July 1, 2010

Landon School and its drama

Everything along the winding drive that leads to the Landon School for boys proclaims privilege: the emerald athletic field to the right, the 11 tennis courts to the left, the steady hiss of sprinklers that keep the 75-acre campus verdant even during the hottest days of summer. But the school, in one of Bethesda's priciest neighborhoods, has been shaken to its core in the past year by an unusual series of events.

Parents complained about the behavior of a coach who allegedly told his players about his sex life and took them to Hooters. Four white students accused an African American honors student of cheating, leading to a disciplinary proceeding that some African American teachers considered unfair. A group of boys was caught devising a game in which they would earn points based on sex acts with girls, and then a top official told an assembly that he knows people who don't want their daughters "hanging out with 'Landon guys.' " And for the first time, the school's trustees decided it was time to investigate a long-standing perception held by some parents and teachers that Landon treats top athletes and wealthy boys more favorably than other students. With all this, officials say what shook them the most was the arrest of one of Landon's former star athletes, George Huguely V, in the death of his former girlfriend at the University of Virginia.

"We are still reeling from it," said Thomas Cunningham, chairman of Landon's board of trustees. "That had a huge emotional impact on this community and this institution. The human reaction would be, 'Could I, should I, would I have done something differently, with a 15- or 16-year-old kid?' And the answer is no."

Now the 81-year-old school is immersed in self-examination. It is also assessing, among other things, whether the school is too accepting of teenage misbehavior and whether it fosters troubling attitudes toward women. Many schools, public and private, face disciplinary issues. Prince George's County authorities, for instance, are investigating the beating of a student in a Bowie High School hallway a few weeks ago that came to light after video of the incident was posted on Facebook. Ballou High School in the District had more than a dozen small fires this year, mostly in stairwells and bathrooms.

But it is rare to find so many challenges in such a short time at a school like Landon. Parents pay nearly $30,000 a year to send their boys there, even though many of them live near some of the best public schools in the nation. Details of the incidents in this report were obtained through interviews with more than a dozen parents and other knowledgeable sources. All asked not to be named, citing fear of retaliation. Cunningham, speaking on behalf of the school, confirmed many of the allegations. Other top school officials declined to be interviewed. Alone, each of the episodes might not have led to the questions Landon's leaders are asking. But the cumulative impact became too powerful to ignore.

"There is a good-old-boy mentality that still exists," one parent of an athlete said. " 'Boys will be boys. They just horse around and then it crosses the line, and then we need to reel them back in.' That just doesn't work in today's society anymore."

Landon was founded just before the stock market crash of 1929 by a young teacher, Paul Landon Banfield, and his wife, Mary Lee. Their descendants still attend. One wore a shirt to graduation that listed all of the Banfield boys who had walked Landon's halls, including the name of a young relative not yet old enough to enroll. CONTINUE READING: Washington Post

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