Michael Josephson made a career of encouraging people to do the right thing. His Los Angeles-based nonprofit, the Josephson Institute of Ethics, has trained government officials, corporate officers, Olympic athletes and millions of schoolchildren in ethical decision making, and Josephson personally doled out advice for years on local talk radio.
This spring, he embarked on a legal battle that is, by his own account, a threat to his carefully built reputation as a moral authority.
"I've spent my life about ethics and settling and not fighting," he said recently. "I'm 71. I need a fight like a hole in my head."
Josephson's unlikely opponent is the Archer School for Girls, an exclusive Brentwood private school that counts the daughters of hedge fund managers and the Hollywood elite among its students.
Last month, the day before seniors in white dresses and flower crowns marched in graduation ceremonies, Josephson and his wife, Anne, filed a Superior Court lawsuit accusing the $35,000-a-year school of mistreating two of their teenagers. Their lawyer said they intend to ask a jury for $10 million in damages.
Archer labeled the suit "frivolous" and suggested in a court filing last week that Josephson, the author of seven books about good character and ethics, demanded special treatment when his own daughter disrespected a teacher and became angry when the school refused. School lawyers referred to Josephson's trademarked curriculum for children, Character Counts!, writing, "At the Archer School for Girls, character counts for all our students and families."
Now, the family and the school are warring for the hearts and minds of the close-knit and well-heeled school community.
Michael Josephson, a former Loyola Law professor, has created a website with court documents, profiles of the key players and the legal issues he sees at stake.
"I am hoping people who are tempted to believe I am not what I said I was will read … and understand what happened," he said.
The chairwoman of Archer's board of trustees — a group that includes film producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall and MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell — sent an email to parents deriding the suit as "false, misleading and one we intend to vigorously defend." The board chairwoman, First Republic Bank executive Barbara Bruser, called the family's claims "a malicious and unjustified attack against our community."
The school was so concerned about publicity over the dispute that it asked a judge last week to impose a gag order barring the Josephsons from speaking about the case and requiring Michael Josephson to take down his website. Judge Gerald Rosenberg denied the school's request and set an August hearing on Archer's claim that the matter should be handled in private arbitration under the terms of the school enrollment contracts.
The Josephsons enrolled their oldest daughter at Archer in 2005 and three others followed.
"The core of the school, the faculty, are really decent people and they did great things for our kids," Michael Josephson said. "We loved the philosophy of it, and frankly when we went there it was a paradise."
Founded in 1995 in Pacific Palisades by three mothers, the 6th- to 12th-grade school occupies a landmark building — the former Eastern Star home for women — on seven acres along Sunset Boulevard and touts a rigorous curriculum incorporating "the latest research on how girls learn best." Its students have achieved enviable success in college admissions: Stanford, which has the lowest acceptance rate in the nation, admitted seven Archer seniors from this year's class of 64.
The Josephsons once had a close relationship with the school. Anne Josephson served on the board of trustees, counted staffers as close friends and provided the children of teachers free tuition at her Culver City gymnastics academy. Michael Josephson volunteered as a consultant and trainer in character development.
The trouble began with an AP calculus exam in December. The Josephsons' third daughter, a 17-year-old senior, asked her teacher for an extension and was turned down. (In court papers, neither side identifies the Josephson children by name.) The suit described the girl's reaction vaguely as "a momentary and minor act of rudeness."
Michael Josephson said his daughter told him she threw the test down, said "That's just not fair" and walked out of the room. In court filings, the school says that she disrupted the exam by "repeatedly leaving and returning to the classroom, and making disrespectful comments to her teacher."
School lawyers wrote that the student had "a documented history of disrespectful conduct to faculty members throughout her career at Archer."
Josephson acknowledged that his daughter, who declined to comment, could be "a sassy kid." After she mouthed off to a librarian in October, administrators warned her that any more problems would land her in front of a student disciplinary council, according to court papers filed by the school. She returned and apologized to the calculus teacher, according to the Josephsons' suit, but the dean of students told her she would have to go before the council.
Her parents supported punishing her and initially pushed her to appear before the council, but according to the suit, their daughter became so anxious that she suffered a breakdown. A psychologist hired by the Josephsons concluded she had developed "an irrational, but sincere phobia" of the hearing and that participating "would inflict great and lasting emotional harm," according to the suit.
Josephson took the psychologist's findings to the head of school, Elizabeth English, and asked that his daughter be punished without going before the council.
"We had no problem with her being disciplined," Anne Josephson said. "We weren't saying our precious snowflake shouldn't have a consequence for this behavior."
English was insistent that the Josephsons' daughter not return to the school until she went before the council, according to the family's lawsuit. Through school attorneys, English declined comment.
In a sworn declaration filed in court, English said she offered to let their daughter perform her course work at home and receive a diploma. She defended the school's response as "appropriate and compassionate," saying that if the student "was emotionally unfit to attend the hearing, then she was not emotionally fit to attend classes on campus."
Michael Josephson said English bore him animosity because of a dispute over a survey he conducted for the school on student behavior and attitudes five years earlier. English said in her declaration that it was Josephson who bore ill will from the past. She said that in 2009, she had turned aside his inappropriate attempts to insert his ethics institute into school operations.
The Josephsons' daughter withdrew from Archer rather than go before the council, eventually finishing her last months of high school at another school.
Less than a month after she departed, English informed the Josephsons that their youngest daughter, a sophomore, could not re-enroll there for her junior year, according to their lawsuit. Michael Josephson's attempts to "intimidate me and other school administrators" and "undermine the School administration's authority with faculty" had forced the school to act, English said in her declaration.
"The School does not just enroll a child, it enrolls a family that becomes part of the school community," she told Anne Josephson in an email quoted in the lawsuit.
The youngest Josephson daughter, now 16, said in an interview accompanied by her father that she was devastated by being made to leave her friends and teachers. She had recently come out as a lesbian and said she felt safe and supported at Archer.
"It was like you are taking away everything I've known since I was 11," she said. When she went sobbing to English, she said, "she told me to blame my parents."
Michael Josephson, who stepped down as chief executive of his institute in January, said he knew litigation would mean "no one will come out of this totally whole," but he was willing to "spend my last penny to get accountability" for his children.
"I cannot walk away from this," he said, his voice breaking.
The Josephsons filed suit May 28. The next day, with commencement ceremonies about to begin, the school told the Josephsons' lawyer in a letter that all members of the family were "no longer permitted to be on campus."
The Josephsons' senior daughter sent an email to English that afternoon in which she said she felt "sick" at not being at that day's commencement, but was grateful to and admiring of the head of school.
"I know you want to do what's best for Archer and our community and I understand how difficult the decision you've had to make must be," she said, according to a copy filed in court. She added that her father didn't know she was writing.
In court papers filed last week, the school said the letter indicated the Josephson daughters "do not agree with the allegations" in the suit and it has asked the court to appoint an independent attorney to protect the girls' interests.
Anne Josephson said her daughter showed her the letter before sending it, and she saw it as an "attempt to make sense of the situation."
"I think the letter represented the possibility that [the teenager] was the most mature person in this entire debacle," she said.