Ex-teacher at Sidwell gets 5 years on probation; A plea bargain spared young abuse victim from testifying in court

A longtime teacher at Sidwell Friends School was placed on five years of probation Monday for fondling a 15-year-old student, the result of an earlier plea agreement with prosecutors that spared the victim from having to testify in court.

Robert A. “Pete” Peterson, 65, will not serve time in jail. But he has been fired by the school, must register on Maryland’s online sex offender listing and can no longer be around children without another adult present.

“I believe we’re masters of our fate by the decisions that we make, and I’ve made some bad ones,” Peterson said in court Monday, his first public comments since being charged earlier this year.

Peterson taught seventh and eighth grades at Sidwell, one of the Washington area’s premiere private schools.

He apologized to the victim, the victim’s family and his own family. “I am truly sorry,” he said, standing in a ninth-floor courtroom in Rockville. “As a teacher for over 40 years, I have often advised my students that when they’ve gotten into trouble or made a serious mistake, they should stand tall and face the situation directly. They should never lie or try to weasel out of the consequences. I want to live up to that principle. I intend to face the consequences, and more importantly make amends for the damage done.”

Peterson earlier pleaded guilty to one count of sex abuse of a minor.

He taught the boy in middle school. When the student got older, Peterson hired him to do odd jobs at his home — moving furniture or cleaning, for example. That progressed to conversations about sex, to massages, to Peterson fondling the boy inside his bathroom, according to prosecutors and police.

Prosecutors said the abuse began when the boy was 14 and lasted more than a year.

It included an incident that took place on the Eastern Shore, at a Sidwell camp at which Peterson served as a director. At one point, Peterson entered the boy’s cabin and fondled him, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors said they did not take the case to trial in large part because of the wishes of the victim and his family. There was no physical evidence, according to attorneys, and the victim could have been subjected to a potentially rough cross-examination. Prosecutors have tried to keep his name private, referring to him as John Doe in earlier proceedings.

The family thought a trial “would be counterproductive to the progress he has made since this traumatic event,” Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said in an interview.

Peterson’s attorneys said Peterson didn’t want the boy to have to testify either.

Peterson’s reputation before the incident seemed completely at odds with the charges. Many parents were shocked.

“He has been a hero, in the past, to so many students,” Peterson’s attorney, Barry Helfand, said in court, adding that had the matter gone to trial, he would have brought in “a parade of the who’s who” to speak on behalf of his character.

Helfand said that Peterson told him he didn’t want to go to trial.

“I don’t want you to cross-examine that young man,” Helfand said his client told him. “I don’t want you to try to make him a liar. I don’t want you to try to do any of that.”