Blair Alumni Accuse Renowned Math Teacher of Years of ‘Harassing’ Behavior

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

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Eric Walstein

Credit Silver Chips Online

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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Though Walstein retired in 2013, some former students say it’s time to shine light on problems that they say made generations of teen girls feel uncomfortable and even objectified in math class.

After exchanging memories of Walstein online, a group of former students on Jan. 3 emailed a letter to current Blair faculty, asking educators to root out systemic problems that could allow harassing behavior in other classrooms to go unchecked.

“Eric Walstein was lauded by many as a champion of mathematics education, but we ask you: education for whom?” the alumni wrote in a version of the letter that they posted online. “Fear of Walstein’s sexual harassment drove many girls away from actively participating in class, from asking for help outside of class, and from enrolling in his classes altogether.” 

The letter’s authors said 380 alumni of the magnet program had signed it as of its sending, although individual names were not listed in the online version. The total number of alumni endorsing the letter has since grown to exceed 400, the authors said.

Along with the letter, the former Blair students sent MCPS a 37-page compilation of accounts—each contributed anonymously but attached to a gender and class year—of Walstein’s behavior.

Walstein said over the course of his career, parents never complained about his conduct. When a back injury forced him into retirement, Walstein said in an interview, he walked away from his job thinking he was “the best teacher Montgomery County ever had.”  

Turner said district officials became aware of the Facebook discussion about Walstein on Dec. 19 and immediately forwarded the accusations to the Montgomery County Police Department.

“We are all disgusted by these allegations,” Turner said last week.

Capt. Paul Starks, a county police spokesman, said the agency on Jan. 5 received the 37-page document in which about 85 former students gave accounts of Walstein’s actions.

Investigators reviewed the document and found that the alleged behavior, “while questionable by some, did not rise to the level of a crime in Maryland,” Starks wrote in an email.

The investigation is closed, he wrote Wednesday.

The letter's authors have said they are not seeking legal or law enforcement action against Walstein; they are asking MCPS to evaluate its decisions, polices and practices.

MCPS is conducting its own review of the situation, Turner said.

“We’re not going to have an answer for folks overnight, because these allegations do span decades. We want to be really thoughtful about looking into this and figuring out what happened,” he said. “Where we might’ve had gaps in reporting, if that’s the concern. Especially if there was a culture where we didn’t encourage students to report.”

Peter Ostrander, Blair’s magnet program coordinator, did not respond to a request for comment.

Turner noted that in 2015, two years after Walstein’s departure, the school district adopted stricter standards for reporting and dealing with possible cases of child abuse and neglect.

The changes came in the wake of several cases in which MCPS employees (Walstein was not one of them) were accused of inappropriate conduct. Turner said the process was designed to streamline investigations into many types of misbehavior, ranging from criminal acts to violations of the MCPS code of conduct.

As part of the policy update, MCPS instituted a training program that all employees must complete, he said.

The school system also has strengthened its curriculum about personal body safety, with greater emphasis on teaching students to recognize sexual harassment, he said.

Turner would not disclose whether the school system received prior complaints about Walstein, saying MCPS does not share personnel records.

School board member Jill Ortman-Fouse said she’s glad the students are stepping forward now to tell their stories.

“As a society, we have looked past a lot of behavior,” she said. “I think it’s absolutely imperative that … we’re done with that. … We’re not going to tolerate it as a community.”

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Bethesda Beat interviewed 19 of Walstein’s former students, both women and men, whose experiences span a quarter of a century, from the magnet’s early years to just before Walstein’s retirement. All of them were either aware of or active in the social media discussion about Walstein, and all related observations or experiences that troubled them.

Most of the memories were of classroom interactions, and no one accused Walstein of pursuing students outside of school or trying to initiate a sexual relationship.

Several remembered in-class discussions about nude beaches and the sex lives of teenagers. Others said he’d expound on his attraction to Russian women or the physical attributes of models and actresses he liked. Molly DeQuattro, who graduated in 1991, said she recalls Walstein and a male student talking about female pubic hair in class.

Some alumni also said he would sometimes lean uncomfortably close to students and intrude on their physical boundaries.

Walstein denied that he spoke about pubic hair in class. He said he’d sometimes respond to students who commented on a beautiful singer or superstar, but the conversation would end there.

He acknowledged broaching topics related to sex and said he encouraged teenage girls to abstain while they were in high school.

“I said, ‘You’re not going to take a baby to MIT,’” he would tell girls.

He said he’d explain that, unfair as it may be, most teenage boys could get away with being sexually active, while girls risk social stigma.

“The girls are considered to be, well, I guess I can use the word, ‘slut.’ But the boys are heroes,” he said. “I would tell the girls, ‘Don’t do this. You’re not old enough. … When you can understand the consequences of what you’re doing … then do whatever you want. You don’t need me. But in high school, that’s not the way it works. The boys are the heroes, and you’re not.’”

