paul was no longer allowed on campus.

At this point, some parents would try to put the incident behind them. But Dan went the other direction. A few days after his son was forced to withdraw from ESD, he hired Dallas attorney Larry Friedman, well-known for defending drunken Dallas Cowboys and other troublesome rich and famous people, to represent his son. Later, Dan would also hire Craig Enoch, a former associate justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, to assist with a case that ended up costing Dan in the high six figures, by his accounting. Dan’s complaint says that he had invested “several hundred thousand dollars in tuition and private donations with the expectation that … the investment would benefit [his son’s] future collegiate and professional careers.” He sought compensation for lost tuition as well as damages for emotional distress.

Dan is a genial fellow who lives on a multi-acre lot in Lakewood, in a house designed by O’Neil Ford. It’s a registered historical site, a designation his deceased wife, Gail, had fought for. He calls himself a “tea snob” and, at least on the occasions when I met with him, was always dressed as if for hiking—comfortable shoes, long sleeves, sometimes a fleece vest—even though it was summer. He told me that he gets cold because he’s a practitioner of hot yoga. After graduating from Harvard Business School (where he met Gail), Dan was in the business of exercise, opening a network of gyms and then selling a diet plan. He made enough money to open a private equity firm.

Dan is so obsessed with his lawsuit against ESD that he decided to retire from his business early. His psychologist wrote in November 2015: “Obsessed with the legal problem. The ESD case continues to bear on him … . [H]e knows he was wronged—finds himself regressing, not wanting to speak in public.” In February 2016: “[Paul] says all [his dad] thinks about is ESD. ‘It’s always in the back of my mind.’ ”

The crux of Dan’s argument can be hard to grasp for an outsider. According to ESD, his son had smoked pot. He left campus. He lied. It’s a private school, and ESD can do what it sees fit. He told me via email: “The truth is that I don’t really care much what people believe and whether or not they question my motives. I know what happened to us, and I know other kids have suffered as badly and even worse at the hands of nasty people who they were taught to respect. It is a cause much bigger than [Paul] and me. And now that we have been victimized, I feel that I have the means and now the spirit to do what I can to further the interests of social justice.”

Social justice, it would seem, can be a matter of perspective. For Dan, it came down to a lot of details. Not only that his son was asked to leave but how he was asked to leave. And when a wealthy man is aggrieved, depositions and discovery will ensue. Dan and his team of lawyers went looking for dirt—and they found some.

Between October 1, when Dan first met with Laba and Hull, and October 10, when his son was asked to withdraw, emails between the administrators indicate that they were trying to justify Paul’s expulsion using headmistress Cole’s new disciplinary matrix. (Cole explicitly denied this in a deposition.) Administrators pointed to both ESD’s complete discretion as a private school and a matrix-adhering rationale based on finding multiple infractions in one day (leaving campus, lying about leaving campus, and so on).

Around 5 pm on Wednesday, October 8, after Paul’s hair test had come back positive, Laba emailed headmistress Cole several paragraphs of “clarifying thoughts” as to why Paul should be expelled under the disciplinary matrix. Laba totaled up Paul’s offenses and came to a calculated answer: “We have a student who refused to cooperate with a search. I would put this at a minimum of two days suspension … . We have a student who lied multiple times in one incident. This would be a minimum one day separation.”

Laba also focused on the party at headmistress Cole’s house the previous spring, the one where Paul had denied drinking. This was further proof of “having a story that does not match the other story given,” according to the school. Laba concluded his email: “This event goes over our unofficial three-day suspension maximum and, considering he was involved in a previous event (as a participant), I believe that we have enough here.” He later wrote, “I believe we are okay,” referring to the use of the matrix. “We do have latitude with the matrix.”

“That is the tricky part,” headmistress Cole wrote back. She added in another email that Paul had been “flying under the radar for some time … . I think he needs a level of intervention that three days of suspension is not going to remedy.” When asked in a deposition what she meant by this sentence, Cole testified under oath that at least twice, Mary McDermott Cook, Dan’s girlfriend, “pulled [her] aside and said to [her] that the drug and alcohol problem at ESD was a real problem and she was seeing it happen firsthand … . [M]y assumption was that firsthand was [Dan Patterson’s son].” When questioned by Dan’s counsel, Cole said that this information “wasn’t gossip and rumors.” (Cook says she never told Cole anything about drugs at ESD.)

Cole and Laba’s explanations for their reaction to Paul’s transgression suggest they were more concerned about his lying than his possible marijuana use that day. Cole clarified in her deposition that she thought the kid had been “drinking and/or doing drugs” for some time, but she dwelt more on his “depth of lying” and said that she expelled him for his “deep lying and unwillingness to accept responsibility.” “It was not just a simple lie,” she explained. “It was weighty.”

The lies did it. A student still dealing with his mother’s death was booted out for lying. That’s what seems to have put Dan on tilt. That and some other facts that came to light about how other misbehaving students had been treated.

After Paul left ESD, he enrolled at Dallas Lutheran. Internal ESD documents show that ESD reported to Paul’s new school that his dad, Dan, had a six out of 10 “realistic ranking” for his parenting skills, an odd assessment that ESD administrators never explained. Dan jokes today that at least they pegged him at above average.

