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The Miseducation of Ericka Griffin 

Ericka Griffin figured she was finally getting her big break when she got a teaching job at an exclusive Santa Monica private school. Instead, the school’s elite taught her the lesson of her life.

Thursday, Jan 13 2005
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Photographs by Ted Soqui

Of all the memories from Ericka Griffin’s six-year career as a teacher’s aide and athletic director at Carlthorp Elementary School, one stands out. Griffin, a rare African-American faculty member at the exclusive private school, was on the playground one day in 2002 when she says a kindergartner ran up and licked her arm. "He wanted to see if I was made of chocolate."

Carlthorp is an attractive, tile-roofed school wedged neatly between garden-style apartments on San Vicente Boulevard, four blocks from the ocean in Santa Monica. Founded in 1939 by Ann Carlson Granstrom and Mercedes Thorp, it is the city’s oldest private school for kindergarten through sixth grade. With tuition of $15,000 per year, its mission is "to provide a strong academic foundation that emphasizes traditional values and excellence."

On a recent Friday, SUVs are lined up along San Vicente while children frolic after school on the artificial-grass playing field behind a tall gate with bars. Out front, a burly man in a windbreaker stands clutching a walkie-talkie. Less than a mile away, Griffin works at a law office with her mother, one of three jobs she needs to pay for college.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Slumped on the floor of her mother’s living room one afternoon in November, Griffin sorts through letters from former students, parents and colleagues she thought were her friends. "Dear Ms. Griffin," she reads from a letter by a sixth-grader, "What’s cookin’? P.E. is soo boring! And unfun. The new coach said I was a smart aleck and had a chip on my shoulder. All of us really, really, really miss you!"

She comes across a holiday card from an adoring parent: "Dearest Ericka, I don’t really think I can express my gratitude for the difference you made in turning my son around. It takes a special person to see what’s needed and do something about it. I will remember you forever." A bitter look crosses Griffin’s face as she comes across another, from a fellow coach: "Ericka, partner in crime, long lost sista. Enjoy your two weeks of freedom, for in 2003 we must return to the cornfields," — referring to a Twilight Zone episode where children are punished for thinking bad thoughts.

Griffin’s employment at Carlthorp ended in 2003, with her being ostracized for speaking out about problems and fired for "unprofessional conduct." She has filed a lawsuit alleging that a teacher persistently taunted her with racial epithets such as "Black Trash" and "Oreo." Facing an uphill battle in court against one of the most prestigious private schools in the area, she has invoked the wrath of a close-knit community resistant to scrutiny. She is practically alone.

With her arms wrapped around her long legs, Griffin rocks back and forth like a child about to get a lecture. Across the coffee table in a modest, ranch-style home, Joette Marks is trying to make sense of her daughter’s decision to work at Carlthorp in the first place. Between them, on top of the coffee table, is a stack of books: Living Zen, Nine Centuries of African Art and Audubon’s Birds. A wooden bowl is filled with fake $100 bills, play money. Photographs of their ancestors — proud, upstanding Southern blacks — hang on the walls.

Something about a young black woman from a middle-class family deciding to forgo college to work for minimal pay at a private school for rich kids never boded well, Marks tells her daughter. "I always had a gut feeling that this was an elitist institution," says Marks, a product of the 1960s counterculture. "It’s a gated school that wants to keep the problems of the world outside and its dirty laundry inside."

The 32-year-old Griffin is athletic and tomboyish. Ordinarily she is vibrant. After her parents’ divorce, she grew up under the tutelage of her grandmother, a graduate of Spelman College, an august institution in Atlanta that has shaped Southern black women for decades. Griffin’s short time at Spelman ended tragically. In choosing to work at Carlthorp, in 1997, she wanted to prove that she could be accepted in polite society. "You’re going to end up just like your mother," her grandmother used to say, "young and pregnant without an education or a husband."


A Santa Monica High School basketball star with a sense of style, Griffin gave Carlthorp some street cred. Headmistress Dee Menzies told her the children needed to know what the real world was all about. The student body is 77 percent white and less than 2 percent black, which roughly mirrors the faculty. The school has nurtured children of former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, retired Lakers star James Worthy, directors Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg, and screenwriter Robert Towne. "They pretend to dedicate themselves to civic responsibility," Griffin says of Carlthorp. "They promote privilege and cronyism."

