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Couple Plans To Sue Neighbors Who Demand They ‘Free’ Daughter From Prep School

October 22, 1986

EDISON, N.J. (AP) _ A couple who sent their teen-age daughter to a discipline-oriented boarding school will file suit against neighbors who have publicly objected to their decision, the couple’s lawyer said Tuesday.

The lawsuit accuses the neighbors of invasion of privacy, libel and slander for their attempts to emancipate the girl they contend is a prisoner at The DeSisto School in West Stockbridge, Mass., said attorney Richard Plechner.

″It’s very wrong to be put in this situation,″ said Mary Lou Burdick, who admits to being a strict parent but says that what she and her husband, David, do with their children is their business.

Plechner said the suit likely would be filed Wednesday in state court.

The Burdicks’ 16-year-old daughter, Heather, first was sent to the private school in June, but she ran away in August. She was returned after a Sept. 5 family court hearing.

The school filed suit Tuesday in federal court against the 12 neighbors and their attorney, accusing them of defamation.

It also brought about 50 parents of students at its Massachusetts and Howey, Fla., $26,000-per-year college preparatory schools to a news conference to applaud the Burdicks’ resolve.

The Burdicks, who are separated and also have a 13-year-old daughter, said they could not understand what prompted the neighbors to meddle.

″Under no circumstances do I have a right to impose my values on them and under no circumstances do they have a right to impose their values on me,″ said Mrs. Burdick.

A week after a family court judge in New Brunswick allowed the Burdicks to return Heather to the 175-student school, the couple filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the neighbors from interfering.

In response, the neighbors sued the state Division of Youth and Family Services, the Crisis Intervention Unit of Superior Court - which were involved in the court decision - and the school, seeking Heather’s release.

They also sent a letter to state Supreme Court Justice Robert Wilentz, with copies to more than a dozen other officials, claiming Heather ″was subjected (at DeSisto) to abuse which included being awakened every night.

″She was also forced to stand before an assembly of her peers, both male and female, in her undergarments with her pants around her ankles. Every time she attempted to pull her pants up they were pulled down again,″ the letter said.

School officials denied the allegations, citing a Massachusetts Department of Social Services investigation that has deemed them unfounded.

The neighbors’ suit claims that since Heather was enrolled at the school against her will, she was ″falsely imprisoned, subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and deprived of her life, liberty and property.″

Among plaintiffs in that suit is Joan Shea, whose 16-year-old daughter, Christine, is a close friend of Heather.

She described Heather as no more troubled than any other teen-ager going through difficult times in a broken home.

Mrs. Burdick refused to respond to the issue, saying only that Heather was sent to DeSisto on professional advice last spring after a ″crisis″ that forced her to send the girl to a hospital psychiatric ward for three weeks.

At her parents’ request, Heather has not been allowed to speak with the news media or the neighbors about the case.