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Student who mocked white males out as president

By Astead Herndon, Special to CNN
updated 5:26 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Maya Peterson posted this image on Instagram with hashtags some called offensive.
Maya Peterson posted this image on Instagram with hashtags some called offensive.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • First black, female student president removed for mocking white classmates at NJ prep school
  • Student says she only mocking white, misogynist culture of the school
  • Former student: "On my way to class and back, I passed by three confederate flags"

(CNN) -- Money, prestige and race are front and center in an ongoing controversy surrounding one of the most expensive prep schools in the country and its former student-body president.

Maya Peterson was the first black female student president of The Lawrenceville School, an affluent academy for boarding and day students located in New Jersey.

This March, after Peterson mocked her white male classmates on Instagram, she claims she was asked to step down or face disciplinary action.

According to reports, Peterson took the first option and resigned under administrative pressure.

The Instagram photos that led to Peterson's ouster are seemingly harmless: Peterson is dressed in stereotypical preppy male clothing, holding a hockey stick and staring straight into the camera.

But with added hashtags including "#confederate," "#romney2016" and "#peakedinhighschool" some Lawrenceville students thought the pictures were offensive.

"You're the student body president, and you're mocking and blatantly insulting a large group of the school's male population," one student commented on the photo.

Some took it further.

On the school's Facebook alumni page, comments included some visceral personal attacks calling Peterson "a racist" and one post referring to her has a "miserable person" and "spoiled malcontent."

"The PC policies and diversity for the sake of diversity over the last fifteen years ... have precipitated this sort of event," one commenter said.

Peterson acknowledged her post could make white students uncomfortable.

"Yes, I am making a mockery of the right-wing, confederate-flag hanging, openly misogynistic Lawrentians," Peterson told BuzzFeed. "If that's a large portion of the school's male population, then I think the issue is not with my bringing attention to it in a lighthearted way, but rather why no one has brought attention to it before."

Peterson could not be reached for comment by CNN as of publication.

Posting the Instagram photo was a response to fellow classmates' concerns regarding her yearbook picture, Peterson told BuzzFeed. In the yearbook photo, she and 10 black friends raised their fists in the classic "black power" salute.

Peterson's point of view is not unfounded, according to other Lawrenceville graduates.

Anthony Smith graduated from The Lawrenceville School in 2007 and recounted several instances of racism on campus, in an e-mail exchange with CNN.

In some cases racial slurs were directed at him, he said.

"I was really weirded out by how flippantly (racial slurs) were used," he said.

Other things on campus made him uncomfortable.

"On my way to class and back, I passed by three confederate flags," Smith said.

Smith noted that, to his knowledge, those responsible for the flags were never punished.

"The fact that Maya and friends were reprimanded for throwing up black power signs that made white students uncomfortable but these white students are never, to my knowledge, reprimanded for making black students uncomfortable is the definition of racism."

A school representative declined to comment on the presence of confederate flags on campus.

In a statement, The Lawrenceville School said it "works hard to foster an inclusive, open and engaging atmosphere that gives all students opportunities to be heard, feel respected and succeed."

Prior to the Instagram photo, Peterson was involved in several controversial incidents, according to BuzzFeed.

Soon after Peterson's election, Dean of Students Nancy Thomas told students she had received anonymous photographs that included evidence of marijuana usage and inappropriate tweets by Peterson. As detailed in an article in The Lawrence, the school newspaper, the tweets were found to be fabricated, and Peterson apologized for the drug usage.

The yearbook "salute" and Instagram photo were the final straw. Peterson was ousted as student-body president.

CNN confirmed Peterson has since graduated from The Lawrenceville School.

"I understand why I hurt people's feelings, but I didn't become president to make sure rich white guys had more representation on campus," she said.

"Let's be honest. They're not the ones that feel uncomfortable here."

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Other students disagree, and believe The Lawrenceville School serves all its students with integrity.

Lindsey Gallinek, a 2012 Lawrenceville alumna now at Wake Forest University, posted a response to the BuzzFeed article titled, "In response to poor reporting."

"While I may never know what Maya Peterson endured, I do know that Lawrenceville tried to shape us to be the best people we could be," she wrote. "Students were constantly exposed to current events and controversial issues because The Lawrenceville School wanted us to realize that there are still many problems in the world."

Gallinek placed blame with the individual students who broke the school's honor code, including Peterson.

"While Maya Peterson should not have Instagrammed that photo because she was acting as a leader, the students quoted in the article should not have made such strong statements against her."

Even Smith, the 2007 alumnus who remembers instances of racism on the Lawrenceville campus, wanted to stress the kind nature of some faculty members.

Smith, who is openly gay, says that during his time there, staff went out of their way to make sure he felt comfortable.

One adviser for the Catholic Students Club added "that's so gay" to the swear jar to limit bullying.

"I felt so safe," Smith said. "I will never forget that as long as I live."

Even so, he stands with Peterson.

"Being comfortable enough to complain about another student by name in high school is the definition of privilege," he said. "I think that students of color at Lawrenceville stood so much more to lose when complaining about prejudice and discomfort than white students did."

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