Many alumni said Walstein’s first order of business at the start of the semester was to reorder classroom seating so that female students filled the front row. In particular, he seemed to pick out Asian girls, said Maureen Lei, a 2012 graduate.

Lei, who is Asian, said she was one of the students repositioned to sit closer to Walstein when she entered in his class.

Raina Zheng, who is Chinese-American, said she entered Algebra II fully aware of her teacher’s reputed “predilection for Asian girls.” She provided a reporter screenshots of Gmail chat conversations from her school years in which she and other students casually discussed his habit of flirting with female students.

In one conversation from December 2008, a friend asked Zheng if Walstein had “hit on” her, and she replied, “kinda.” Also that month, she messaged friends saying Walstein had walked up to her and put his arm around her.

Zheng recalls that at one point during her semester of algebra, Walstein asked her to kiss him on the cheek.  Zheng said she couldn’t tell if he was serious and might have started to move toward him.

“He said something like, ‘I’m just kidding, honey. I don’t want to lose my job,’” said Zheng, a 2011 graduate.

Several people said Walstein had a habit of saying something unsettling, then playing it off as a joke.

Emily Jones said during her sophomore year, Walstein came up to her desk in math class, leaned over her and murmured, “Do you want a kiss?”

Jones said she froze and didn’t respond. Walstein repeated himself, this time speaking so the whole class could hear him.

Emily Jones. Credit: Emily Jones

Then he pulled a Hershey’s Kisses chocolate out of his pocket and handed it to her.

“I was so intimidated by this … big, older man leaning on my desk, who had control of my grades, suggesting something very politely to me and then saying it louder,” she said.

Zheng said she saw Walstein pull the same maneuver with the chocolate, although she can’t recall the specific circumstances.

Former Blair student Ioana Stoica recalls an incident in 1998 when Walstein asked to flip through a stack of photos she’d been showing her friends. She handed them over right away.

“Why are you even in this class?” she remembers him saying, as he looked at pictures of her and her friends trying on different homecoming dresses at the mall. “You could just quit school right now and work for $100 an hour.”

Stoica believed both then and now that Walstein’s comment was referring to prostitution.

Her friend, Nora Achrati, shared the class with Stoica and remembers the remark. She recalls thinking at first that Walstein was suggesting Stoica should work as a model, “then somehow realizing that wasn’t it” when she saw her classmate’s embarrassment. She also now believes Walstein was alluding to prostitution.

A hush fell over the class, Stoica recalls.

“We were kind of all just shocked into silence,” she said.

Walstein said he might have asked to check out Stoica’s photos, but didn’t make the remark about working for $100 an hour. Calling girls to sit in the front, addressing them as “honey” or “sweetie” and telling them they were pretty were tactics to encourage them to loosen up and feel comfortable in class, he said.

Ioana Stoica. Credit: Ioana Stoica

He denied that he asked Zheng for a kiss. While he doesn’t remember the interaction with Jones, he didn’t challenge her account. But he said he was guilty of nothing more than botched jokes, not sexual harassment of the kind that has filled the news in recent months.

“Can I have childish jokes with the little candy kiss? Yes, I can do that,” he said in his living room, facing a television tuned to CNN. “But did I do what these guys on TV did? No.”

He said he might have asked Arbacher if she wears a sports bra.

“But for the reason that she has to know what’s going to happen to her body if she doesn’t understand,” he said.

Arbacher said by going back through old Gmail chat conversations, she also found several references to an incident in which Walstein told her to “sit down and stop looking so sexy.”

Arbacher said her mother, Judith, had heard rumors about Walstein’s behavior and would sometimes check in on her experiences in class. Arbacher said she’d simply say, “Yeah, Walstein’s being creepy again,” without going into detail.

Judith Arbacher said in an interview that other parents had told her about Walstein’s reputation for making inappropriate comments.

She said she doesn’t remember Becca telling her Walstein grabbed her wrist and believed she would’ve taken action if she’d heard a story about physical contact. Still, she said, she wishes she’d gone to Blair leadership with her concerns. 

Becca Arbacher said her mom was usually quick to step in on her behalf, but she begged her not to confront school administrators about Walstein; she valued the high-quality education she was getting in the magnet and didn’t want to be known as a complainer.

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Blair’s magnet program, started in 1985 for gifted students interested in math, science and computers, has garnered national recognition. Walstein was with the magnet nearly from its inception, taught its most advanced mathematics classes and mentored some of its most celebrated graduates.

Vicky Keston, who studied math with him at Tilden Middle School from 1979 to 1982, said she appreciated Walstein for treating girls and boys equally. He made sure girls were involved in the class discussion and didn’t let boys dominate, she said in a phone interview.

