Parents Gone Wild: High Drama Inside D.C.’s Most Elite Private School
At Sidwell Friends, the high school of Chelsea Clinton and the Obama children, college counselors find themselves besieged by Ivy-obsessed families.
Updated at 2:47 p.m. ET on June 6, 2019.
The motto of Sidwell Friends School, the hyperselective “Harvard of Washington’s private schools,” is simple and lofty. “Eluceat omnibus lux”—Latin for “Let the light shine out from all.” But bright lights sometimes illuminate the worst in people. Last month, shocking behavior by parents may have led two of the school’s three college counselors to leave their jobs.
School officials have repeatedly warned parents, who represent the pinnacle of elite Washington, about their offensive conduct. In January, the head of the school, Bryan Garman, sent a remarkable letter to parents of seniors in which he demanded that they stop “the verbal assault of employees.” He also reiterated a policy banning them from recording conversations with counselors and making calls to counselors from blocked phone numbers. Garman also suggested that some parents were responsible for the “circulation of rumors about students.”
Anger, vitriol, and deceptiveness have come to define highly selective college admissions. In the now notorious Varsity Blues scandal, the desire of wealthy parents to get their children into such elite institutions as Yale and the University of Southern California led them to lie on applications and obtain fake SAT scores. At Sidwell Friends, one of America’s most famous Quaker schools, the desire manifested itself in bad behaviors—including parents spreading rumors about other students, ostensibly so that their children could get a leg up, the letter said.
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.”
In his letter, Garman added a note of hope for the adults at Sidwell. “I hope we will reaffirm our commitment to the well-being of our students and to the common good,” he wrote. He hoped that they would embrace the idea of inward light. “And I hope that we will always treat one another with respect.”
Here’s the text of the letter:
Dear Senior Parents,
I hope you had a restful break, and that you experienced the joy and peace we seek through the diverse end-of-year traditions we celebrate. In addition, I hope you were able to share some special time with your seniors, who have contributed immensely to the School. We are proud of their achievements, and look forward to celebrating them in June.
I am writing in follow up to Patrick Gallagher’s pre-break letter, which shared several newly implemented policies in the College Counseling Office (CCO). As you will recall, the letter stated that the CCO prohibits the recording of conversations with our counselors; will not consider anonymous and/or unsubstantiated claims made about student behavior; will not respond to calls issued from blocked telephone numbers; does not respond to any inquiry for student records unless that request is made by the student or an approved family member or guardian.
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. The vast majority of our parents, of course, work to support and honor all of our students and staff. In addition, they value the extraordinary advice, expertise, and guidance that our counselors offer, and work collaboratively to promote the interests and emotional development of their children throughout a stressful process. As a father who witnessed his daughter's college search last year, I know firsthand that it can stir deep emotions and elicit insecurities. The application process can push students to their limits, especially when it is heightened by high expectations and external pressures. And there is no doubt that the process can stretch the patience and emotional capacity of parents.
Our counselors are acutely aware of this challenge. They understand that we parents love our children, and they demonstrate tremendous patience when that love blurs our vision. Because they understand emotional complexities and enrollment management, they approach the task compassionately and strategically, and recognize that some parent and student meetings can become difficult. We must remember, however, to maintain perspective and act with respect even in emotionally trying circumstances.
Instances of disrespect are anomalous and often anonymous, but have nevertheless become increasingly intense and inappropriate. The circulation of rumors about students and/or the verbal assault of employees are antithetical to the School’s values and create a dispiriting work environment. When transgressors can be identified, they may be prohibited from meeting with the CCO and/or be subject to additional penalties as articulated in the Community Handbook.
No matter how difficult the college process becomes, as parents we must remember to use it to underscore our values. We can be sure that our children are acutely aware of how our words and actions speak to our priorities. “Too often, today’s culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good,” reads Turning the Tide, a compelling study commissioned by Harvard University. “And too often the college admissions process ... contributes to this problem. As a rite of passage for many students and a major focus for many parents, the college admissions process is powerfully positioned to send different messages that help young people become more generous and humane in ways that benefit not only society but students themselves.”
In this new year, I hope we will reaffirm our commitment to the well-being of our students and to the common good. I hope that we will recommit to helping children understand that college is merely the next destination on a lifelong journey, not their destiny. I hope that we will embrace the concept that there is that of God—of goodness—in each individual, and that addressing the needs of every child, not just our own, is essential to the health of our community. And I hope that we will always treat one another with respect.
I am grateful for those of you who work in trust and collaboration with the School, and I look forward to celebrating with you as the Class of 2019 enters their final semester at Sidwell Friends.
Thank you, as always, for your time and attention.
In peace and friendship,
Head of School
* This article previously stated that the counselors left the school in May.