Teen Rape Case Rocks Sidwell Friends, Obama Kids’ School

The elite Quaker school in northwest Washington, D.C. is reeling after a teenage female student reported she was raped by a fellow student.

03.18.16 10:23 PM ET

The community of Sidwell Friends, the elite private Quaker school in northwest Washington, D.C., is in shock after a teenage female student reported that she was raped on campus Wednesday by a fellow student with whom she had had “a previous sexual relationship,” according to police.

The teenage girl said she had been forced to have vaginal, oral, and anal sex.

"This is the worst fucking thing I've ever heard," said a current Sidwell teacher who asked not to be named. "Our hearts are breaking over here."

"This feels like a nightmare I keep expecting to suddenly wake up from," a longtime Sidwell administrator told The Daily Beast. "Of all the places I've worked, this is absolutely the last place I'd ever think that something like this would happen. Just so, so horrible. I'm sorry, there's not much more I have to say about this right now."

Police have launched an investigation on campus into the alleged sexual abuse, which the female student said occurred sometime between 2:30 PM and 11:00 PM on Wednesday.

Police spokesperson Dustin Sternbeck told The Daily Beast that drugs and alcohol were not reported in the case and that both students are juveniles.

As of Friday afternoon, Sternbeck said it wasn’t clear whether a rape kit was administered after the alleged assault, and that the police were “not aware if legal counsel is currently involved” in the case.

Sidwell’s Head of School Bryan Garman was not available for comment. An email to his office was returned with: “Thank you for your message. Sidwell Friends School is closed for Spring Break [as of today, Friday]. I will be sure to respond to your message when we return on March 29. In friendship, Bryan.”

Ellis Turner, Associate Head of School, told The Daily Beast that “for the time being, while the police investigation is underway, we are unable to discuss the alleged incident.” (Full disclosure: Asawin Suebsaeng is an alumnus of Sidwell Friends School.)

The alleged assault marks the second time this year that a top private school has become engulfed in a sex abuse scandal.

Last summer, media attention was focused on a sexual assault trial involving two former students at St. Paul’s School.

The prosecution alleged that Owen Labrie, 19, seduced a 15-year-old student as part of a predatory “Senior Salute” ritual to “slay” a younger girl before graduation — then had sex with her against her will.

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Labrie was acquitted on the charge of forcible felony rape but convicted of statutory rape and a felony charge of using a computer to entice a minor for sex.

He was sentenced in October to a year in jail, five years of probation, and a lifetime sex offender registry. (Labrie had been free while appealing his convictions but began serving his prison sentence on Friday, after repeated curfew violations led a judge to revoke his bail.)

At a time when college campuses are addressing what many have declared an “epidemic” of sexual assault, the St. Paul’s case provoked much hand-wringing about rape culture and hypersexualized behavior being overlooked in the privileged atmosphere of an elite private school.

But such scandals have been few and far between at Sidwell.

Indeed, the Sidwell community was shocked when, roughly six years ago, a longtime faculty member was revealed to be a sexual predator.

Robert Peterson, who taught social studies to sixth and seventh graders at the school for 30 years, was fired when reports surfaced that he had repeatedly fondled a 15-year-old male student.

Prosecutors said that Peterson had abused the boy on several occasions between 2008 and 2009, including at Peterson’s home (he’d offered to pay the boy to do “chores”) and at the school’s Camp Corsica, where Peterson was director.

In 2010, 65-year-old Peterson pleaded guilty to one count of sex abuse of a minor and was forced to register on Maryland’s sex offender list.

If the public has heard of Sidwell, it is more likely as the school that the Obamas send their daughters, Malia and Sasha.

Unlike most private schools, there is a consistent, conspicuous Secret Service presence on and around campus guarding the young members of the Obama and Biden families.

Richard Nixon, Theodore Roosevelt, Al Gore, and the Clintons were also Sidwell parents. (When Chelsea Clinton attended in the 1990s, the school received another shot of national-media attention, which consisted of getting attacked by conservative-radio icon Rush Limbaugh.)

The school’s administration, which does its best to instill Quaker values and human-rights awareness in its student body, has for decades put an extremely high premium on non-academic education such as sexual-assault prevention.

Over the years, Sidwell has organized mandatory high-school assemblies during which students and faculty gather for presentations, Q&As, or lectures from experts on the subject.

This has ranged from attorneys coming to campus to discuss cases that involved high-school kids, to educators emphasizing what constitutes date rape, assault, and sexual harassment or misconduct.

The school has even invited rape victims to share their experiences with the entire student body.

One such presentation was delivered by a young woman who concluded her remarks by mentioning how, when she had brought her message to college campuses across the country, she would have to tolerate students openly disparaging her as a “slut” or a “whore,” or accusing her of either lying or bringing sexual violence upon herself.

Sidwell is an environment where administrators and educators often go out of their way to teach their students about the traumas and consequences of sexual violence. It is also a school where the principle of “believing the victim” is well inculcated.  

It is also the kind of school where students are taught about rape culture—and about how they should viscerally reject it—at an earlier age than one might expect.