Attacks on President at Elite New Jersey Prep School Reveal Challenges Black Students Still Face

Maya Peterson

Maya Peterson

The forced resignation earlier this year of Maya Peterson, the first African-American student body president at New Jersey’s elite Lawrenceville Prep, revealed what many see as a festering pot of racial and class tensions at the most expensive boarding school in America.

Peterson, who is also openly gay, was forced to resign after she posted a picture of herself on Instagram mocking the typical “Lawrenceville boi”— wearing L.L. Bean boots and a Yale University sweater and holding a hockey stick with a cocky smirk. In addition, Peterson, who graduated in June, added hashtags like “#romney2016,” “#confederate” and “#peakedinhighschool.”

Peterson said she posted the picture as a joke in response to complaints the school’s dean of students got about a senior photo in which Peterson and 10 friends raised their fists in a “Black Power” salute.

Peterson’s story has spread virally across the Internet, prompted by a long feature on written by Katie J.M. Baker. It is a common tale of the difficulties faced by students of color on elite and predominantly white campuses — a story told in novels, nonfiction books and articles over the years, such as the seminal book Black Ice by Lorene Cary about her experiences at the elite St. Paul’s boarding school in New Hampshire in the 1970s. While clearly things have changed on these campuses since Cary’s days 40 years ago because Peterson could actually be elected president of the predominantly white campus, there are still many challenges faced by students of color in finding comfort and a voice on campus.

What was striking about Peterson’s tale is the power and agency showed by the young woman at each step of the story — first in getting elected at all, then at her willingness to challenge the white male power structure that surrounded her at the $53,000-a-year institution that prides itself on grooming future captains of industry and politics.

After she posted her Instagram photo, one student commented, “You’re the student body president, and you’re mocking and blatantly insulting a large group of the school’s male population.”

But Peterson would not be deterred. She fired right back: “Yes, I am making a mockery of the right-wing, confederate-flag hanging, openly misogynistic Lawrentians. If that’s a large portion of the school’s male population, then I think the issue is not with my bringing attention to it in a lighthearted way, but rather why no one has brought attention to it before … ”

The school’s administration got involved three weeks later, informing Peterson she would face disciplinary action unless she resigned from her post as student body president, she told Buzzfeed.

Nancy Thomas, the dean of students, told the Lawrenceville student paper the school community felt “it was not fitting of a student leader to make comments mocking members of the community.”

Many students who were opposed to her presidency in the first place saw it as a chance to get rid of her. In fact, after she was elected, some students even questioned the final vote, believing the school had rigged it for the purposes of diversity — a claim that Peterson took in stride. Students waged personal attacks, sending administrators a picture of her smoking marijuana and also releasing a picture of her half-naked. One student questioned her politics by saying she had clearly benefited from the fortunes of the power structure that she regularly attacked since she likely wasn’t paying full tuition — but he was off base because Peterson’s family paid the entire $53,000 a year.

Many students were discomfited by the change in the school’s racial makeup over the past decade: In 2004, 70 percent of 805 Lawrenceville students identified as Caucasian, while 13 percent were Asian, and Black and Hispanic students made up 12 percent, according to Buzzfeed. In 2014, only 55 percent of 815 students were Caucasian, while 21 percent were Asian, and the percentage of Black and Hispanic students rose to 16 percent.

“There was too much controversy around Maya,” said one rising senior. “We didn’t really want a president who breaks school rules. It isn’t a representation of who we are.”

In the end, Peterson said she was sick of fighting vicious attacks from the most privileged members of the elite school.

Other Black Lawrenceville students told BuzzFeed about pervasive racially based slights and insults, such as being called “Negro amigo” and “ni****” by white peers who didn’t understand “why they couldn’t say the word too.” One student reported that she overheard her white male classmates call black students on an opposing basketball team “Trayvon,” after Trayvon Martin, the Black teen killed in 2012 by a neighborhood watch coordinator in Florida.  

Anna Heckler, a 2014 graduate, wrote an editorial in the school newspaper after Peterson stepped down wondering whether “being the president of this iron-gated organization means upholding two-hundred-plus years of carefully-constructed tradition” and thus “differentiating your own values from the needs of the community.”

Peterson told Buzzfeed if that’s what it means to be student body president of Lawrenceville, she’s glad she resigned.

“I’m not saying what I did was right,” she said. “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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