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Posted at 11:08 AM ET, 01/21/2010

Sidwell Friends scandal

By Valerie Strauss

If you ever labored under the illusion that kids who attend fancy private schools that cost $30,000 a year are any more insulated from scandal than other schools, the arrest of a veteran Sidwell Friends School teacher on sexual abuse charges should dispel you of it.

Year after year, bad things are reported at elite private schools, just like they are at public schools. Private school students have been caught printing counterfeit money to cover gambling debts, running mini prostitution rings; private school administrators have been caught stealing money, sleeping with students, and even committing murder.

Human behavior-- and misbehavior-- doesn't stop at the walls of any elite institution. Any of the people connected with any of the expensive private schools have no bigger claim to a higher morality than anybody else. Attendance means nothing but the ability to attend.

Yesterday it became public that a veteran teacher at Sidwell, in the District, had been arrested on charges of sexual abuse of a minor and other sexual offenses.

The teacher, Robert A. “Pete” Peterson, 65, had been one of the most beloved teachers at Sidwell for years before he was placed on leave just before the school year started last fall, and was fired Jan. 14. He was charged with sex abuse of a minor and two counts of fourth-degree sex offense, police documents say, and released on $250,000 bond. His attorney said the charges would be challenged in court.

Today, Sidwell teachers and counselors are talking to students about the situation. Many were shocked by the arrest; they knew Peterson was gone when school started in the fall, but parents who asked about him were told he had a chronic illness.

The news is bigger than most school scandals because it is happening at Sidwell, the school where President Obama’s two daughters attend, where Bill and Hillary Clinton sent their daughter Chelsea when they lived in the White House, and where then vice president Al Gore sent his son (after he left St. Albans School).

And indeed, we know that many people enjoy hearing scandal details at these elite schools because they happen at elite schools. It is not dissimilar to the reasons behind the obsessive public attention to the Tiger Woods scandal: Americans love to see the mighty fall.

Sidwell’s connection to the most powerful people in the world make it the “mightiest” of the private schools in one important sense, which is one of the reasons why it is just as hard to be admitted to the school’s kindergarten as it is to get into an Ivy League school.

I’ll bet that the first reaction of most non-Sidwell folks when they heard about the scandal was not about the well-being of anybody personally involved in the situation, or even how the school community would weather the scandal. It was probably along far more salacious lines.

It’s an all-too human reaction, but it’s unfortunate. Whatever really happened in this case, a school community is suffering. That’s something nobody should ever take pleasure in.

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 21, 2010; 11:08 AM ET
Categories:  Private Schools  | Tags:  Sidwell Friends school, private schools  
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It is interesting that the space you give in the educaton column to your coverage of scandal is not really about education. Isn't there enough of that on the front pages?

Any sexual crime is heinous if it is true and a conviction in a court of law completed.

Your column unfortunenately plays into the all-too-popular attitude of the salaciousness-obsessed media and public to spread a teachers plight in a sometimes unfair light. What has happened to the basic American law that people are INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY?

Check in with some school districts and teacher unions and find out how many unfounded charges are made against school staff every year. Sadly, many children make up stories about a teacher just to get them in trouble. The charges are spread across the media but when the facts are shown that the children lied, where is that teacher's reputation? Actually, the false charges usually never get to the media but are handled in-house.

Interestingly, the Fairfax Public Schools have no consequences whatsoever for a child making false charges against a teacher. They could come back to school the next day spreading stories to their peers about how that got someone in trouble with no repercussions.

Education in America and the classroom teachers who do the real job have enough dumped on them without adding scandal-mongering to the public's perceptions.

Please hang in there for fairness and accuracy.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | January 21, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Valerie, thank you for pointing out that, regardless of how privileged Sidwell families may be, the community is going through a tough time.

Posted by: balanceandunrest | January 21, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

yes what this man did was wrong, but people need to realize that first of all, none of Obama's daughters are even in his classes. they are in 3rd and 6th grade, he taught 7th and 8th. This man did something wrong and the Sidwell community is probably suffering a lot from it since the article says that he was extremely well liked, so instead of having this splashed all over their faces because obama's daughter's go to sidwell, even though they aren't even in his classes, please have some respect for the pain the students must be going through right now.

Posted by: llamabear | January 21, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

I love Valerie. Private schools are terrified of her because she is pretty clever in how she gets her info. I remember once we had a dumb gas leak at a private school and the administrators NAMED her as a possible "nosy journalist." LOL. Private schools are a waste of money. Take it from someone who attended and worked at one. If you don't see what she is saying about education when she writes about private schools as elite institutions who actually undermine education, then you're just insecure about what her message has been over the years.

Posted by: FiatBooks | January 22, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for taking a stand against the editors at the Post who only see scandalous headlines, and not the tragedy and pain that occurred, when reporting this story. This is a non-story, it can happen anywhere.

Posted by: RL67 | January 22, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Private schools are NOT a waste of money. All right, some are--some are just founded so children will never be exposed to any thoughts that their parents didn't put into their heads--but a lot, especially the most elite, are populated by children of parents who believe that a person with a college degree in history can teach history better than a math major who had too much seniority to be fired when the school no longer needed so many math teachers, or by the football coach who has to teach SOMETHING and "all you have to do to teach history is have them read the book," or by an education major who has taken four years of educational philosophy courses but may have never taken or history course beyond high school. Or maybe the parents got tired of the public schools, like the city near me, that cancelled their middle-school foreign language program so they would have enough money to continue sports. Or maybe they encountered the teacher's aide who worked with me in a bookstore one summer, who sniffed after a mother had been desperately hunting for a book her little bookworm hadn't yet read, "I hate those kids who read all the time--they think they're so smart" (and who drastically misread a notice the boss posted).

Incidentally, such an offense (if the teacher is in fact guilty) is definitely not new, even in private schools. Sen. Edward Kennedy's memoir describes being abused at his private school almost three-quarters of a century ago.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 22, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

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