Alumni of prestigious Maryland high school math and science program join #MeToo

Washington Post

Years after they left one of the nation's premier high school programs in math and science, hundreds of alumni have come forward to support allegations that a celebrated Maryland teacher sexually harassed and demeaned female students.

Many have described sexual comments, suggestive humor and sexist put-downs they said went unchecked for years as Eric Walstein became one of the pillars of a selective magnet program in a suburb outside Washington, D.C.

They accuse the nationally recognized teacher at Montgomery Blair High School of giving back rubs, leering at girls, calling them sexy, stroking their hands, and remarking on their bodies and sex lives - one account after another in what has become a #MeToo moment focused on experiences in high school.

"Eric Walstein was lauded by many as a champion of mathematics education, but we ask you education for whom?" they wrote in a letter signed by more than 400 alumni from the Class of 1989 to the Class of 2017. "Fear of Walstein's sexual harassment drove many girls away from actively participating in class, from asking for help outside of class, and from enrolling in his classes altogether."

Students and parents reported Walstein's troubling behavior on at least six occasions, beginning in 1989, according to interviews, with contemporaneous emails and media accounts backing up some assertions. But Walstein remained in the classroom year after year, and school district officials say it is unclear why more was not done.

Walstein, 72, had a four-decade career as a teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland, and nearly as long as a math team coach, notching prestigious teaching awards and priding himself on nurturing great talents in math.

In an interview at his Brookeville home, Walstein said he was stunned by the claims and never touched a student. He denied many assertions about sexual and sexist comments, while suggesting that some of his behavior was misunderstood. He retired in 2013 and was listed as a substitute until 2016.

"I thought I left as the best they've ever had, and now this has happened," he said. "This hurts me a lot."

Recollections of the teacher's alleged behavior are included in a 37-page document sent to school officials and obtained by The Washington Post. The compilation does not identify former students, but The Post interviewed more than 25 alumni, women and men, who said they experienced or witnessed inappropriate behavior at school. Most agreed to be named for this article.

Their accounts come years after graduating from some of the nation's top colleges - Harvard, Columbia, MIT, the University of Michigan, the University of Maryland. Many laud the magnet program and say they are speaking out because they want Walstein's conduct acknowledged and schools made safer for students who come next.

They say the teacher's alleged behavior was an open secret, and some question why other educators in their school system did not intervene on behalf of students who were minors.

Montgomery County Public Schools officials said the district regards the complaints as credible and is investigating what was reported, what was missed and what the culture was like.

"One of the things we're trying to figure out is: How did we get here? Where could we have made a better decision or taken more action?" spokesman Derek Turner said. "We want to know how to prevent this from ever happening again."

Montgomery County Superintendent Jack Smith called the alleged behavior "deeply disturbing and appalling" in a statement. "I commend those who have come forward to share their stories," he said. "Bullying, harassment, intimidation and discrimination will not be tolerated in our schools."

Some alumni recall that Walstein treated girls as lesser math minds and discouraged them from applying to MIT, a highly sought destination in the program of math and science super-achievers. Several said he also told students that math geniuses tend to be men and that he would not be surprised if differences in the brain make women less suited to math.

Elizabeth Green, 33, from the Class of 2002, recalled Walstein giving answers to girls in the front row - including her - as if they could not do the rigorous work. She dropped the course after a semester.

"It was demeaning and disrespectful to say the least," said Green, who went on to Harvard and later co-founded a nonprofit education-news organization called Chalkbeat.

The burst of activism may help open a door on sexual harassment in high schools, where experts say it is widely underreported.

"This is exactly what we need to get school boards to pay attention and make changes," said Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied abuse in K-12 schools and noted the importance of training students and staff to spot red flags and reportable behavior.

Nationally, a nonprofit recently created the hashtag #MeTooK12 to encourage students to speak out. "They don't report because they're afraid of retaliation, and they're afraid they won't be believed," said Joel Levin, co-founder of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools.

Blair alumni said they did not come forward in high school because, at 14 to 18 years old, few understood sexual harassment or what to do about it. Girls also did not want to appear weak, and some saw complaining as risky when teachers had power over grades and college recommendations.

Gautam Mukunda, in the Class of 1997 and now an assistant professor at Harvard University Business School, pointed out that it never dawns on most teenagers that they have the opportunity to report teachers' behavior.

"It really never occurred to me to complain," he said. But more than 20 years after graduating, Mukunda vividly recalls Walstein giving a female classmate back rubs.

"Even as a sophomore or junior in high school, I knew it was completely inappropriate," he said.

