Black Prep School President Steps Down After Mocking White Classmates

Maya Peterson in the controversial photo. Photo: Instagram via Buzzfeed
Maya Peterson in the controversial photo. Photo: Instagram via Buzzfeed

The most expensive prep school in the country, the Lawrenceville School, spent much of its spring semester mired in racial tensions as its first black student-body president was forced to step down for “mocking” white male students on Instagram.

In the photo that Maya Peterson posted of herself to Instagram in March when she was a senior, she poses as a typical “Lawrenceville boi” — wearing a Yale sweatshirt and duck boots, holding a hockey stick. It's hashtagged #romney2016, #confederate, and #peakedinhighschool.  

“I understand why I hurt people's feelings, but I didn't become president to make sure rich white guys had more representation on campus,” Peterson told BuzzFeed, which reported the story on Monday. “Let’s be honest. They're not the ones that feel uncomfortable here.” Peterson graduated from Lawrenceville, a private school near princeton, N.J., in June.

Still, according to the school's student publication, The Lawrence, after a group of students alerted Dean of Students Nancy Thomas to the post, Thomas met with Peterson and decided it would be best for her to step down as president. Thomas, the story notes, felt “it was not fitting of a student leader to make comments mocking members of the community.” And so Peterson resigned, saying through an email to the student body, “As your Student Body President, it is my job to do what is best for the community, but as a student it is my job to do what is best for myself. With that said, I have decided to step down as President of The Lawrenceville School.”

Though the Lawrenceville School — where annual tuition is around $53,000 and the student body is 55 percent white, 21 percent Asian, and 16 percent black/Hispanic — would not comment directly on the Peterson situation because of “privacy” issues, it did release the following statement to Yahoo Shine:

“The Lawrenceville School works hard to foster an inclusive, open, and engaging atmosphere that gives all students opportunities to be heard, feel respected and succeed. We do not tolerate racial discrimination and have had few issues on campus for many years now. Like any institution in America, we appreciate the challenge of having discussions about issues of diversity, and we remain committed to developing young people's abilities to engage with these issues in productive ways.

“We respect the privacy of our students so we will not comment on the particulars of disciplinary situations. Every student knows we expect them to meet basic standards for honesty, integrity, and respect for others. ‎In turn, we recognize that adolescents make mistakes and give our students every chance to be successful. But, they also know there are consequences for their actions and ultimately they will be held accountable for their behavior. Their actions, and only their actions, guide that process.”

Peterson, who now lives in New York City, according to her Facebook page, could not be reached for comment by Yahoo Shine. But she told BuzzFeed that the controversy over her leadership started long before the Instagram photo, with cries from some students suggesting that the election she'd won had been fixed. She also notes that some of her initiatives as president — to institute a “diversity representative” on the student council board, and to create gender-neutral bathrooms, for example — were not well-received. She caught flak later in the year, she explains, for raising her fist in a “black power” salute along with several other students for a yearbook photo. But Peterson, a lesbian, says it was always her aim to reach out to minorities who often felt overlooked on campus. “The younger kids told me they felt comfortable opening up to me in a way they didn’t with other people,” she tells Buzzfeed.

Fellow Lawrenceville students seem torn over the situation. One told BuzzFeed that Peterson’s actions seemed “hateful,” while another called her “a great face of the New Lawrenceville.” On Twitter, commenters have been torn:

“I’m not saying what I did was right,” Peterson told BuzzFeed. “But it wasn’t racist. I was just calling those guys exactly what they are. And Lawrenceville is the type of place where those kids are idolized.”

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