Griffin came with a past, one that Carlthorp was not ready for. Her rough edges showed. When sixth-grade boys started talking about "BJs" and "one-night stands," Ms. Griffin was the cool older sister the sixth-grade girls ran to. She loved the children of Carlthorp, and they loved her — most did, anyway. When some learned they had power over people like Griffin — black, middle-class, fun to be around, but not to be taken too seriously — she was in trouble, and not just with the white kids. When James Worthy’s children turned on her, she was treated like the help. Some would say she was never fit for the job. "I don’t believe Ericka was psychologically or academically equipped for Carlthorp," says Worthy’s ex-wife, Angela Wilder, who hired Griffin to baby-sit her two daughters.

Getting fired was just the beginning of Griffin’s ordeal. After she sued the school, she became a pariah. It was one thing for a black woman without an education to try to fit in with the upper class, another to try to school them on bigotry and double standards. Families that had treated her like their own, Griffin found, turned their backs. So-called "homies" gave the school fodder to justify her firing. "For once in my life this is about me and my reputation," Griffin says. "I’m tired of being the doormat, the babysitter. I have to defend myself."

In early 1997, Griffin thought she had found her calling when she met headmistress Menzies at a birthday party thrown by Alan Young, president of the Santa Monica Boys & Girls Club, and discussed a job as a teacher’s aide. Griffin was a 24-year-old college dropout who needed a fresh start. In Carlthorp, she saw a chance to work with children and redeem herself at a formidable institution. "I was having a hard time accepting myself," Griffin says, "but I loved those kids, and they were so unconditional in their love for me that I felt saved by the place."

The hiring process was informal. After the party at Young’s house, Griffin filled out a job application at the school in April. She marked "No" where the application read, "Have you ever been convicted of anything more than a minor traffic violation?" According to Griffin, she told Menzies of an encounter with a previous employer that could result in criminal charges. She recalls that Menzies seemed more interested in diversifying her faculty. "Dee said she was glad I told her, and to let her know if there was anything she could do to help," says Griffin, who dates Young’s nephew, and whose uncle was on the board of the Boys & Girls Club with Menzies.

Griffin recalls her first several weeks at Carlthorp were uncomfortable. "I didn’t feel part of the group," she says of the teachers and their aides, who she describes as cliquish. "I kept to myself." Her daily routine as a first-grade teacher’s aide required close contact with one individual in particular, however.

One of the cardinal rules at Carlthorp is "Be respectful." So Griffin did not take matters lightly during her first year when, according to her lawsuit, she became the target of racial epithets by veteran first-grade teacher Elisabeth Tarvin. At first, Griffin thought it seemed like a game to Tarvin, who is white. But when Tarvin allegedly called her "Black Trash," Griffin was mortified. When Tarvin allegedly dubbed her "B.T." for short and it became her nickname, Griffin felt degraded.

Tarvin, the YWCA’s "Woman of the Year" in 2003, is British. She has been recognized for her community service to minorities. Out of necessity, Griffin tried to relate to Tarvin, which was difficult. "She used to say, ‘I teach your people to read,’" Griffin recalls. Griffin protested the alleged name-calling. "I asked her if she would like it if I called her ‘White Trash,’" Griffin states in her deposition. "She said she didn’t mind at all, so I asked her if she minded if I called her ‘English Trash,’ and she became extremely upset."

Griffin took her complaint to Menzies. "Dear Dee," she wrote in a letter dated November 12, 1997, "As of late, Mrs. Tarvin has resorted to calling me ‘Black Trash.’ I have told her that I do not appreciate her using that kind of language when addressing me, and that I found it extremely offensive. I would appreciate it if we could meet to find a positive resolution to put an end to this name-calling." Menzies recalls Griffin complaining once about Tarvin, verbally, according to Carlthorp’s lawyers. The headmistress’s response was that it was willful banter between the two. "Ms. Griffin and Ms. Tarvin would jokingly refer to one another as ‘white trash’ and ‘black trash,’" states Carlthorp’s lawyer, in a May 27, 2003, letter to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, on file in Los Angeles Superior Court. In her deposition, Griffin alleges that she complained to Menzies more than 10 times, sometimes in front of others. Through Carlthorp’s attorneys, Menzies declined to comment for this story.

