Adventures in El Dragon Democracy – Chapter 1
How the principal of my kids kindergarten came to make 3 Nazi Salutes in middle of a parent-teacher meeting on bullying and potential sexual misconduct.
Let me introduce Barbara Serrano, the Principal, Director and CEO of El Dragon Democratic School in Madrid where my 5 year old daughter has been a student until very recently.
When my wife and I found this school last year, we thought we’d found something truly special. Organized around humanist and democratic principles El Dragon promises a free school experience where students learn without imposition of autocratic methods, in a culture of mutual respect. A place where their talents can develop and shine. Featuring a school parliament, a judicial system run by teachers and students this appeared to be a perfect place for my daughter to finish off her kindergarten and enter into primary school. For 7 months, we lived in the mirage of this Democratic Utopia until some events took place that forced us to start asking hard questions about “democracy” as it was being practiced in El Dragon.
In February of this year, the kindergarten whatsapp chat blew up due to the “disappearance” of Theresa, one of the more popular teachers. Apparently she was fired, even though just 2 weeks prior the school was lauding her performance to the parents. When parents started asking questions, Barbara informed us that the school was actually a for profit company and that because of legal reasons the school can not say anything about the firing nor would they answer any of the parent questions. At the same time parents calling Theresa were told that she does not even know why she was let go exactly, but it might have something to do with the fact that a few days before her firing she raised concerns about the pedagogical model the school was using. As parents voiced with displeasure about lack of communications and input from the community regarding this situation Barbara abruptly left the chat.
Being a parent of a student in a “Democratic” school I made a mistake of asking for a community meeting — this is the message i sent into the chat
The response in the chat room was not exactly satisfactory. Members of school management team informed us that if we have any concerns to email school administration and that the chat room is no longer to be used for any discussions. Obviously transparency, open community communications and school administration accountability to the community were not the hallmarks of El Dragon Democratic Utopia.
A few days later, when i went to take my kid to school, Blake the kindergarten coordinator asked to speak to me and informed me that I am no longer allowed to speak in the chat room. She also told me that while she is not at liberty to discuss what happened to Theresa, I am completely wrong in my assumptions regarding what happened to her. I was very honest with Blake — I told her that I have real concerns that what is being taught in El Dragon is not Democracy, but rather Hypocrisy, and the lessons about expendability of people are definitely not appropriate for a democratic school. I also questioned whether El Dragon is really a democratic school, or a dictatorship
While the initial Theresa incident was disturbing, it evolved into something much more sinister. Theresas kids were enrolled in El Dragon on a scholarship that kids of teachers get. After her dismissal the school told us not to worry about the kids, and of course they would be able to finish the school year. But this turned out to be not completely true.
About a week after this incident, Theresas husband posted into El Dragon Chat a very disturbing tale and analysis of situation in El Dragon. Turns out that after Barbara promised orally to Theresa that if she signs the firing papers her kids will be able to finish the year and keep the scholarship till end of the year, the school demanded full tuition for the kids the day after the signed off on her firing. He also shared with us that the school is a “money machine” and the businesses model of the school is to spend as little as possible by hiring teachers with no training or experience since they are cheaper. All the propaganda about how teachers have “life experience” turned out to be just a business decision to hire cheaper teachers with no formal training.
Theresa’s family obviously could not afford tuition after she lost her job, so the kids were removed from the school in the middle of the school year. To us this was a very direct violation of the principles that the school supposedly espoused, but also was a direct proof that the school administration was not really honest with the school community.
Me and my wife at that point decided to investigate whats actually happening in El Dragon, and what we found was truly disturbing. We found a whole universe of families and teachers that have left El Dragon in last few years, a lot of them had their kids kicked out of school when they started questioning how “democratic” El Dragon was. We heard stories of misuse of the Judicial Committee (hallway trials) that the school had implemented, we heard stories of misuse of school parliament to target and embarrass kids, we heard stories of Stalinist purges of teachers. And in all of these stories there were two central characters — Barbara Serrano, and her partner Juan Moran the co-owners of El Dragon international school SL.
Information that El Dragon was actually a for profit company was news to us since they are using a .org internet address, and have numerous social media postings saying they are a not-for-profit — like this post for example
Having the school as a for-profit entity generally raises a number of issues, especially if the school principal — the chief educational officer is also the CEO of the corporation. For example there can arrize conflicts of interest between the corporate needs of the Corp, and educational mission of the institution, and as this narrative is going to play out you will see what this conflict of interest looks like in practice.
After doing our initial research, we decided that if these stories are true, we have to remove our kid from this school, but we also felt we should give the school an opportunity to answer our concerns, so we asked for a meeting with the Director. However we were told that it will be impossible for us to meet her but we can meet Alice, the Vice Principal of the school. We ended up having an almost 2 hour conversation with Alice covering a number of issues which will be part of a separate chapter, but the main take-aways from that meeting as it relates to this particular story was that Alice confirmed that Barbara makes all the decisions in the school including oversight of the judicial comittees, firings of teachers and so on. Alice also told us that in El Dragon democracy is just for students, not for parents or familes, an intersting take on democracy indeed.
