Novelist Nicholas Sparks is being sued by a former employee of the private school he founded in 2006. In his lawsuit, the ex-headmaster of the school alleges that he was forced out by the racist, homophobic author and other leaders of the school because he made an effort to recruit black faculty and students. He also alleges that he was targeted for being Jewish as well as for his support of gay students who were being bullied.
The federal lawsuit filed by Saul Hillel Benjamin alleges that Sparks made dismissive religious and racial comments to Benjamin while he was headmaster of The Epiphany School of Global Studies , which was founded by the novelist in his hometown of New Bern, North Carolina. Benjamin is seeking punitive damages in addition to reimbursement of his lost income. His suit names three members of the board of the K-12 college-prep school, the Nicholas Sparks Foundation and Sparks himself as defendants.
Benjamin’s resume details his varied experience as a professor in Germany, Lebanon and Morocco. According to the lawsuit, the four-year contract he signed before starting the 2013-14 year with the school and the author’s foundation gave him a salary of $256,000 per year, not including additional benefits and bonuses. Although the website of the school claims that it does not discriminate against applicants on the basis of color, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, Benjamin claims that his attempts to recruit black teachers and students was met with resistance by Sparks. The former headmaster alleges that he told him that “percentages of minority students or minority faculty employed” should not be the way diversity is measured. At the time, two of the school’s 514 students were black.
According to Benjamin, members of the school board who were Christian conservatives and Sparks himself questioned him regarding his Quaker beliefs and Judaism. He claims that he was told by the author to not talk about “any non-Christian religion” during school events. Sparks allegedly told Benjamin that talk of religions other than Christianity is “not what our parents like to hear.” In addition, after Benjamin attended an NAACP North Carolina function with the intent to make black parents feel welcome in hopes of sending their children to Sparks’ school, the novelist told him that any meetings he held with African-Americans should be less visible and more private.
When Benjamin gave support to a club formed by students who wished to talk about their sexual identities, the suit alleges that trustees of the school pressured him to withdraw his support. One trustee said that Benjamin was “promoting” a gay agenda at the school.
Sparks is also accused in the the lawsuit of summoning Bemjamin to the school’s conference room with the intent of firing him. Instead, he purportedly locked the headmaster inside of the room for hours while he and other board members yelled at and threatened Benjamin. The incident, which occurred last November, ended after Benjamin wrote a letter resigning his position.
Sparks writes very popular love story novels, many of which have become Hollywood movies. Among the movies based on the authors’ books are Dear John, The Notebook and The Last Song. Eight of his 17 books have been featured on the big screen, with the ninth, titled The Best of Me, scheduled to be released this month.
Benjamin’s attorney, Douglas H. Wigdor, said that the novelist is oblivious to societal changes in the acceptance of differing races and sexual orientations. He believes that Sparks “wants to….vilify those who promote diversity and tolerance.” One of Sparks’ attorneys, Theresa Sprain, refutes the allegations put forth in the lawsuit. In a statement released by the publicist for the author, Scott Schwimer, an entertainment lawyer, says that he is a “gay, Jewish man” and has worked as the representative for Sparks for just under 20 years. Schwimer says the claims brought by Benjamin in his suit are “completely ludicrous and offensive.”
By Jennifer Pfalz