Griffin alleges that she tolerated Tarvin’s racial slurs on a daily basis for two years until she requested a transfer to a different class, in 1999. "It created a hostile, intimidating and offensive work environment," Griffin states in her complaint. In its response, Carlthorp claims it does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind. Regarding Griffin’s allegation in her court file, that Tarvin also called her "Oreo," Carlthorp claims, "Ms. Griffin apparently made a joke that she, her sister and Ms. Tarvin might come to the Halloween party dressed as an ‘Oreo.’"

"That is not something I would joke about," says Griffin, whose boyfriend is white. Further, in her deposition Griffin states that Tarvin referred to her as a "black wallaby." In a letter to Menzies dated January 7, 1999, Griffin describes an incident in which the daughter of screenwriter Robert Towne returned from vacation in Australia with pictures of wildlife. According to Griffin, Tarvin remarked, "Oh look, it’s Ms. Griffin. We have our own black wallaby right here in class." Griffin points to four letters to Menzies from 1997 to 1999, asking Menzies to put a stop to the alleged racial harassment. Despite that, Carlthorp’s lawyers state in court papers that Ms. Griffin’s file is devoid of any reference to complaints of racial slurs.

Griffin’s troubles did not go away. Less than six months out of Tarvin’s class, she complained about her new assignment in fourth-grade teacher John Williams’ classroom. At her deposition, Griffin testified that she objected to the way Williams interacted with his students, and brought her concerns to Menzies. The run-in damaged her relationship with Williams and, Griffin alleges, may have prompted him to later make a negative report that ended up in her personnel file.

The situation bothered Griffin so much that she asked for and again received a transfer to a sixth-grade class. In late 2000, she became assistant athletic director. In 2001, she was named Carlthorp’s athletic director. Griffin’s complaint alleges that the racial slurs by Tarvin continued into 2003, and that no corrective action was taken. Griffin was becoming bitter. An entry from her journal, which her lawyer would later provide to Carlthorp, reads, "I’m tired of being the token black, at a place where they smile to your face and stab you in the back."

Meanwhile, the adults at Carlthorp seemed to isolate whoever was perceived to be weak or insecure. Many day-to-day controversies seemed to arise from petty jealousies and attempts to curry favor with Menzies. Plus, with the children of celebrities on campus, there was plenty for teachers to gossip and compete over. Griffin also was about to see how quickly sixth-graders learn from their elders.

Letters from Griffin’s Carlthorp days show that students looked up to her, while teachers commiserated with her. Yet camaraderie could not save her from a sixth-grade revolt, in 2002, when a group of students, including James Worthy’s daughter, turned on Griffin. Worthy and his ex-wife, Angela Wilder, were parents of virtually the only black students at Carlthorp. Griffin had been their babysitter and driver for a couple years during the late 1990s. At first, Griffin says, she had bonded with Wilder. But in the wake of the couple’s divorce, Wilder’s mother had moved in, Griffin says. "Ya Ya," as she is known, eventually clashed with Griffin, she says, adding to tension in the household.

According to Wilder, who has a master’s degree in psychology and is the author of the book Powerful Male Syndrome, Griffin was "deceptive and verbally abusive to her children." Furthermore, Griffin owes her money, Wilder says, as the result of a murky transaction in which she bought Griffin a car, which she paid for with a cashier’s check. Griffin says it was a gift, with no strings attached. "The understanding was that she would pay me back," says Wilder. "I should have put it in writing."

Wilder takes pride in raising two outspoken and assertive daughters. Of Griffin, Sable Worthy, 14, says, "Ericka was fine at first. She was our driver and our babysitter. But she became short-tempered. My sister and I started to like her less and less. One year, the Student Council suggestion box was full of notes that said, ‘Fire Ms. Griffin,’ and ‘We hate Ms. Griffin.’ About 80 percent of the suggestions said that." In late 2002, Worthy and a group of fellow sixth-graders drafted a letter to their teacher in protest of Griffin, after they said they witnessed her degrading a student who struggled with a playground exercise.

Griffin denies she degraded anyone. But her alienation from students and faculty was becoming unbearable. Stress took its toll. She saw a neurologist. The school had begun to find fault with her, counseling her on allegations of unprofessional conduct based mostly on gossip and student complaints. For instance, several students claimed she told them she had a brain tumor, after she explained why she had to undergo an MRI. (She was suffering from severe migraines and blind spots.) One student, caught with a cigarette, said Griffin gave it to her. Others did not like the way she ran the athletic department. Then a parent threatened legal action, alleging that Griffin had disclosed his daughter’s learning disability to the class.

