Imagine writing a letter of complaint to the telephone company and by way of an answer, your phone service is cut off.
Or think of this scenario: You let the CEO of your favorite airline know that on your last trip, the service was slow and the food particularly bad. He responds by banning you and your family from any future trips on his planes.
This sounds ridiculous, crass, akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face. American business--remember the adage about the customer always being right?--doesn't work that way.
No. Wait a minute. Let me rephrase that. American business doesn't work \o7 well\f7 that way.
Now cut to San Juan Capistrano and a private business of a different kind, the Roston Montessori Schoolhouse. This scenario isn't hypothetical, although it still seems a bit unreal.
Earlier this month a group of parents got to talking about the school, where some 125 pupils attend preschool through sixth grade. These parents had always liked Roston Montessori. Their children were learning, and having fun. Some of their kids had been enrolled for as long as four years.
These parents liked the Montessori teaching method, which stresses individual attention and self-motivated learning at one's own pace, and they were willing to pay. Tuition is $3,500 a year, plus a $75 registration fee, with additional charges for extended day care.
But the parents thought that conditions at the school had recently begun to change, in a way that they didn't like, so 15 of them wrote a letter to the school administration pointing this out.
"We are concerned parents," the letter began. "Our objective is to have our children enrolled in a well-managed, student-responsive Montessori school. Obviously Roston Montessori is our school of choice. At present, however, from evidence observed and compared, our children are, instead, enrolled in a school replete with internal turmoil and staff turnover."
The letter went on, for four typewritten pages. It mentioned overcrowding, concerns over children's safety during ongoing construction work, a lack of physical education, the need for better teacher-parent communication, breaches of "common decency and courtesy," and a school policy of discouraging parents to volunteer in the classrooms.
"Please understand that our motivation here is to work in any capacity with you to maintain the high standards and integrity of Montessori education," the letter said.
The school's response to the parents' letter? It expelled six of their children lickety-split. The parents of five other students--including two parents who agreed with but did not sign the letter--voluntarily withdrew their kids.
"This is a private business," Rokeya Lee, the school's headmistress and general manager, told me over the phone. "We reserve the right to refuse service."
The letter, she added, amounted to nothing more than a bunch of lies. The children were expelled, she said, for "parental misconduct."
"Over the past 12 years, we have had parents unhappy about this and that. Your remedy is not to go to the private school anymore."
Rokeya Lee apparently knows of what she speaks. The contracts signed by the parents don't even mention expulsions. And the state Department of Education, to use its own words, "does not license, evaluate, recognize, approve, or endorse any private school."
In a case such as this, the state has no grounds to butt in--although health and safety ordinances, of course, must be observed.
That, however, is just about it. It's a sellers' market out there. In the case of San Juan Capistrano's Roston Montessori Schoolhouse, part of a family-owned business in Orange County that includes two other schools and a teacher training institute, the parents and their children are flat out of luck.
Oh sure, the parents have contacted attorneys to see what their options might be. They didn't like what they heard. They could get the children reinstated in school--thank you, but no--or try to shut the operation down.
"We feel we are a rational group," said Linda Rippin, a marketing executive whose 5-year-old son was expelled from the school. "Our concerns are growing. We do not want this to reoccur, with other children."
"We thought something might happen when we wrote the letter," explained Dr. Peggy Fujimura, a physician whose son was kicked out of kindergarten. "But we're still angry."
For the time being, the former Roston students, 11 of them ranging in age from 4 to 9 years old, are being taught outside of school. The parents have hired a former Roston Montessori Schoolhouse teacher to educate the children in her home.
"At first they thought it was fun," said Jancy Petry, mother of two sons expelled from the school. "But now the tears have started. 'Does this mean we wouldn't get to be in the school play?' is what they're saying now."
So this is a story without any winners. The children old enough to understand are embarrassed at the thought of being expelled. They wonder what they did wrong.
The parents--business people, doctors, a scientist, an electrical engineer, homemakers and a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins--are outraged that their concerns were so cavalierly dismissed.
Rokeya Lee told me she views the whole affair as personal harassment and is planning to consult an attorney to see what legal recourse she might have.
"It's a lynching mob, actually," she said. "Quite frankly, I am shocked at their behavior."
I'm shocked, too, that this mess even exists. But state and county officials, educators and representatives of associations that accredit private schools throughout the state all told me the same thing.
In California, anybody can open a school. And then they can do just about anything they wish.