Sidwell Friends scandal
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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| January 21, 2010; 11:08 AM ET
Categories: Private Schools | Tags: Sidwell Friends school, private schools
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