On March 5, 2003, she filed a formal complaint of racial harassment with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Three weeks later, Carlthorp filed its response. The next day, on March 28, Griffin was called out of class and into a meeting with Menzies and Karasik, the school’s lawyer, and put on administrative leave. Carlthorp later chose not to renew her contract.

What hurt Griffin the most, she says, was the abandonment by her allies, particularly John Baca, a teacher who was her confidant during a time of upheaval in the athletic department. "I’m down for my homie Griffin, but down for this school, you must be trippin’," he wrote to her in a rap poem in 2002. "Parents run the show, that ain’t no lie, staff screwin’ over staff to get a piece of the pie." In February 2003, Baca also left a voice message for Griffin at her house: "Big talk around school is that [you and I] don’t know what the fuck we are doing," he said. "We need to prove these fucking morons wrong." In court papers, however, Carlthorp would later point to Baca as a source of reports of "incidents of unprofessional conduct" by Griffin. Baca did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

The humiliation of being pulled from class and told to leave the premises also infuriated her. She could not live with having endured racial slurs and having been cast aside while the school coddled its students and their wealthy parents and, as she alleged, retaliated against her for complaining that she had been mistreated.

After Griffin filed a lawsuit in December 2003, lawyers for Carlthorp tried to transfer the case from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica. Their efforts unsuccessful, they scheduled a deposition of Griffin, who says she faced a barrage of questions with barely any preparation from Carol Gillam, an employment lawyer she had hired. Gillam dropped Griffin when she discovered that her client had been convicted of a crime after applying at Carlthorp.

Griffin’s most recent lawyer, Loyst Fletcher, gave up on her when she refused to settle her lawsuit for $25,000 and sign a confidentiality agreement. Then he dismissed her lawsuit without her written permission, later conceding that he did little to pursue it. Griffin has until next week to set aside the dismissal and find a new lawyer. "I was adamant that Ericka settle," says Marks, who is now helping Griffin revive the lawsuit. "Ericka wanted to tell her story."

 


Griffin’s upbringing is intertwined with her reasons for being at Carlthorp. She looks determined one day last fall as she enters a conference room in the library at Santa Monica College, where she is on the dean’s list as a film major and is set to graduate in 2005. Five feet 9 inches, lean with broad shoulders, she looks every bit the power forward she was at Santa Monica High School. A youthful 32, dressed in capri slacks, a light sweater and sandals, she wears a chain with a cross around her neck, and a heart-shaped locket that says "Teach Only Love." Away from her mother, Griffin is more animated. When it is suggested that she fits right in on the college campus, her eyes light up. "I like to think so," she says.

She is eager to talk about her reasons for pursuing a lawsuit that has dredged up her past, made her family uncomfortable and turned an entire community against her. She says she is offended by the abuse of social status at Carlthorp. Griffin comes from a family with history and pride. "We are not your stereotypical black family," she says, describing how her grandfather Theodore Reid witnessed his father murder his mother in Savannah, Georgia, when he was 10, then moved to Santa Monica in 1952 after graduating from Meharry Dental School in Nashville. "He sent for my grandmother and their three children, who had been staying with family in Georgia," Griffin says. "My mother was 4 months old. My grandfather set up his dental practice in a small office across the street from Santa Monica High School. The building is still there."

Griffin’s grandmother Norma Payton Reid was a graduate of Atlanta’s Spelman College, class of 1944. The Reids were devoted to community service. Besides his private practice, Theodore Reid donated time at the dental clinic at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. In 1967, he went to work for the Watts Health Foundation, a joint project of Los Angeles County and USC Dental School. He became chief of oral surgery, while Norma Reid worked in child development with the Head Start program. At age 80, she still works for Head Start as a consultant. Her husband, who served as proctor of the USC community dental program until 1978, died in 1992.

