Nicholas Sparks voiced his objection to an LGBT club at the private school he funds in a series of emails sent to faculty members and the board of trustees at Epiphany School of Global Studies.
The emails were sent by Sparks to the school’s then-headmaster Saul Benjamin, who claims in a lawsuit that the author once said that the lack of black students at the school was not the result of any discriminatory practice, but rather because those individuals ‘are too poor and can’t do the academic work.’
Benjamin is suing Sparks, select members of the Epiphany board and Sparks’ charitable foundation for wrongful termination, claiming that he was forced out as headmaster after less than a year due to his push for a more diverse and inclusive community at the school.
Sparks did this, claims Benjamin in his complaint, by suggesting the school’s new hire was suffering from a mental illness.
The bestselling author of The Notebook, A Walk to Remember and Message in a Bottle started Epiphany in 2006, with his charitable foundation providing a portion of the funding for the school in New Bern, North Carolina.
Sparks said in a statement on Twitter that Benjamin’s allegations from the lawsuit are ‘false’ and expressed his confidence that a jury would rule in his favor should the case go to trial.
Suit: Nicholas Sparks’ (above with his wife Cathy) emails with Saul Benjamin, the former headmaster at the private school he founded, have been filed in an ongoing suit against the author
Institution: In the emails, Sparks voices his objections to an LGBT club at Epiphany School of Global Studies (above)
Benjamin (above) is suing Sparks, select members of the Epiphany board and Sparks’ charitable foundation for wrongful termination
‘In thinking long and hard, with an open heart, about this topic, I have to conclude that that the [board of trustees] will not sanction a club or association for GLBT students, no matter what it is called,’ wrote Sparks in a 2017 email to then-headmaster Benjamin.
Sparks was the head of the board of trustees.
Sparks’ tone was more forceful in emails sent earlier that same day to Benjamin, with the author remarking that ‘there will be no club in the future’ before stating that ‘not allowing them to have a club is NOT discrimination.’
Sparks does state that harassment and bullying will not be tolerated in those emails, but Benjamin previously claimed in his suit that he was told to ‘stop supporting students who had been bullied based on their sexual identities’ by members of the board.
It is also not mentioned in these emails that students including the son of an ‘influential Epiphany parent’ had been bullying LGBT students at the school by telling them they wanted to start a ‘homo-caust,’ a claim made in the complaint.
The Daily Beast was the first to report on these emails, which were sent after Sparks learned two gay students had planned to protest the school’s lack of an LGBT club.
Benjamin was able to diffuse that protest, and in a email agreed with Sparks that the planned demonstration was ‘not appropriate.’
Sparks took issue however with Benjamin after he failed to announce the ban in LGBT clubs in an email to parents.
That lament from Sparks came hours after he had sent off a a fiery missive to Benjamin.
‘On a personal level, I’m both angry and frustrated. Again, my life is being made very difficult, and I don’t have time for this,’ wrote Sparks.
‘I told you this would happen and the BOT told you this would happen if you didn’t follow our advice. which was simply, “don’t rock the boat on this particular issue.” Now, I’m having to put out fires – big, raging inferno s — because of some of the things that have occurred Since the opening days of school.’
He then outlined a number of issues he was having in the email, on which he had also bcc’d his wife.
- As I’ve noted before, you are perceived by some employees to be arrogant, rude and condescending; to these people, you should apologize. I know you want names, but frankly, I don’t know that it’s all that important. I think you should sit down first — in order — with your leadership team, then the rest of the admin, then the faculty, either one by one or in groups, and … apologize if necessary. And ask them to give you another chance. (Without defensiveness, by the way.) And ask them to frankly call you on it if you do such things again. You are blessed with a very good team and they should all feel appreciated for what they do.
- You should handle the situation with the and again, keep in mind, they perceived that you were threatening – even if (in your mind) you weren’t. and then making a demand that he do something in direct contradiction to his faith. Again, I’d start with an apology, and then listen … and then ask what YOU can do to make it better.
- Make sure all Christian traditions feel especially Christian, especially as we move into the Christmas season.