“He was a huge supporter of girls in math,” said Keston, who, years ago, wrote an online essay that gave Walstein a nod for fostering her love of the subject.

Keston majored in engineering in college and later co-founded the Renegade Girls Tinkering Club, an organization that works to keep girls interested in science, technology and mathematics.

While she never observed Walstein act inappropriately in class, she said she can only speak to her experience at Tilden and can’t comment on his behavior at Blair. Some Blair students interviewed said they did learn in his classes, at least when Walstein didn’t stray into inappropriate topics.

But some female alumni said their experiences in his classes damaged their academic confidence or, at least, reinforced the belief that they’d have to put up with some harassment in the male-dominated worlds of math and science.

A few former students, including Achrati, said Walstein, openly expressed his viewpoint on the differences between women and men in math.

“He had a poster in his room of women who were famous female mathematicians, but he also had an opinion that it was impossible for women to be geniuses at math,” said Emmy Johnson, from the class of 2012. “He was not quiet about that opinion.”

In the recent interview, Walstein said females can be math prodigies, but the likelihood is greater of finding men with genius-level talent.

Lei said Walstein told her offhand during an end-of-year picnic that “you’re beautiful, but stupid.”

While she didn’t know how to respond at the time, the comment affected her, she said.

“It was really upsetting, and it definitely took a hit on … my view of myself and my own abilities in school,” she said.

Walstein said his comment to Lei was probably a bad joke.

Stoica said her experiences in Walstein’s class were so upsetting that she quit mid-semester.

Later on, in college, she studied electrical engineering, just to prove to herself that her former math teacher underestimated her. She earned her engineering degree from the University of Maryland in 2003 and stayed in school an extra year to add a mathematics major, she said.

Maureen Lei. Credit: Maureen Lei

Lei graduated from Columbia University in New York with a mathematics degree after only three years of study.

With the recent wave of misconduct and harassment allegations against prominent men, Lei and a former classmate, Theresa Regan, began talking online about sexual assault in academia. As more and more Blair alumni joined the conversation, the focus quickly shifted to other types of misconduct and, specifically, to Walstein, Lei said.

In late December, Regan created a closed Facebook group where magnet alumni could discuss the teacher. In the three weeks since then, more than 1,200 people have joined; because it’s a private forum, it’s not clear how many of them agree that Walstein’s conduct was inappropriate. Regan said disagreements inside the closed group have largely centered on how to respond to the past, though one former student did defend Walstein as a dedicated math coach.

The public Facebook discussions on Regan’s page are overwhelmingly critical of the math teacher.

Walstein said the online discussion makes him reconsider his actions as a teacher. He said he’s always thought of himself as a supporter of women in math and as someone who could introduce talented teens to college-level learning.

“I provided them with a math level that was not available to them anywhere else,” he said.

Even though Walstein is no longer teaching at Blair, many former students agreed they needed to do something to prevent similar situations across MCPS.

“While we alumni realize that we currently don’t and may never have complete knowledge of any discussions that happened behind office doors, we do wonder how many other Magnet teachers knew about Walstein’s pattern of behavior. It is clear that for more than twenty years, any actions taken to address it were woefully insufficient,” the letter to Blair faculty stated. “Eric Walstein may have retired, but sexual harassment of students by teachers can happen again unless the past is acknowledged and used to inform meaningful changes in policy.”

On Friday, Turner provided a written statement about the allegations against Walstein:

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has been made aware of the allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and gender discrimination against former Montgomery Blair High School magnet program teacher Eric Walstein. We immediately shared these allegations with the Montgomery County Police Department. 

The alleged behavior described in the letter provided by alumni is deeply disturbing and appalling.  I commend those who have come forward to share their stories. Bullying, harassment, intimidation and discrimination will not be tolerated in our schools.

In recent years, MCPS has made significant changes to our policies and programming that have strengthened our harassment prevention efforts, enhanced reporting protocols, and encouraged greater cultural competency. In 2015, the Board of Education revised its policy on preventing, recognizing and reporting child abuse and neglect. The policy requires mandatory training for all employees on tools for recognizing and reporting child abuse; improved mechanisms for reporting abuse and neglect; and established personal body safety lessons for all students. Additionally, MPCS requires cultural competency training for all staff to combat the impact of implicit bias in teaching and to ensure all students feel welcomed and supported in all subjects and classrooms.

While Mr. Walstein is retired and has not been employed by MCPS since October 2016, rest assured that our school system is looking closely into the matter. Anyone with further information about criminal allegations should contact the Montgomery County Police Department. For any other reports regarding this matter, email the MCPS Public Information office at pio@mcpsmd.org.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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