Raised in Malibu, Joette Marks, then Joette Reid, enrolled at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1970. She became pregnant before marrying Larry Griffin, a semipro basketball player who had been cut by the Golden State Warriors and had toured with Marques Haynes’ Fabulous Magicians, a spin-off of the Harlem Globetrotters. Reid embraced the counterculture of UC Santa Cruz, while Larry Griffin traveled and played ball in the Philippines, Mexico and Portugal. Ericka Griffin was born in 1972, and by the time she was 6 her parents had divorced, remarried and divorced again.

"Growing up in Santa Cruz was like living in the 1950s," Griffin recalls. "Nobody locked their doors, and you could ride your bike to the corner store and not fear getting abducted." She stood out in the mostly white community, for her height as well as her color. "I considered myself an outcast," she says. "I was more interested in fine-tuning my hoop skills than my social skills." The oldest of three children, she grew accustomed to supporting those around her. She saw her mother as less an authority figure than a young divorced woman struggling to get her act together. "I was never one to open up and tell about myself. I was always everyone’s shoulder to cry on."

Griffin left home when she was 12 and moved to Malibu to live with her grandparents. Her mother followed. With her mother preoccupied with raising her younger brother and sister, Griffin’s grandmother pushed her in a traditional direction. It seemed old-fashioned. "I was supposed to go to a Southern college, get my degree, then marry a doctor or lawyer," says Griffin, who was more concerned with her identity at Santa Monica High School. "Boys wanted a girlie-girl, a cheerleader type," she recalls. "I competed against them to toughen myself. I dreamed of graduating in a letterman’s jacket with personalized embroidering to read ‘Lady Hoopster.’ "

A typical teenager, she fought off insecurity and gave in to youthful impulses. "I had already become attached before I left for college," she says. "My boyfriend was new and exciting, but it was not meant to be. I ended up cheating on him, something I thought I would never do. We barely got to know one another before I was shipped off."

Blue sky pokes through dark clouds along the Northern California coast as Larry Griffin walks into a diner off Route 1 near Watsonville. It is the day after Thanksgiving, and he has taken time from his current family to reflect on his former one. Griffin, a deputy sheriff with Santa Cruz County’s bomb squad, carries a ballplayer’s frame, though he moves slowly and his thick mustache is tipped with gray. His skin is dark, like that of his daughter. "Ericka had all the tools she needed to succeed in life," Griffin says of his daughter, who he says doesn’t call him as much as she should. "Los Angeles was a different world from Santa Cruz, though. All that debutante stuff was her grandmother’s idea. Spelman was not my first choice for Ericka. I had hoped for USC or UCLA."

Griffin shifts uncomfortably as he ponders what his daughter might have been spared, had she not been forced to attend Spelman to make up for the fact that her mother and aunt had rejected it. One night in 1990, as she was just getting acclimated during her first semester, Ericka Griffin accompanied a female acquaintance to the dormitory of neighboring Morehouse College. Atlanta boasts the largest consortium of black colleges in the world, all within close proximity: Spelman, for women; Morehouse, for men; as well as Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown College. Once inside the Morehouse dorm room, Griffin soon found herself alone with a young man, who raped her, she says. When it was over, she ran back to her dorm at Spelman, took a shower and "crawled into bed for, like, a week."

Griffin did not report the rape right away. Instead, she started calling home, complaining that she did not like it in Atlanta — vague cries for help that went unheeded. "They told me to hang in there," she says of her parents. Griffin says her assailant stalked her for several weeks before attempting to rape her again, this time on the Spelman campus. Griffin escaped the second attempt but reacted by swallowing half a bottle of ibuprofen pills and cutting her wrists with a disposable razor, requiring a trip to the hospital, sedation and an emergency call to her parents. While in intensive care, she told her doctors she had been raped several weeks earlier, by the man who had driven her to self-injury. She did not know his name. No investigation took place. No charges were filed.

Larry Griffin winces as he describes the phone call he received from the hospital. "I was angry, and I felt helpless," he says. "My impulse was to get on a plane and go get my daughter." Yet he didn’t. Instead, he says, he contacted a childhood friend in nearby Decatur to act as his surrogate. However, Ericka Griffin does not recall ever meeting her father’s friend. She recalls going to stay with her mother’s cousin Victor Payton, who lived nearby in Athens, until she could return to California. What’s more, she says, a Spelman representative came to the hospital and discouraged her from filing a police report. "They didn’t want controversy with Morehouse," she says. In a written statement, Spelman officials deny ever discouraging rape victims from reporting to the authorities.