Molly DeQuattro, a 1991 graduate who went on to Cornell University, said she recalls Walstein swatting her rear as she leaned over a school water fountain. And she remembers the day Walstein launched a class conversation about blondes having more fun that turned into a discussion of pubic hair.

DeQuattro was one of three girls in the class and the only blonde, she said. "I was totally ashamed and embarrassed," she said.

Walstein denied both allegations in the interview.

Aleta Quinn, Class of 2001, recalls Walstein describing the size of whale penises, recounting sex scenes from the show "Ally McBeal" and speculating on how many students would fit in the shower of the house he was building. "If we wanted to take advanced math, we just had to put up with it," said Quinn, an assistant professor in the philosophy of science at University of Idaho.

Maureen Lei, a 2012 graduate, recalled the teacher announcing to her class: "I don't feel like talking about math today. Let's talk about sex."

"He was preoccupied with students' personal lives and the way that girls would dress and who was dating whom and all the salacious details that follow from that," she said.

Lei said she was particularly offended that the teacher called her "beautiful but stupid," words she said forged doubts as a teenager. She went on to Columbia University, where she earned a math degree in three years and where, she said, the troubling nature of Walstein's behavior really sunk in.

"I just wonder how many girls' careers in math were stopped before they started," she said.

Walstein seated girls in the front row of his Silver Spring, Maryland, classroom and taught part of his lessons from a wheeled desk chair he would roll in front of them. He would sometimes lean his elbows onto their desks, get close, and comment or gaze, more than a dozen alumni said.

"The pattern is so much worse than any individual event," said Noel Bartlow, a 2004 graduate and assistant professor of geological sciences at the University of Missouri, who recalls Walstein referring to her as a "kept woman" because she had a boyfriend.

Emily Jones, 25, recalled Walstein telling her class about a "f--- truck" that took girls from Wellesley College to parties at MIT and making comments about sex-obsessed male students at MIT. One day, he stopped a lesson to ask her whether she wanted a kiss, she said - then produced the Hershey's kind.

"It was just constantly awkward," said Jones, now working on her PhD in biomedical sciences at the University of California at San Francisco. "Nobody laughed. Nobody called him out. He kind of looked intimidating, and he could get angry fast."

In the Post interview, Walstein responded to many allegations, saying he did not massage shoulders, rub backs, leer at girls or stroke their hands. "I never touched anyone at any time," he said.

"How many kids came up and hugged me?" he asked at another point. "Quite a few."

Walstein said he urged girls to sit in the front because many were shy or intimidated by the boys in the male-dominated program. "The girls could see the board and interact with me," he said. "There was an educational reason."

He said he did not lean his elbows onto girls' desks but made some "very, very fifth-grade jokes" as he sought to get students comfortable and keep them interested. He said he did not tell girls they were sexy but instead discouraged a few from dressing as they did.

"A couple of them could have been in magazines, I mean that's how sexy they looked, and I was very surprised the parents let them do it," he said.

Walstein spoke at length during the interview about math genius, saying he never said women could not be geniuses but only that most he met were men. He did not discourage women from attending MIT because he believed they fell short in math, he said, but rather because of the men there. He recalled talking about a truck that went from Wellesley to parties at MIT - but denied using a vulgarity.

He said his intent was not to harass, sexualize or discourage girls. Walstein said he had long been thanked by students and parents.

"I tried my best to get girls involved in my courses, to achieve in my courses, and they did," he said. "The girls were always the better students. Always."

Walstein said he had not - and would not - read the letter from alumni or review the lengthy compilation of claims.

"How can I be the best teacher and be a sexual harasser at the same time?" Walstein asked, calling the term extraordinarily demeaning. "Serious and demeaning," he added. "And nothing like that ever happened."

In Maryland's largest school system, Blair's magnet program in math, science and computer science is small, with 100 students per grade. Since 1999, the magnet has produced more finalists than any other school in one of the nation's most prestigious high school science competitions.

Walstein started with the program a year after it was opened and appeared in several Post stories, including a 2008 piece that described him as "arguably the most highly regarded high school math teacher in the county."

The outpouring of troubling memories started in December after Theresa Regan, a Class of 2011 graduate, posted to Facebook an article about a #MeToo movement among scientists and her thoughts about an unnamed teacher. Soon, other alumni weighed in, and the conversation expanded so rapidly that she created a private Facebook group called "Magnet Alumni Talking About Walstein."

More than 430 alumni have signed the letter that went to magnet faculty, organizers said. The list is not public, but district officials have it and say they don't doubt its veracity.

