The private Sidwell Friends School has placed a veteran music teacher on leave after learning of an allegation made against him two decades ago by a student at another school of improper physical contact, according to a statement issued by the school Wednesday night. Sidwell said the teacher will not be returning.
The school received a phone call last week from a man in Southern California who said his girlfriend, Sara Lawson, had filed a complaint with police accusing Sidwell middle school instrumental music teacher Michael Henderson of inappropriate touching and that Henderson had left his previous school as a result. The investigation did not result in any criminal charges, and Henderson, through his attorney Wednesday morning, denied wrongdoing.
“These events took place 21 years ago, and no charges were brought,” attorney Barton Moorstein said. “Someone is bringing this issue up at this time for nefarious purposes.”
However, the Sidwell statement, signed by Bryan Garman, the head of school, and Margaret Plank, clerk of the Board of the Trustees, says that when school officials asked Henderson about the situation, he “related that he had resigned from that previous teaching position because he had engaged in inappropriate physical contact with a then-14-year-old female student.”
Moorstein later declined to comment on this assertion about his client’s actions in the statement.
Garman and Plank said Henderson was immediately placed on leave from Sidwell and that details of the case have been shared with the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency and Henderson’s other previous employers.
Lawson, his former student, told The Washington Post that she got an update on LinkedIn that Henderson had viewed her profile recently. She said that she was stunned to see he was still teaching and felt she should alert his employer.
Lawson, now 35, said she was a freshman at Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs when she met Henderson.
She was an aspiring opera singer and gravitated toward her new music teacher. She recalled that he singled her out as “a favorite” and used to invite her to sing during schoolwide assemblies. She recalled that he often praised her voice. “He said it was like a fine violin,” said Lawson, who agreed to have her name used. “He made me feel like this dream of mine was attainable.”
His physical advances made her uncomfortable, she said. “But it was like, if I gave that up what else would I be giving up?” she said.
A police report filed in April 1996 with the El Paso County Sheriff’s office includes a statement from Lawson, in which she details multiple instances of unwanted touching and kissing and a pattern of special treatment from Henderson. She told police that he frequently invited her to his on-campus house during the first few months of the school year and that he often wrote her notes and told her that he loved her.
The investigation was instigated by Lawson’s parents, the report says.
An addendum to the initial report references an evening when Henderson made Lawson a drink during a dinner at his house, and Lawson said she could not remember anything that happened for three hours afterward.
The report also documents several unsuccessful attempts to locate and question Henderson, who by the time of the report was no longer working at the school.
In November 1996, the case was classified as “unfounded,” and the investigator wrote that a review of the medical records, as well as the case file, showed no elements of any type of crime.
Separately, the report says that the Colorado “Sexual Assault in a Position of Trust statute” would apply only if there was evidence of “sexual contact” with the student.
Lawson said she was initially too ashamed to tell the extent of physical contact, which she told officials at Sidwell and Fountain Valley went beyond inappropriate touching.
William V. Webb, head of school at Fountain Valley, also issued a statement Thursday, apparently in response to Lawson’s recent contact with the school. The statement references a former student that in 1995 “reported that a teacher had kissed her.” At the time, the statement said, officials placed the teacher on leave and reported the allegation to law enforcement. The statement says the school is now investigating “new allegations” of “other sexual contact.”
Sidwell’s statement says that a former Sidwell administrator, who left the school in 2003, knew that Henderson had left his previous school because of allegations of inappropriate conduct but “had no knowledge of the severity of the allegations as they now stand.”
Several former presidents have sent their children to Sidwell in Northwest Washington. Former president Barack Obama’s youngest daughter, Sasha, still attends the prestigious school, where tuition for next year will exceed $40,000. The Obamas said they decided to stay in Washington so that Sasha could finish high school at Sidwell.