What Alice was not able to do was address our chief concerns that the school is a false democracy, an institution where the personal power of one person dominates everything, where democracy is actually a fig leaf for a dictatorship — just like in almost every other authoritarian system we have had in our collective history. We decided to find a new school for our daughter for the next year, but let her finish kindergarten in El Dragon. However, another incident happened shortly after that changed everything.
On Friday, March 16, our daughter came back from school and told us that there was an incident on the school bus when multiple much older boys rushed up to a 3 year old girl sitting next to her and started grabbing and touching her, our daughter was looking out the window at the time the attack started, and was terrified she will be next. Afterwards the 3 year old turned to our daughter and said they touched me here and pointed at her genital area.
This was not the first incident on bus involving the same older kids and the same 3 year old girl, as well as other very young dragonfly students. The ride home from school over the last few weeks turned into a daily bullying exercise for younger kids, and the school being fully aware of what was happening did very little to stop this, not even letting the parents know what was happening. Then there was another recent incident when the same 8 year old grabbed the head of a 5 year boy old and forced him to kiss the 3 year old girl without her consent multiple times.
After deliberating about what happened, reaching out through the parents network to confirm key aspects of the story as taking the history of how the school has dealt with parent concerns in the past I informed the school administration about the incident on Sunday night and told them that we are planning to go to the police on monday but to contact us in the morning before we go if they have other ideas on how to handle this situation. My intention was to either force the school to engage with problem or to get outside 3rd party authorities to investigate.
The School called and emailed me first thing in the morning, informing me that other parents have already informed them of the incident, and that they are taking it very seriously and asking us not to go to the police and let the school investigate what happened. They also scheduled a meeting for the 21st of March to discuss the situation.
With school demonstrating total incompetence and inability to monitor kids on a 30 minute bus ride to a point where 3,4 and 5 year olds have their space and/or person violated without consent by group of much older kids, we decided to immediately remove our child from the school due to basic safety concerns.
On the day of the meeting, we were running late, and emailed the school that we are running late, and the school even called and asked us whether we were coming and we confirmed that we were.
When we arrived at the school, we were ushered into office of 2 administrators — Mayte and Rubens. They closed the door and informed us that since we are late we won’t be able to join the meeting. We were outraged and demanded to participate in the meeting, and were told we were not going to be able to. At that point i said that ok we will go the police then, at which point Barbara came in from the adjacent room where the meeting was being held and with a look of total indignation invited us to join.
From the moment we got into the meeting we were constantly attacked from all sides, by Barbara, by Nora who was the school bus monitor, by Samuel and Mayte, The other parents who were in the meeting with us were looking on us as if we were creatures from a different planet. We still dont know what was discussed while we were kept out of the room, but one of the parents leaned over to Nikky when we came through the door and said “They told us you were not coming”
Barbara said she personally interviewed everyone on the bus except our daughter (who hasn’t been back to school since). This we found out to be actually false, there were some kids on the bus that Barbara did not interview — 1st of many lies that followed. Barbara stated that after analysis of all the evidence she concluded that only the butt and belly of the victim were touched, so therefore this was not abuse. Consent did not matter. Personal Space did not matter. Older students bullying younger did not matter. Furthermore Barbara made a strange argument that in dragonfly the world revolves around “caca culo teta piss” and it’s totally acceptable for kids to grab each other as part of normal play, the only problem with that argument was that it was not 2 kinder gardeners involved, but rather an 8 and 9 year old boys who are not in dragonfly grabbing a 3 year old girl.
Barbara then stated that they have investigated me and my wife and proceeded to accuse us of fabricating the incident because we were upset about what happened with Theresa. She even mentioned the message that I sent asking for a community meeting and described it as “disgusting”. The school staff also implied that our daughter is emotionally unbalanced, that we the parents put fear into her that caused her to see things that didnt happen and so on.
The reality of the situation is although we decided not to continue our daughter’s presence in El Dragon for next year due to unresolved concerns about the ethics of institution and concerns about implementation of the democratic model by ethically challenged staff, we still were planning to let her finish the year in Dragonfly, until the final bus incident made us realize that El Dragon is actually a dangerous place for kids.
The accusation from Barbara was a transparent attempt to dodge responsibility for creating a bully free space for our kids so they can be free and can learn and function. I am posting bellow audio we recorded of my daughter telling what happened the day after the incident — you yourself can be the judge if we fabricated this incident or not. I beeped out the names of the kids involved to protect their privacy.
