Teacher Sex Image Probe, Suicide at Elite School for Scandal

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Beyond My Ken/Wikipedia and Handout
Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Beyond My Ken/Wikipedia and Handout

When a former Jeopardy! champion-turned-teacher was arrested as part of an investigation into the spreading of sexualized images on social media, it cast an unwelcome light on an elite New York private school known for its celebrity alumni.

But the disturbing episode has also highlighted other accusations against Saint Ann’s School, the freewheeling, grades-free school in Brooklyn Heights whose alumni include actresses Lena Dunham and Jennifer Connelly, and fashion designer Zac Posen.

The Brooklyn District Attorney says the probe into ex-math instructor Winston Nguyen—previously convicted of stealing cash from an elderly couple in his care—is ongoing, and that he hasn’t been charged with any crime.

But rather than a one-off misfortune, the arrest has only increased the pressure on the school, whose history of recent scandals includes a family's wrongful death suit following their 13-year-old son’s May 2021 suicide. It occurred three months after Saint Ann’s dismissed him over what they called his “academic challenges.”

A lawyer for Ellis Lariviere’s family, Jeff Korek, compared Saint Ann’s response to the Nguyen controversy to his own clients’ case, saying the school’s modus operandi is “circle the ranks, circle the wagons, and less information is better than more information.”

“Why was this guy given a chance when Ellis wasn’t?” said Korek, partner at Gersowitz Libo & Korek law firm. “During the same school year, Saint Ann’s decided it was acceptable to hire someone with a criminal record who abused vulnerable people and put him into a situation among vulnerable kids—and that Ellis, a child with a great track record, was disposable. It makes no sense.”

St. Ann's School at 129 Pierrepont Street at the corner of Clinton Street in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City in 2013.

St. Ann’s School at 129 Pierrepont Street at the corner of Clinton Street in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City in 2013.

Beyond My Ken/Wikipedia

Saint Ann’s, where tuition can cost up to $60,000 a year, has not responded to multiple requests for comment. A school spokeswoman previously told us that Nguyen was placed on leave after his arrest, and that the institution was “fully cooperating with law enforcement in their efforts,” and “focused on helping our students process this news.”

According to the suit, Ellis’ teachers praised him, including in a report before his death, calling him “highly perceptive and thoughtful” and “a pleasure to teach.”

But Saint Ann’s told Ellis’ parents, Roger Gural and Janine Lariviere, that he would not be allowed to continue to its prestigious high school. “Don’t let the school do an assembly about this,” Ellis wrote in his suicide note, his family’s complaint says.

The refusal to admit Ellis, the lawsuit states, was likely because of an “undisclosed policy of refusing re-enrollment to students who may not be admitted to elite private colleges in order to burnish its own reputation at the expense of the rejected students.”

The family has said Ellis made progress with learning difficulties including dyslexia in the second and third grades, and that an evaluator recommended by Saint Ann’s indicated he could stay at the school back then with additional support.

The school has “never disclosed the standards that were applied in their decision to deny [Ellis] a place in Saint Ann’s high school,” the filing alleges.

For its part, Saint Ann’s argues Ellis was home and under the custody of his parents when he died, and that it had no prior knowledge of the boy’s “suicidal ideations or intent to engage in self-harm.”

The school’s lawyers, in a memorandum supporting a motion to dismiss, say claims that Ellis killed himself over his denied enrollment “is pure speculation and without any basis in fact.”

Private schools aren’t under any obligation to keep students, the lawyers added, and administrators made the decision “due to his documented academic challenges that had been evident since the third grade.”

Ellis’ parents say the school’s “arbitrary and secret practice directly contradicts” its public mission, which includes embracing “a commitment to education for its own sake, oriented to the capacities of each individual student, free of the encumbrances of formal grading.”

Korek said discovery has yet to be taken, and a July 24 hearing will determine whether the case moves forward.

“I think we’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg,” Korek said, “and there’s a whole lot to be learned about what was going on at Saint Ann’s, what continues to go on at Saint Ann’s, and we will only learn that through discovery.”

While Ellis’ family mourned their son that summer, Nguyen was promoted.

“Winston, who joined us this year as Special Assistant for Covid-Related Projects, will stay on as Special Assistant to the Administrative Team; Winston will also teach a math class,” said the school newsletter, the Saint Ann’s Times.

Winston Nguyen at the New York City Ballet 2017 Spring Gala.

Winston Nguyen at the New York City Ballet 2017 Spring Gala.

Jared Siskin/Getty Images

At one point, Nguyen was apparently so trusted with students that he taught a seminar called “Crime and Punishment.”

A freelance article on the National Food Museum website references Nguyen’s criminal record and role as a “prison-reform advocate” who taught his course “at an independent school in Brooklyn, where he recently devoted a day’s lesson to prison food.”

Nguyen told the writer his students were aware of his past.

“I think because of this being so public, students know what I did and feel comfortable coming to me with their own poor choices,” he said. “I keep thinking ‘what can I make of this for the greater good?’ Helping my students helps me.”

In August 2017, then home-health aide Nguyen was arrested for swindling more than $300,000 from a 92-year-old Manhattan woman and her 96-year-old blind husband.

Prosecutors say that six years after he was hired to help the couple, Nguyen used their credit cards and bank account in 2015 to fund tickets to the ballet and Broadway shows, as well as trips to Florida. The arrest came three years after he appeared on Jeopardy!, where he won his first episode but lost on his second.

Nguyen’s lawyer, Frank Rothman, previously told The Daily Beast that Nguyen pleaded guilty, and served jail time and probation. He was also ordered to pay restitution.

Parents told The Daily Beast they were puzzled that Nguyen was hired despite his crime—and complaints about Rikers—being publicized in the media throughout 2017 and 2019, when he served jail time for a few months.

“What did you expect to have happen with a person who infiltrated himself into a 96-year-old’s life under the guise of being their aide, and then stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from them?” one parent said. “That’s a person with a problem. Why did you turn around and put that person in charge of children?”

The parent said their child was in Nguyen’s class and one of their classmates had received messages from a catfishing account, one that she believes could be connected to the teacher.

Well before Nguyen’s arrest, the child said they had Googled their teacher and found news stories about his conviction for scamming an elderly couple out of large sums of money. “Do you know that our teacher is a felon?” the child asked.

Nguyen seems to have been hired with the help of a friend—the head of the Upper Middle School, Maureen Yusuf-Morales—during a perfect storm of the COVID-19 pandemic and Saint Ann’s scrambling to address its lack of diversity.

Yusuf-Morales was Facebook friends with Nguyen and according to her LinkedIn worked at Breakthrough New York and East Harlem Scholars Academies, two places Nguyen was also employed. (She did not return requests for comment from The Daily Beast.)

On June 14, the school updated parents in an email, noting Nguyen “disclosed his felony in his initial interview, and the School ran our standard background check process. His record was considered along with his abilities and references, and the School made the decision to hire him.”

On Tuesday, Rothman said “there’s all kinds of rumors running wild” about his client but that the DA’s office hasn’t drawn up any complaint. “Until I know exactly what they’re putting on paper… I don’t want to speculate,” Rothman told us.

Still, Rothman said he doesn’t “expect this to just blow over, if you will.” Nguyen, he said, could face charges in the coming weeks.

Another former parent said they were shocked that “my kids were exposed to this person and there’s been no communication from the school whatsoever.”

Some people assume a level of competence and good intentions from Saint Ann’s because of their reputation and image, they added.

“An image is not going to protect a kid in this situation. There were no protections for these kids. What I would say is that these are institutional failures.”

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