David Armstrong, headmaster at Landon, woke up that Monday morning in an upbeat mood. He had headed the prep school for six years. Members of the graduating class had been admitted to top colleges. The Landon community had just celebrated its annual azalea festival.
The night before, an old friend and fellow educator had phoned. “Is there a downside to being a headmaster?” the friend had asked.
“On any given day,” Armstrong responded, “something can happen that turns my world upside down.”
Armstrong, 63, had come to Landon in 2004, two years after its faculty had discovered that students had shared answers during an SAT exam. Most were lacrosse players, and one of them was the son of coach Robbie Bordley. In 2006, Armstrong had had to deal with the backwash from the Duke lacrosse scandal, when members of the team were accused of raping a stripper. Five had attended Landon. All were exonerated, but Landon was sullied in the process, and Armstrong was put on the defensive.
On this Monday morning, the headmaster’s cell phone rang as he was walking across the campus.
“Get on the Internet,” the caller said. “We might have a problem.”
“The rest,” Armstrong says in a conference room by his office, “is history.”
News stories about the UVA killing mentioned Landon and repeated the stereotype that Huguely had come from an “elite” school in a “privileged world” where lacrosse players were enabled and allowed to break rules.
Within a week, at least one carload of kids drove by Landon’s playing fields on Wilson Lane yelling, “Murderers!” at students.
“That was disappointing and hurtful,” Armstrong says. “We wanted to make sure our boys were not exposed to unfair insults.”
Neither Armstrong nor anyone else in an official capacity at Landon will comment on George Huguely. But there’s a sense among parents and board members that George Huguely V was a fine student and athlete during his years there. “Why should Landon have to take the blame when the boy was out of our community for four years?” a Landon board member asks.
Landon “hunkered down,” in the view of one parent, and “treated the Huguely matter as if it would just pass. It didn’t.”
The board hired a public-relations firm to try to ameliorate the negative publicity. Still, the press sometimes branded Landon a school for rich bullies.
“I could understand the reaction,” Armstrong says, “but I wasn’t happy. Parts of it were unfair, and the allegations were unjust. I worried less about the press and more about the boys.”
The school held meetings and hired counselors to meet with students. Some faculty contacted Landon alums in Huguely’s UVA class to see how they were handling the tragedy. “We felt a sense of community,” one said.
Some parents and students do criticize Landon for letting athletes, especially lacrosse players, seem to violate rules without facing consequences. But the school has more fans than detractors.“Is Landon to blame for the Huguely situation?” asks Herta Feely, whose two sons are graduates. “Absolutely not. My boys got great educations, and they played sports. It has great athletic programs, but it also has equally good music programs. It has a real brainiac group and a great artistic group.”
Every summer, Landon convenes meetings to evaluate the past year and to plan the next. Last summer, it brought together alumni, trustees, parents, and staff for 14 open forums. “Huguely was the catalyst,” says Armstrong. “Our introspection was certainly much greater, our self-evaluation much deeper.”
Says one parent who attended the sessions: “When we dug deep, we found Landon had problems that needed to be addressed.”
The meetings resulted in many initiatives—but few major changes. The school still stresses “character education,” Armstrong says. “Every student signs honor and civility codes.”
Not everyone thinks that’s sufficient. “It’s clear the school is talking the talk,” says one parent, “but it doesn’t always walk the walk.”
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