Blair Alumni Accuse Renowned Math Teacher of Years of ‘Harassing’ Behavior
Galvanized in part by the #MeToo movement, former students share stories spanning decades about now-retired instructor
Credit Silver Chips Online
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As Becca Arbacher recalls, most of her classmates had packed up and filtered out of the room when her high school calculus teacher, Eric Walstein, called her over to his desk and grabbed her wrist.
His grip wasn’t forceful, she says. Still, the physical contact surprised her.
So did his line of questioning.
“He asked me if I wore a sports bra when I played sports,” said Arbacher, who played softball and soccer while she attended Montgomery Blair High School. “And I should make sure to do so because, otherwise, my breasts would get saggy when I got older.”
Arbacher said the comment took her aback, but she decided not to tell her mother, concerned that rocking the boat might jeopardize her grades or complicate the college application process.
Arbacher, who graduated in 2012, is one of many former Blair students re-examining their experiences with the now-retired teacher.
Years later for some and decades later for others, alumni of the Blair magnet program are coming forward with complaints about Walstein’s conduct, recalling times when he was demeaning, sexist and inappropriate toward female students. Galvanized in part by the #MeToo movement, hundreds of these former students in December and January connected on Facebook to swap stories and discuss what many saw as a pattern of impropriety.
A number of them also have decided to confront the school system, claiming that Walstein’s behavior harmed girls both personally and academically and asking educators to do some soul-searching to see if Blair did enough to protect students.
Bethesda Beat learned that in 2011 a parent warned the Blair administration about Walstein. Anne LeVeque said she walked away from a meeting with Blair’s principal with the impression that Walstein would retire at the school year’s end. He ended up staying at Blair until 2013 and on the substitute teaching roster until 2016.
Walstein, who started working at Blair in 1987, was an institution in the Silver Spring school’s elite magnet program. He taught the highest-level math classes, coached the county math team and racked up three Mathematical Association of America awards for distinguished teaching. A 2008 Washington Post article called him “arguably the most highly regarded high school math teacher” in Montgomery County.
As a student, Arbacher believed she had to shrug off her unsettling experiences with Walstein.
“That was the price of education and academic success,” she said she thought as a teen. “It’s troubling, looking back, how par-for-the-course it felt. … I think I always had a sense of how unacceptable it was. It was just a matter of not having faith that anything could be done about it.”
When a Bethesda Beat reporter last week asked Walstein at his Brookeville home about the online discussion between his former students, he said he hadn’t heard of it. He denied doing anything improper, although he acknowledged that his sense of humor might have missed the mark sometimes.
He sometimes teased or paid extra attention to female students, he said, but his intent was to encourage their participation in classes where they were often outnumbered by boys.
“I was always known as liking girls, but I never considered that to be a crime,” Walstein, 72, said, later adding, “What I thought I was doing was calming them down and letting them get … to be part of the class.”
Nadia Alam, who graduated in 2013, said Walstein in class once gave a similar explanation of his interactions with girls, but it left her unconvinced.
“I think his perspective is completely wrong and very apologist. Like he was trying to justify his behavior,” she said.
As some of these alumni have described it, Walstein’s tendency to make off-color comments and act suggestively with certain female students was an open secret throughout the school. Looking back, these alumni believe his tenure and prestige protected him from consequences.
LeVeque, a parent from Takoma Park, said she and her husband met with Blair’s principal, Renay Johnson, and another administrator, Dirk Cauley, in November 2011 to tell them Walstein was creating a hostile classroom environment. LeVeque’s daughter, a Blair student, wasn’t in the magnet program, but had heard stories from her friends about Walstein’s behavior.
LeVeque said she and her husband, David, left the meeting with Johnson, who became Blair’s principal in 2011, feeling reassured.
“Thank you for meeting with David and me yesterday, and for taking this issue seriously,” LeVeque wrote Nov. 30, 2011, in a follow-up email to Johnson and Cauley.
In the email, which Bethesda Beat has seen, she mentions another recent story about Walstein making inappropriate comments to students.
Screenshot of the email sent by Anne LeVeque to Blair administration after a meeting about Walstein in 2011. LeVeque's email address has been blacked out.
LeVeque, who said Johnson seemed concerned about reports of Walstein's behavior, got the impression from the meeting that Walstein would retire at the end of the 2011-12 school year. She was surprised when he stayed for an additional term.
Derek Turner, a spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) said Walstein also remained on the school system’s roster of substitute teachers until 2016.
“I wish that the principal had taken more decisive action at that point,” LeVeque said.
Johnson responded to an interview request by referring a reporter to Turner, and Cauley didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Turner said he can’t comment on personnel matters, but “there was certainly action” following the meeting between LeVeque and Blair administration. He wouldn’t specify the action.
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