"Ericka came back and stayed with me in Salinas, where I lived at the time," her father continues. "There was a long healing process, complicated by the fact that her grandmother did not believe a rape occurred." When asked whether he had his own doubts, Larry Griffin pauses. "I don’t know," he says with hesitation. "I believe my daughter. Something devastating must have happened."

 

As a rape victim, a college dropout and a directionless young woman in her late teens, Griffin had years of hard knocks ahead before she was ready to throw herself into the rigors of tending to children of wealth and privilege. When she returned to Los Angeles, a year after leaving Spelman, college classes were out of the question. "I could not go near a campus of any sort," she says. "It was too unnerving." Instead, she moved in with her old boyfriend, an activist in the Nation of Islam movement, who lived with his grandmother on 88th Street in South-Central. With help from her mother and aunt, both paralegals, and her uncle, an attorney, she eventually landed a series of clerical jobs at law firms. Several firms would later give her sterling recommendations as a hard worker and charming young woman. One would not.

The early 1990s were difficult, Griffin says. Her grandmother made her feel as though she "couldn’t cut it at Spelman." Such disapproval drove her to become a teacher’s aide at Carlthorp, she says, hoping for approval from her grandmother, a career educator who valued prestige. Equally disappointing, says Griffin, was that her mother didn’t stand up for her. "Ericka felt anger towards me," admits Marks, who was living with her parents as a single mother of three. "I was struggling to get myself established. I wasn’t receiving child support, and I could barely afford rent and food on a paralegal’s salary. I allowed my mother to control everything. Meanwhile, my daughter was on the threshold of adulthood, and I wasn’t physically or emotionally available," she says matter-of-factly.

Just as Marks doesn’t hesitate to blame her failures on her divorce and her mother’s worldview, she is quick to rail against inequality in society in general. Specifically she blames Spelman, Carlthorp and the justice system for grinding her daughter into the ground. "I would like people to know about the brutality, cruelty and heartlessness Ericka has experienced," Marks says. "Why do people in authority seem to have so little conscience? Why, 46 years after my mother graduated Spelman, did school administrators do so little to get at the root of what happened to her granddaughter on campus?"

This knack for rhetoric has rubbed off on Griffin. While she gets her physical attributes and work ethic from her father, she gets her righteousness from her mother. In taking on Carlthorp, she admits that she fantasizes about Ida B. Wells, the 19th-century crusader for justice. But Griffin carried her righteousness into adulthood without the maturity or the guidance she needed to steer clear of trouble. Left to her own devices, she got mixed up in a situation that damaged her credibility and came back to haunt her when she went to court as an alleged victim of racism and bigotry.

 

Joel Tamraz is a veteran attorney with 38 years in private practice. In 1994, he needed an office assistant who could order supplies and process checks in his small but busy law office in Santa Monica. Tamraz hired Griffin for $200 a week and, despite her lack of accounting skills or training, placed his trust in her. But his was no ordinary law practice.

Superior Court records show that Tamraz has personally sued or been sued more than 80 times in his career. Working for him was stressful. In addition to failing to pay her on time, Griffin says, he was prone to outbursts. According to Tamraz, Griffin opened several accounts in his name at Staples and Office Depot but used them for her own purposes. Then she paid herself by forging his signature on checks, he says. "I confronted her with it and she quit," says Tamraz, who went to the police in December 1995 and accused her of embezzling several thousands of dollars.

Shortly after she quit, however, in August 1995, Griffin filed a complaint with the state bar. In her complaint, she accused Tamraz of hatching schemes with his clients to defraud insurance companies by reporting thefts that had not occurred. According to court records, Griffin provided a recorded statement to investigators for Allstate Insurance Co., an insurer with which one of Tamraz’s clients had filed a claim and gave a deposition in which she cooperated with Allstate’s challenge to the claim. No money was recovered on the claim, and Tamraz was not disciplined, but Griffin walked away with a criminal record.

The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office charged Griffin with grand theft on April 18, 1996. A handwriting expert hired by Deputy Public Defender Norman Kava determined that Tamraz’s signature on four checks made out to Griffin totaling $800 had been forged, and that Griffin had endorsed the backs of the checks with her signature before cashing them. Findings were inconclusive as to who did the forgeries. Griffin says that she often signed checks for Tamraz at his request and denies she paid herself without his authorization. After being shuffled around among four different deputy public defenders, Griffin pleaded no contest to felony grand theft on June 26, 1997. She served three years of probation and paid back the money Tamraz says she stole from him. Her case was expunged in September, meaning the charges were dropped to a misdemeanor and dismissed, with a plea of not guilty to the felony entered.