Garman and Plank said they are “fully investigating” Henderson’s tenure at Sidwell, and they said they are encouraging all Sidwell community members “to report any inappropriate conduct or sexual abuse involving a Sidwell Friends employee, past or present, directly to Bryan,” and that Sidwell will “support victims, protect their privacy, and conduct necessary internal reviews.”
Seven years ago, a veteran Sidwell middle school teacher was placed on five years probation for fondling a 15-year-old student, the result of a plea agreement with prosecutors that spared the victim from being required to testify against him in court. Robert A. “Pete” Peterson, 65, was fired by the school in 2010 and was required to register on Maryland’s online sex-offender listing.
This is the text of the Sidwell note:
We are reaching out to share unsettling news regarding a longtime member of the Sidwell Friends faculty. Michael Henderson, Middle School instrumental music teacher, has been placed on leave and will not be returning to the school.
Last week, we received a telephone call from an individual who alleged that, more than 20 years ago, a police report was filed regarding Michael’s conduct toward a student at the boarding school where he then taught. Having no prior knowledge of this conduct, we promptly began an internal inquiry, and Bryan spoke with Michael. Michael related that he had resigned from that previous teaching position because he had engaged in inappropriate physical contact with a then-14-year-old female student. In accordance with Sidwell Friends policy, Bryan immediately placed Michael on leave and shared the information with the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency as well as Michael’s other previous employers.
Our investigation remains open, but we can confirm that Michael’s former school reported the incident to law enforcement and that no charges were filed. Since receiving this news, Sidwell Friends senior administrators have communicated with the victim and her family as well as administrators, past and present, at Michael’s former school. We are still developing a clear understanding of what took place, but we hope that the truth will be revealed in a manner that brings peace and justice to all of those involved.
We are fully investigating Michael’s tenure at Sidwell Friends, but at this point we need to share some troubling news about his appointment to the school. A former administrator, who left our school in 2003, was aware that Michael’s departure from his previous employer had been precipitated by his inappropriate conduct, but had no knowledge of the severity of the allegations as they now stand. Regardless, the administrator knew that boundaries had been crossed and proceeded with the offer of employment. We are deeply troubled by this decision and apologize for this grave lapse in judgment. Knowledge of this incident should have unequivocally disqualified the candidate from being hired.
It is not easy to share this information, but honest communication is essential when it comes to protecting the safety of children. We therefore encourage all members of our community — students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni — to report any inappropriate conduct or sexual abuse involving a Sidwell Friends employee, past or present, directly to Bryan. The Board of Trustees will be briefed confidentially on all reports, and the school administration will forward information to the appropriate authorities, including law enforcement. The school is prepared to support victims, protect their privacy, and conduct necessary internal reviews.
Our hiring practices have improved substantially over the past 20 years. We believe our current protocols would prevent a recurrence of this incident, but Sidwell Friends has retained an expert in employment law to analyze our current practices and procedures. The expert will issue a report to the Board of Trustees for comment and review and will offer recommendations, which will be implemented promptly. An independent outside counsel is in the process of reviewing all personnel files to ensure that there is no additional information about which we should be aware.
This news is disheartening. We all will need to work collaboratively to support students and colleagues. To help in that process, our counselors are providing guidance about how to discuss this issue [email.sidwell.myenotice.com] with your children, as appropriate. And, as always, our counselors and administrators are available to you. Finally, reports of incidents like this sometimes trigger anxiety in others who may have been victimized in other contexts. If your child requires particular assistance, please let the school know. Our middle and upper school principals will communicate with parents as to how they will be addressing this matter with students.
As difficult as it is to share this news, we know from experience that our community is strengthened by communicating openly and honestly. Educator misconduct has appeared in the news far too often, and we need to do all that we can do to eliminate its occurrence. Those who have shared their stories have promoted accountability, opened the way for healing, and inspired institutions to develop preventive policies aimed at promoting the safety of children. And educating, nurturing, and protecting children must be our highest priority.
As always, we welcome your support and partnership during this difficult time.
Head of School
Clerk, Board of Trustees