Beyond ethical considerations this incident raises serious questions about tolerance for bullying in El Dragon. In fact in the last letter the school sent out after the trimester meeting they are stating that they are going to tolerate kids fighting because that’s a normal part of the learning experience. It begs the question what exactly are kids learning when 8 year olds are allowed to do whatever they want with 3 year olds? Are they learning democracy or are they learning the perpetuation of culture of the domination of the strong over the weak?
Given that Barbara was not truthful about having interviewed all the kids on the bus, it’s fair to question the validity of all her evidence and her conclusions. In addition given El Dragon is actually a for-profit company, rather than a non -for-profit organization implied by their online posts and the fact that they got a .org domain name for their address. Barbara is not just the Director of the school, but also the CEO of a for profit company that is the school. As such she has a conflict of interest that can not be resolved when she is acting as investigator, judge and jury in cases that involve rights of students and those rights come in conflict with institutional financial and reputational needs.
Besides the lie about having interviewied all the kids Barbara also falsely claimed during the meeting that:
- we haven’t tried to arrange a meeting with her in the past (we tried and were told that she wouldnt see us)
- the school did not badgered us non-stop for a weeks to pay matricula for next year.
These are small lies — but they go further to demonstrate a pattern of lying in public about basic facts, and it should illuminate all the statements the school and Barbara have made about various incidents in the past as well as whatever they will say in response to this damning narrative.
Barbara followed her accusation of fabrication by accusing me of calling her a dictator. The reality is I never called her dictator directly, but I did ask both Blake and Alice if the school was really democratic, or was democracy used as a fig leaf for dictatorship. If the school were indeed a dictatorship, Barbara — who makes all the final decisions, fires teachers and expels families at will and with no regard for legalities or ethics would be a natural candidate for the title. When I explained this to Barbara she started making Nazi salutes in my direction, I think trying to provoke me. I was shocked by this display of antisemitism, and embrace of symbols of genocide and hate coming from the director of a “democracy” school. Also, when Barbara started making the Nazi salutes in my direction I looked around the room. Sammuel, Nora and Mayte — the three other members of El Dragon staff present were looking upon me with a satisfied smile while the rest of the parents were just silent. Saying nothing when something like this happens is how democracies die, an no dictator can function without a team of sycophants and enablers behind them. The Staff members of El Dragon present at this meeting said nothing when this attack happened and are therefore complicit in it.
Shortly after the Nazi Salute, Barbara said ok we all have consensus then that nothing happened and ended the meeting.
Something tells me this was a classical cover up.
I also feel that this “consensus” that nothing happened on that bus that Friday or all the previous days was extracted from me and my wife through bullying, intimidation, manipulation and anti Semitic attack and is therefore not valid.
Furthermore, after this meeting, at the meeting of all parents of kindergarten students Barbara publicly announced that 2 parents came to school, disrupted a parent meeting, and made false accusations. Since a lot of people in the community knew we were concerned about this incident and were the ones going to this meeting. She did not name us, but the effect of attacking our reputation is the same. Speaking of that incident, right after she attacked us publicly, Barbara proceeded to single out a different family and publicly shamed them by name for daring to share their concerns with other parents. This is not what Democracy looks like people. And Democracy does not look like what followed after Barbara’s shaming —El Dragon families in attendance either remaining silent or looking upon these parents in disapproval. Just like when Barbara did her Nazi Salute. This is what Dictatorship or a Sect looks like.
To add insult to injury, the school expelled the 3 year old kid of the parents who dared to question the school, this after publicly stating at the same meeting that they will not retaliate against the kid.
Given the number of issues that have come up with El Dragon, and how they behaved towards me and my family when we raised what we think were valid concerns about not just our childs safety but also the safety of other children, I feel I have no other choice but to take this debate into the public arena. And I plan to work with other affected families to help them tell their stories to the world about the reality of this project gone bad. As a lifelong activist I learned a long time ago that when the people become empowered to speak truth to power, the power that is corrupt eventually crumbles. Its just a matter of releasing the information and telling our stories.
For the families still in El Dragon, please for the sake of your children carefully read what I have said. You might not like my style, but you should consider how safe are your children in this institution. Ask questions of the administration and refuse to pay the fees until they answer them. Demand to see accounts of the school in order to see how much are they are really spending on the education of our kids and how much is a profit margin. Ask them how many kids have been kicked out because their parents asked questions over the last 5 years, how many teachers were fired for raising concerns, how many people they threatened with lawsuits to keep this fraud under wraps.
For those who are considering El Dragon for their kids — consider yourself warned. Barbara and Juan built a democracy school that would make Franco proud.
For my family, we had an assembly (we are a democratic family after all) and we decided to vote — with our feet. While its important to try to save Dragon, it was not worth the risk to our child considering the incompetence and vindictiveness of this administration.
The next parts of this narrative will discuss other aspects of El Dragon such as the Judicial Committees and how they are really implemented, how the school tried to use leverage over families that decided to leave the project, and detailed history of this institution over the last 5 years.