Elise Klein, a partner at Lewis, D’Amato, Bribois & Bisgaard, who represented Allstate, believes Griffin got a raw deal. Klein urged Griffin to fight the criminal charges in 1997. In a letter to the court recently in support of Griffin’s motion to dismiss the felony, Klein wrote, "I found Griffin to be credible. I found [Tamraz] to be otherwise."

"I’m not perfect, and I’ve never been very smart about navigating the legal system," says Griffin, who was under the impression she was pleading to a misdemeanor. In fact, the prosecutor’s notation in the court file indicates a lesser charge was discussed, but it was not entered. "I get screwed every time, and it’s not okay." Kava, the attorney who entered the no-contest plea on behalf of Griffin, did not return several calls for comment.

 

Carlthorp seemed like a last hope for Griffin. But when conflict arose there, or when she came under scrutiny from parents, peers or the administration, it was often to her detriment. Her family saw it coming. No way a 25-year-old black woman with her baggage was going to cut it among the upper crust. Particularly when she started working as a nanny for rich families and celebrities, such as James Worthy and Steven Spielberg, something was bound to go wrong. Many private schools — not including Carlthorp — have policies against teachers babysitting students or working as nannies for enrolled families. And though Griffin got along well with Spielberg’s family, her relationship with Worthy’s ex-wife and children had ended poorly. "There are going to be people who just want you around if you can meet their needs," says Larry Griffin, scoffing at the memory of visiting the Wilder household. His daughter had been so proud to show him the rarefied world she was a part of. "The only thing that separates that family from any other is an address," he says. "They had money to throw around but no time for their kids." Of the suggestion that Wilder and others had once embraced his daughter as family, he says, "Sure, you treat your dog like family too."

Matthew Young, Griffin’s boyfriend, recounts outings with Wilder’s children, who he says talked down to Griffin. "We’d take them to the aquarium in Long Beach, or to the Santa Monica Pier," Young says. Having grown up in Santa Monica, and being the nephew of Alan Young, the president of the Boys & Girls Club, Young sees Carlthorp as emblematic of an old-boy network. He thinks Griffin paid too heavy a price for her entanglements with children of privilege. "She would come home in tears and was just a wreck," he says. "Like she wasn’t good enough for them. I’d tell her, ‘Baby, they’re setting you up to fail.’ But she couldn’t see starting over again."

Others recall Griffin fondly, but after she sued Carlthorp it was if she had never made a true friend. Kelly Anderson is the mother of two boys to whom Griffin grew close as their nanny. One still calls Griffin when he is home from boarding school. "My children adore Ericka and she adores them, but I’ve been a Carlthorp parent for 10 years and I have a great sense of loyalty to the school," Anderson says. "I’m not saying I don’t believe her [allegations], but I don’t want to say anything that suggests the school is insensitive to people of color."

Barbara Lovitt is the mother of a Carlthorp student who sympathized with Griffin after she was criticized by Sable Worthy and friends. According to Griffin, Lovitt’s daughter was upset over the matter. "My daughter is a kind person, and she wanted to reach out to Ericka," Lovitt says. "I just don’t want to say anything critical of the school, or anything positive about Ericka that can be taken as critical of the school."

Even the Spielbergs, who adopted two African-American children, backed away, though they thought enough to invite Griffin and her mother to the bar mitzvah of their son and the bat mitzvah of their daughter, to whom Griffin talks on a regular basis. They would not comment for this story. "Considering who they are, they are very down-to-earth people," says Marks, who thinks teachers at the school were jealous of her daughter’s closeness to the Spielberg children. "But Ericka needs to understand the difference between employers and friends and fair-weather friends."