- Understand that many people now perceive you as having an agenda with which they disagree. Again, you chose to rock this boat early and hard, not only with Chapel changes (including 4 bells , not 3), but with what some perceive as an agenda that strives to make homosexuality open and accepted — and not only that, it’s one of the most important things we need to do to “fix our school.” (Perception matters). My opinion is you should have waited at least a year for these kinds of things — and I said as much to you numerous times — and I’m not sure how you can fix it , other than to do the things you outlined in your letter. As for the “Club,” there obviously can’t be one now, though you might open your doors at your home if you feel qualified to talk to them about it in small group settings.
- Numbers 1 and 4, when brought together , seem to imply that you believe the “school needed to be fixed.” Academically, yes. Financially, yes. Curriculum integration/improvement? Certainly. But spiritually? Frankly, we were good there: it is, and has been since its founding, a kind school, where everyone is kind; it is in fact , the KINDEST school I’ve ever visited. There has not, for instance, been a single fight in 8 years at the school. People accept other people her e; our first student were Jewish. And until the last 2 months, nearly everyone was fine with how we implemented the Christian traditions at the school, which frankly, go a long way toward creating the culture of kindness.
- As to the agenda people assume you have. you can’t really blame them for thinking such things. Let’s look at the first couple of months: Chapel has changed (Christian equivalence of Islam and Judaism, for example). there’s a lot of talk about diversity and how we’re awful because we don’t have it. we need to have a “GLBT Club,” we need to support the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, your references to our non-discrimination policy (as opposed, let’s say, to a much heavier emphasis on “celebrating our Christian traditions” … and on the other hand, not only don’t we have a chaplain, but no one really knows what’s going on with the chaplain search. It’s easy to see why people believe that you think your “beliefs” are more more important than theirs … which is the very definition of “having an agenda.”
He then launched into another list of things he believed Benjamin should ‘take to heart,’ which referenced hiring decisions that needed to be made before stating:
- Regarding diversity, I’ve now told you half a dozen times that our lack of diversity has NOTHING to do with the school, or anyone at the school. It’s not because of what we as a school, has or hasn’t done. It has nothing to do with racism, or vestiges of Jim Crow. It comes down to 1) Money and 2) Culture. Even when you have the money, it will be hard sledding, no matter what Jenna does as far as outreach. My point is, if you continually bring this up at the school, it seems to imply that it’s the school’s fault; that people at the school have done something wrong (which again, goes to numbers 1, 4 & 5). Again, it’s not the fault of the school, or anyone at the school, including Janet!!!! If you want to talk to someone about diversity, talk to Jenna (who’s designing the diversity scholarship program) or me (who will be responsible for raising the money to fund the scholarship program once Jenna has designed it.)
- The school was not “broken.” It’s a great place. It has grown EVERY year since our founding. It needed some academic/global/curricular/financial improvements, but MOST SCHOOLS DO.
Five days later, Benjamin was out as headmaster.
Three days after that, Sparks emailed Benjamin’s wife saying that he believed ‘Saul is suffering from a mental illness.’
He continued by stating it could be ‘Alzheimer’s, a variance of bi-polar or something else’ in his email.
Sparks went on to write in the lengthy email that he believed Benjamin was ‘unfit to work and would never again hold another full-time job.’
In his complaint, filed back in 2014, Benjamin asked for damages while making 16 claims against defendants The Epiphany School of Global Studies, Nicholas Sparks Foundation, Sparks, Melissa Blackerby, Tracey Lorentzen, and McKinley Gray.
Among the claims are discrimination and harassment on the basis of his Jewish race in violation of section 1981 against all defendants; religious discrimination in violation of Title VII against Epiphany; race discrimination in violation of Title VII against Epiphany; disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act against Epiphany; retaliation in violation of Title VII against Epiphany; breach of contract against Epiphany; breach of contract against the Foundation; defamation against Sparks; false imprisonment against Sparks, Gray, and Lorentzen; assault against Sparks; and retaliation in violation of the North Carolina School Violence Prevention Act against all defendants.
U.S. District Judge James Dever III ruled last year that a jury would decide whether the author defamed Benjamin with his comments.
He also stated in his ruling that a jury should determine if Sparks’ comments violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A jury will also have to determine if Benjamin submitted his resignation on his own accord or was forced out, while also considering whether or not Spark’s charitable foundation had reason to terminate the headmaster.
Benjamin had four years left on his contract at the time and would be compensated for that time, plus an additional year, if a jury decides that he was fired without cause.
The school has stated in their own legal filings that Benjamin misrepresented his qualifications before being hired.