Then there’s this: Mark, the other kid in the Yukon that day, was suspended for just one day. He would go on to rack up additional infractions and get nabbed for stealing snacks from the school commissary—with no serious punishment. In fact, records produced in the course of litigation show that no ESD student had been expelled for drug use for the past 10 years, even though about 28 students from January 1, 2013, to October 1, 2014, had drug infractions. Of that 28, only two were tested immediately and both had positive results. And only two got suspensions. Six received no punishment at all.

A football player who got drunk and pooped on the St. Mark’s football field was not allowed to walk at graduation, based, in part, on posts Cole found on Twitter and Snapchat.

When asked why Paul’s case was different and warranted expulsion, David Baad, ESD’s current headmaster, said through a spokesperson: “ESD’s goal for our students, current and former, is for them to become their best possible selves. Our responsibility is to educate students on how to overcome mistakes and grow. This process is framed by our founding tenets and hallmarks and supported by our student handbooks and code of conduct. During her time as ESD’s head of school, Meredyth Cole followed our policies and protocols in each individual instance of student discipline. I stand behind her decisions.” Baad said he would not answer any questions about individual disciplinary cases.

There were a number of those cases during the school year that Paul was forced to withdraw. Former students say one male student was drunk at a football game and groped female students. He was caught by police, according to school records, and received just two days of suspension. Another student was stripped of his position as senior president and relegated to in-school suspension until graduation after he pulled a homophobic prank. Essentially it involved fake jerseys at a lacrosse game that made fun of teachers who students believed were gay. Cole told the offending student that, as a leader in his class, he should have known better.

That boy’s parents hired Charla Aldous—who’d earlier represented Jane Doe—after someone at ESD called their son’s college of choice and urged the college to rescind its offer because the student was a bigot. Cole denied she did this or knew who did. But faced with a potential lawsuit, Cole called the college and persuaded administrators to return the offer of admission to the ESD student. He’s there now.

A football player who got drunk and pooped on the St. Mark’s football field was not allowed to walk at graduation, based, in part, on posts Cole found on Twitter and Snapchat. “They are students who are supposed to be at their pinnacle. They are about to graduate. Yet the judgment was to do that,” headmistress Cole said in a meeting with the boy’s mother, who threatened the school’s board that she would demand a full tuition refund. Referring to the outcome of the Charla Aldous-led case, the parent said, “The parents do talk, you know.”

Around the time that Paul left ESD, some big money moved out of the school. Daryl Johnston, the former Dallas Cowboys fullback, had donated more than $10 million for a wellness center named in Fr. Swann’s honor. He took his child out of ESD—though that likely could have been a result of Cole’s firing of the head football coach. The Romano family was rumored to have reduced its gifts to the school. And Michael Bishop pulled all four of his children from ESD and refused to pay their tuition. Likely none of this was related to the Patterson situation, but no matter the causes, ESD felt the hit to its bottom line. School officials filed a lawsuit against Bishop for the money they believe they are owed.
Cole formally left ESD in July 2018. Official word from the school was that another school had recruited her away. She is now headmistress of a school in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta. The new ESD headmaster, Baad, came from a Washington, D.C., Episcopal school.

Paul, who now attends TCU, told me that, overall, he liked his time at ESD. This is not a story about derailed lives. Money seems to have provided ample cushion for these people’s fall.

Dan seems to have suffered more than his son. He’s lost friends. He can talk about the lawsuit incessantly, pulling each piece out to look at its facets before putting it back with a sigh. He said the lawsuit is partly about “clearing [Paul’s] reputation,” but it’s also about fealty. It’s about Paul “knowing I was in his corner. His mother died. He was struggling anyways. He needed someone he could rely on.”

Dan lost his case against ESD — though it took some turns. He actually prevailed in a lower court, which led the school to appeal. The Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit overturned the lower court’s decision. And Dan then appealed to the Supreme Court of Texas, which in June refused to hear the case. Again, for most parents—even rich, angry parents—that would be where the story would end. But after the Supreme Court of Texas refused to hear the case, a press release was issued by an activist group that had been recruited by Dan. The Child-Friendly Faith Project is a Central Texas-based organization that monitors child abuse and neglect by religious institutions. Some of their claims were more than a bit hyperbolic.

The group said: “This devastating court decision now leaves Texas children attending purportedly religious-affiliated institutions throughout the state vulnerable to mistreatment, and even abuse and neglect, with no hope of help from Texas courts because parents will now not be legally allowed to sue a private school as long as it claimed a religious affiliation. This decision put thousands of children in Texas private religious schools at risk of abuse for generations to come, with no hope of help from Texas courts. As one possible scenario for what could happen, based on the court decision today, think of the movie Spotlight, except set in Texas.”

Dan considered appealing his case to the U.S. Supreme Court but decided against it, largely because it was such a long shot. Also his son has made new friends and is doing well in college. Dan, too, has moved on—or at least he’s moved in a different direction. Now he’s not mad at ESD; he’s mad at the justices who denied his appeals.

He says, “As a lifelong Republican who is now voting against Republicans who brandish their religion, which is almost all of them in Texas, I am dedicated to helping to keep the religious tyranny from damaging more people. I am a financial supporter of Child-Friendly Faith and various Democrat appeals court and the Supreme Court of Texas justices—and willing to do more.”

Editor’s note: when this story was first published, it erroneously stated that the Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision, when it actually overturned it. 

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