Maya Peterson was the first black woman elected as student body president of the prestigious Lawrenceville School near Princeton, New Jersey. She graduated in June, but when she did she no longer held the illustrious position.
In March, she posted a photo of herself on Instagram mocking what she called a “typical Lawrenceville boi,” donning a hockey stick, a Yale sweatshirt, and posing with pouting lips. Three weeks later she was told by officials at the school — where tuition is a whopping $53,000 per year — that unless she resigned as student body president she would face disciplinary action. The Instagram photo has since been removed.
Here’s what you need to know about Peterson and the controversy that cost her an important line on her college application.
1. She Was Elected Against All Odds
When Peterson was elected in April 2013, she became the first black woman to hold the post of student body president. She’s also openly gay. When elected, Peterson called her victory an “opportunity” and thanked both her friends and teachers for helping her get to that point.
2. She Played Varsity Softball & Was a Member of the Gay Straight Alliance
Student body president isn’t the only prominent role Peterson has held. She is described as an “animated” young woman, and judging by the myriad of activities she was involved in this animation comes from an overabundance of energy and spunk.
In 2012 she won the Poetry Out Loud competition, and throughout high school was active in the school’s Gay Straight Alliance Club, in addition to playing varsity softball and participating in Winterfest. She had plans to introduce a school-wide Unity Games during her tenure as student body president, and also wanted to work on improving the cafeteria menu.
3. The Lawrenceville School Was Founded as an All-White, All-Male Institution
Black students were not permitted at The Lawrenceville School until the 1960s. Women weren’t allowed to enroll until 1987, a change that many students decried in publications as big as the Philadelphia Inquirer. In the 1980s, the chairman of the school’s board told the Inquirer that the “number of top-notch boys that we wanted to have was decreasing in size.”
4. She Wasn’t Mocking the Institution as a Whole
There is no indication or even speculation that Peterson was mocking the school as a whole, or its community. Regardless, Dean of Students Nancy Thomas told The Lawrence (the school’s newspaper) that faculty members and students felt that “it was not fitting of a student leader to make comments mocking members of the community.”
Peterson retorted to haters that she was not making a mockery of any specific person or the community in general, but rather that she was “making a mockery of the right-wing, confederate-flag-hanging, openly misogynistic Lawrentians.”
5. This Wasn’t Her First Bout With Controversy
Immediately after her election, certain members of the community decried her election, alleging that the votes hadn’t been counted correctly or that perhaps the school had even rigged the election to allow a woman to win. But Peterson’s first brush with real controversy was after an anonymous student sent the dean photos of Peterson smoking pot.
Another time, an anonymous email went out to the entire freshman class containing photos of Peterson half-naked in her private room. Peterson had no idea where the photo came from. An earlier initiative, an attempt to introduce gender-neutral bathrooms on the campus, was met with extreme criticism.
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