Griffin’s aunt Julie Ware has been a part of the Santa Monica community for years. Because of the fallout at Carlthorp, she and her husband, Bernard Ware, a lawyer and a former board member at the Boys & Girls Club, have withdrawn from the social scene. "How does a school promote a young woman from teacher’s aide all the way to athletic director, then tear her down?" Ware says. "Ericka felt comfortable enough with Dee Menzies to speak up when she had a problem. Now she has been scorned. Carlthorp is like a puppet for rich families, and when their children complain, they call the school and tell it what to do. If they want to close their eyes to problems at that school, that is their problem. Sure, every school wants to appear diverse, but to Ericka, this was about more than appearance. This was her chance to get her life right."

 

Griffin sat alone in the courtroom of Los Angeles judge Ronald Sohigian last week, hoping to salvage her lawsuit, which has been dismissed by her former attorney, Loyst Fletcher. He, too, had seen the writing on the wall. Carlthorp intended to destroy Griffin’s character, Fletcher explains. She didn’t stand a chance at trial, he says. "It’ll be 30 people versus one. Carlthorp will call her a liar, and it’ll come down to who do you believe. Witnesses will get amnesia, then the school will throw in some meaningless allegations to confuse the jury, including her criminal conviction, which can be explained. Then there’s no telling what 12 people will think. Maybe they won’t like the way she looks. The fact is, the truth does not matter. It’s perception that counts."

So last September, when Carlthorp offered to settle the case for $25,000 in exchange for confidentiality and Griffin refused, Fletcher dismissed the case. Now, after three hours of waiting, when Griffin goes before the judge, her voice is shaking. Sohigian tells her she must file a motion by January 18 to set aside the dismissal, which means she probably needs a new lawyer. Griffin leaves the courtroom and breaks down in tears.

She may need a lawyer for other reasons. Karasik, a partner with Weston Benshoof Rochefort Rubalcava & MacCuish, has threatened her with damages for breach of a settlement agreement that is in dispute. "Several months ago, the parties reached a settlement agreement whereby Ms. Griffin agreed to dismiss her action with prejudice, and also agreed to make no disparaging comments about Carlthorp School or its faculty or staff," Karasik writes in response to inquiries by the Weekly. "But Ms. Griffin to date has not signed the document." Fletcher, who after he dismissed the lawsuit ignored a written request by Griffin to set aside the dismissal, said no such agreement exists. "They’re just blowing smoke," he says. "You can’t have an agreement that the plaintiff has not signed."

Meanwhile, a stream of Carlthorp parents and administrators, including Dee Menzies, have started frequenting P.F. Chang’s, where Griffin works part time as a hostess. "It’s like they are trying to intimidate me or I am some kind of zoo animal for them to gawk at," she says.

 

Had she graduated from Spelman College, Ericka Griffin would have been in the class of 1994. Her mother would have been in the class of 1974. But to the disappointment of Norma Payton Reid, neither ever came close. Joette Marks says that her mother still drags her and Griffin to Spelman alumnae functions, where she publicly calls attention to how her daughter and granddaughter have failed her. "My mother is this conservative woman from the South who makes it very clear when she is displeased," Marks says. "She’ll put her hand on her hip, with the head movement and all that, and say, ‘You folk don’t know a thing.’ " Norma Payton Reid did not return calls for comment on this story.

Given the pain of watching her daughter struggle with Carlthorp — in court and within herself — Marks is ready to see an end to the most recent chapter in her daughter’s life. She figures Griffin is finally doing what she always wanted her to do: earning her college degree and working part time to pay her way and getting good grades while she’s at it. "I’m realizing that Ericka is a lot stronger and smarter than I thought," Marks says.

Yet she is not left without a bitter taste. She describes a recent visit to Fletcher’s office to retrieve her daughter’s files. "He says Ericka is paranoid," Marks says. "His parting words were, ‘Your daughter needs counseling.’ It’s unfortunate he doesn’t see the connection between the need for counseling and the abuse she suffered at Carlthorp, not to mention attorneys who’ve done such a shoddy job of representing her." She continues, "To me, it’s a no-brainer. I know in my gut this is a classic case of backstabbing and class and racial bias. Ericka has been associating with people who have limited contact with middle-class black people. They think black families are more dysfunctional than others. It irritates me when black people who act like other middle-class people in this country are treated like some kind of miracle or freak accident."

For all the righteousness she has learned from her mother, and the family pride she attributes to her grandmother, Griffin may have realized it’s time to be her own woman. She’s hoping for a career in film. "I tried Spelman, I tried being a paralegal, and I tried Carlthorp," she says.

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