"If this many alumni are coming forward, it makes me wonder what the school knew and when," said Neena Chaudhry, director of education at the National Women's Law Center, who noted that schools must investigate harassment complaints under federal law.

Walstein said he had never been disciplined for his conduct. If students had concerns, he said, "why didn't they complain at the time? Why didn't their parents complain at the time? Never. I never got any complaints."

But a string of parents and students insist they came forward. One parent still had a copy of an email to school officials, and another had a decade-old email to her daughter summarizing a school meeting.

In 1989, Tasanee Walsh said her parents complained to a magnet administrator the day after they heard about Walstein's inappropriate conduct from their daughter and a friend. Her parents were reassured action would be taken, she said, but were told that Walstein was too valuable to lose.

Walstein was by then in the spotlight. The county school board passed a resolution in 1989 commending him for a national teaching award and previous honors, according to minutes of the meeting.

In 1993, Blair students and parents complained to the school board about sexual harassment by instructors - asserting the problem was being ignored by the county and threatening to file a federal complaint, according to stories in The Post and the Montgomery Journal.

Joanna Zimmerman, then a freshman, told the board about a teacher who had said she could win election as class president if she gave kisses in exchange for votes. She said recently that she did not name the teacher because she was young and feared retaliation but said that it was Walstein.

"Even as a ninth-grader, a 14-year-old kid, I knew it was unacceptable," she said.

In 2001 to 2002, Green, a Blair student then, said she brought Walstein's treatment of female students to magnet program coordinator Eileen Steinkraus and later a trusted teacher, Ralph Bunday. "They gave me the impression there was nothing they could do," she said.

In 2006, Green's mother, Andrea Weiss, raised the issue with magnet program coordinator Dennis Heidler after a family friend had issues with Walstein, according to an interview and a 2006 email Weiss wrote to her daughter summarizing the visit. "I was astonished to hear this was still a problem," Weiss said.

In 2011, Becca Arbacher said she and her mother met with counselor Tia Ross Scott as she grappled with concerns about taking another class with Walstein. According to Arbacher, the counselor suggested that Arbacher put her head down and get through the class or simply not take it.

That year, parent Anne LeVeque said she also reported Walstein, alleging that he sexually harassed students. Her daughter, Julia Bates, was advocating for friends who had the teacher, both said, and LeVeque and her husband met with administrators.

LeVeque said Principal Renay Johnson and Assistant Principal Dirk Cauley assured them that Walstein would soon retire. LeVeque thanked them in a follow-up email mentioning that Walstein had allegedly been telling girls that "they should aspire to be Victoria's Secret models." But the teacher stayed at Blair another 18 months and then became a substitute.

Montgomery officials said an unspecified action was taken after LeVeque's report.

In June 2015, Lei, the former student, said she returned to Blair to describe her experiences to magnet coordinator Peter Ostrander. She said he told her he was aware of complaints about Walstein but that the teacher had retired.

Two educators cited in the accounts - Heidler and Ostrander - referred calls to a district spokesman. Steinkraus, now retired, did not respond to requests for comment, and Cauley had no comment. Scott said in an email that she would not tolerate sexual harassment and would have shared any report with appropriate sources.

Johnson forwarded a letter she wrote to families saying that while she cannot discuss personnel issues, she takes disciplinary action when harassment issues arise.

School district officials said they have identified several complaints about Walstein and are still trying to determine what action was taken - and what resulted from the activism of the 1990s.

In recent years, the district has required employee training on sexual harassment. Teachers get cultural competence training that explores gender-based stereotypes, while students get body-safety classes.

The school system shared the 37-page alumni document with police. Montgomery police officials said they have reviewed the information and concluded that the alleged conduct does not rise to the level of a crime in Maryland.

Michael Haney, coordinator of the magnet program in its early years and now retired, said he recalls no reports about sexist or harassing conduct by Walstein. "I honestly would've been right down that hallway" to confront him, he said. If the claims are true, he said, "somebody should've done something. This is not what kids sign up for."

Bunday, a retired physics teacher, said the alumni compilation "just practically made me ill." He said faculty knew about Walstein's "volatility but not so much that it was directed sexually or in ways that really hurt students."

Bunday said he did not recall being approached on the issue but does not doubt Green's memory. "How can something like this go on in a really terrific program?" Bunday asked.

The question resonates widely.

Many alumni say schools need a well-publicized reporting system for students - and a way to hold administrators accountable for acting on complaints.

They are pressing to work with the district and be part of efforts for change. "We want the school system to learn from the past," said Regan, one of the leaders, "so that they don't repeat it."

The Washington Post's Jennifer Jenkins and Dan Morse contributed to this report.

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