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At Your Disservice

These student butlers got served.

"Really, what she had to say set the tenor for the whole course," remembers Muller. "From the first moment we talked to her until graduation, every moment was negative." Greetings would be met by grimaces, smiles by rolls of the eyes. Screams and curses emanated from her office. The behavior seemed to spread to faculty members, who would thunder at their classes or demand students prepare meals following specific lists of personal "flavor profiles." "At times I felt inferior and broke down crying," says student Cass Sullivan. "It's not worth it. You get maybe two weeks' worth of training and six weeks' worth of hell."

Madison's hell was more personal, she believes. "I was the only black person in the class, and I felt that some people made a point of that," she says. "In my weekly assessments, Mrs. Starkey told me to soften up my edges, that I was too 'street' and too 'urban' for private service. One time she patted me on the top of the head and told me how cute I was. That pat was heard around the world."

Some former employees say that Starkey treated them no better than she did her students. According to Bartels and Trujillo, Starkey was always hesitant to provide overtime and bonus checks, and would read through employee e-mails.

Mary Starkey helped set the standards for household management, which she teaches at her Capitol Hill mansion.
Mary Starkey helped set the standards for household management, which she teaches at her Capitol Hill mansion.

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Listen

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to hear excerpts of the February 7 school meeting in which Mary Louise Starkey explained some of the finer point of the service industry and shed some light on the alleged incident between her and student Lisa Kirkpatrick that day.

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"In her defense, she absolutely believes her own line," a former employee says. "She really thinks she's the best of the best of the best. She doesn't make a lot of money from Starkey. Whenever she talks about expanding, it's never for personal gain. She always says her main goal in life is to create an industry. She has taken it out of servitude and into a profession. She talks the talk, but does not walk the walk. She always talks about the relationship of service, putting the giver on the same plane as the receiver. But she just treats everybody like a servant."

"You have to differentiate between Mary Starkey the person and Mary Starkey the guiding light of the service industry," adds Bennett, who says Starkey picked on students and employees for being too fat, too old, too ugly or just not Starkey material. "On the one hand, she has pushed and pushed and pushed for household service to become a profession. On the other hand, she has done it at the expense of so many people's lives, physically and emotionally castigating them."

"I have a hugely positive record," argues Starkey. "I have a reputation that has afforded me to be able to stay in business in a very difficult industry for all of these years." That reputation has also helped her add excellent hires to her staff, including a former White House employee — but Starkey also has a reputation for losing them. "She has a real knack for hiring the best people," says Miller, her former educational director. "She's charming and in most cases she is well-spoken. All of that smoke and mirrors is great until you get down to the basics of the day-to-day management, and that is where she falls apart. I went to work with some of the best people on the planet who would have made her shine if she had let them."

Starkey's behavior hasn't just resulted in massive staff turnover, it's also landed her in court. In 1995, former Starkey International student and employee Edward Passino filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Starkey had fired him for having AIDS and told the rest of her staff about his condition. Starkey claimed no wrongdoing, and the lawsuit eventually settled; Passino has since passed away.

But since then, nothing at Starkey International had created the same level of hubbub — until this past February 7. That morning, Muller and several of his colleagues were working in the mansion's basement classroom when they heard noise upstairs. When they went up to investigate, they were told that Starkey had grabbed their classmate Kirkpatrick in a fit of rage over her appearance. "The next thing I knew I was hearing yelling and I felt arms on me and shaking me, and then I was slammed against a wall and my neck popped several times," Kirkpatrick says now. "At that point she grabbed me by the neck and threw me against a mirror. 'You got it?" she said. 'You are not going to be put on a website with your hair like that. You got it?'"

Several other students had witnessed the incident. "I saw Mrs. Starkey grab Ms. Kirkpatrick," Murphy says, "and, while shaking her and spinning her around and pushing her towards a wall with mirror on it, say things like, 'Look at yourself,' and, 'Don't you get the point?'" Sullivan, who was in the kitchen, looked out the door to see what was causing the commotion and caught the tail end of the incident. "Starkey still had her hands on Ms. Kirkpatrick," she remembers. "Even then she could have been hurting Ms. Kirkpatrick by the way she had her hands on her."

At the encouragement of classmates, Kirkpatrick went to the hospital, since she had suffered a spinal injury in the past. After she left, a Starkey employee approached the other students. Make sure you report the incident to the police and the Colorado Division of Private Occupational Schools, he told them.

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