The letter, which was first described in The Washington Post, is published below in full. Garman was following up on a separate letter sent by Patrick Gallagher, then the director of college counseling at the school, prior to the school’s winter break. Gallagher, Garman recounted, had alerted parents to a new set of rules in the counseling office, including the no-recording mandate and guidance that the office would not “consider anonymous and/or unsubstantiated claims made about student behavior.” Reached by email, a spokeswoman for the school, Hellen Hom-Diamond, declined to comment, stating, “Sidwell Friends has a policy that precludes us from commenting on personnel matters.”
The oddly specific policy tweaks weren’t coincidental. “The new policies stem from a handful of unfortunate and uninformed interactions, some of which have been unkind to students, others that have disrespected our counselors,” Garman wrote. The string of incidents were “anomalous and often anonymous,” he wrote, but they had become “increasingly intense,” and they were “antithetical to the School’s values.” The departures have become a subject of gossip among parents and faculty at Washington private schools.
As a Quaker school, Sidwell Friends derives its motto from the Quaker notion of inward light—or the idea that God is in every person, and should lead people to do good for others. But anonymous rumblings on message boards have been anything but generous, often suggesting that the college counseling office was responsible for students not getting into selective schools.
In 2003, my colleague James Fallows wrote about the dysfunction—manufactured as it might be by overanxious parents—of college admissions. “With highly selective institutions there is no way to predict with confidence whether a student will get in,” one college dean of admissions told him. That helps create chaos, and “the neurotic intrusiveness of parents” adds fuel to it, Fallows writes—but aggressive parents, to a certain extent, come with the territory of college counseling.
In June of this year, Gallagher, as well as Adam Ortiz, one of the other members of the college-counseling office, will leave the school.* Only one counselor remains from this year’s staff. (Attempts to reach Gallagher and Ortiz for comment were unsuccessful.) The school hired an interim director of college counseling—one who had previously worked in the counseling office—in order to steady the ship. (After publication, a spokeswoman for Sidwell Friends confirmed that two college counselors will leave in June.)
It’s not unusual for there to be high turnover among younger college counselors, Ned Johnson, the president and founder of PrepMatters, an academic-tutoring and test-prep company in the Washington area, told me. “Being a college counselor at a highly academic, highly competitive independent school—where both kids and their parents have high aspirations and high expectations of the next steps of their education—creates a lot of pressure,” he said. The tension comes from the parents and the kids, and “anyone who is playing the counselor in the middle of that,” he said, “is going to feel a lot of stress and pressure as well.”