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From the Archives: "Our Sons Have Something To Say"
When ten Landon boys got caught up in a cheating scandal, the school's honor was at stake—and students, parents, and faculty were faced with tough moral choices. By Harry Jaffe
Comments () | Published October 1, 2003

The Landon School as we know it cannot exist save in an ethical atmosphere where trust and respect among all members of the community are implicit in every activity. . . .

—From the Honor Code of the Landon School

LANDON SCHOOL'S COMMENCEMENT ON June 6 struck the perfect balance of tradition and achievement. Sun filtered through the leafy grove at the edge of the Bethesda campus and played on the faces of the 65 boys graduating that day. Most were sons of privilege, schooledin history and lan-guage, music and math. Dressed in white shirts, red ties, blue blazers, and light khakis, they sat on stands in the amphitheater below the red-brick administration building before smiling friends and family. A choir of underclassmen sang. Awards were given for citizenship and excellence. Most of the boys were headed for fine colleges. A faculty member dressed in a plaid kilt stood ready to play the bagpipes, giving the moment a British boarding-school affect.

Damon Bradley, Landon's portly and bearded headmaster, took the podium. He opened with a lighthearted anecdote and said he was there to "celebrate" the graduates. Then he paused, looked up from his notes, and lowered his voice.

"We all know there's an 800-pound gorilla sitting among us this morning," he said. "All has not been perfect for this class, especially this past year."

Ten Landon seniors had been caught cheating on an SAT examination the previous fall. The scandal had been played out at cocktail parties for months. Eight of the boys graduating that day had been suspended for more than a month and were not allowed to receive commencement awards.

Two boys were not there that day. Both had been "withdrawn" from Landon under the threat of expulsion. They had been forced out not because they had cheated any more than the other eight. As Bradley had written in a letter to students and parents: "They had committed an offense of extraordinary seriousness, but without extenuating circumstances."

For the two boys absent that day and their parents, the circumstances were not so clear. In their view, the way the school's honor code had been applied seemed arbitrary at best. One family sued the school for "breach of contract and defamation."

LANDON IS ONE OF WASHINGTON'S ELITE PREP schools. Annual tuition is just over $20,000. Like other top private schools, it carries with it a stereotype. Sidwell Friends is the politically correct Quaker school for the liberal and politically wired. St. Albans and the National Cathedral School cater to the patrician class. Landon has a reputation for cultivating athletes--especially lacrosse players--and using athletic competition to instill a boyish camaraderie.

"It is the school for the military-industrial complex," says Charles Castaldi, a film producer who attended Landon in the 1970s.

By many measures, Landon delivers a very good education and creates a strong loyalty. Most graduates get into top colleges. Among its alumni are historian Alan Brinkley, DC Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus King, Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun.

More than most prep schools, Landon trumpets tradition and honor. Legacies of fathers and sons and uncles and cousins stretch back generations that define the term "old-boy network." Along with tradition and honor, the school is known to have its share of elitism and arrogance. All of those traits came to the surface in the moral choices made along the way by the students who cheated and the adults who meted out the punishment.

"This is not about the boys," says Mary Anderson, who with her husband, Byron, sued Landon on behalf of their son, Will. "All of them are great kids. It's the adults who didn't tell the truth--or act with honor."

ON OCTOBER 12, 2002, THE day of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, the Washington region was in fear of a sniper--or snipers--who were shooting people seemingly at random in schoolyards, parking lots, and other public places. The eleventh known victim had died the day before. Most schools were locked down during the week and had canceled weekend activities. Many called off the SATs scheduled that Saturday.

Holton-Arms School, a private girls' school on River Road in Bethesda, decided to proceed with the tests. Holton is thought of as Landon's "sister" school. Landon boys often date Holton girls; brothers might go to Landon, sisters to Holton.

In part because of confusion over the sniper attacks, Holton-Arms was short on proctors on October 12. Some arrived late; some never showed.

Eight Landon boys arrived at Holton together that morning. All were athletes and friends; several had been out together the night before. They gathered outside the school, walked in together, and headed for the library.

Pressure to get high scores on the verbal and math sections of the SAT is intense. A perfect score is 1,600--800 on the verbal section, 800 on math. A score of 1,400 or higher opens the door to many of the nation's top colleges. Many high-school students take the SATs twice, hoping that on their second try their scores might rise 50 or 100 points. Poor results on the SAT can ruin a $150,000 investment in private elementary and secondary education.

In most schools, the SAT is administered in a big, open room, such as a cafeteria. Students sit at tables in clear sight of proctors, who can monitor every move. At Holton-Arms, students had their choice of testing venues. By regulation of the Educational Testing Service, which oversees the SAT, students are supposed to sit in assigned seats. At Holton-Arms that Saturday, students were allowed to sit where they pleased.

In the library, the eight Landon boys headed toward a long table situated behind a railing. Holton-Arms girls heard them talking, according to a report in the Washington Post.

"Hey guys," one said. "This is perfect."

All eight sat on one side of the table. The boys were separated by partitions that formed carrels. Proctors could not see them, but the boys could stand up and see one another. They could push back their chairs and pass papers back and forth.

Across the table from the eight, an arm's length away, sat two other Landon seniors, bringing the total to ten.

At 9 AM proctors handed out the test. That was virtually the last anyone saw of them.

The Landon boys were essentially taking the test on their honor.

HONOR IS A WORD OFTEN used at Landon. Students hear it from teachers and see iton the cover of the school directory. The honor code punishes, among other things, cheating.

Athletic competition also has been at the center of Landon's approach to forming solid young men. Paul Landon Banfield, who founded the school in 1929 and moved it to what's now 75 acres of a large estate in 1934, made football compulsory. Every Landon boy started the school year crashing into his classmates in pads and helmets. The school's culture seemed to emanate from battles on the playing fields.

"Football," says one graduate, "was a metaphor for life."

Landon's dedication to sports is on display when you enter the drive off Wilson Lane. Spread before you is a green expanse of athletic fields arrayed at descending levels on both sides. The academic buildings are back against the woods along the edges of the fields. Some faculty live in old stone buildings up the hill overlooking the ten tennis courts and new track.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 10/01/2003 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles