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Searching for More Sex-Abuse Claims; Officials Investigate Scope of Alleged Inappropriate Contact

Montgomery County police who have charged a teacher with sexually abusing a minor are investigating whether he had inappropriate contact with other children as well.

On Wednesday, Sidwell Friends School in Northwest Washington announced that it had fired veteran social studies teacher Robert A. “Pete” Peterson, 65, whom Montgomery and Queen Anne’s county police last week charged with sexual abuse of a minor and other sex offenses.

Peterson taught seventh and eighth grades and was director of the school’s Camp Corsica on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He was placed on leave shortly before the beginning of the 2009-10 school year and has not been permitted on campus or at school-sponsored events, school officials said. He was fired Jan. 14.

School officials alerted parents and the community to the charges against Peterson in an e-mail Wednesday, and on Thursday the e-mail was sent to alumni. Parents expressed shock about the allegations, saying that Peterson was a well-liked teacher.

“My son had him and adored him,” said one mother who declined to be identified.

Said another parent who also did not want to be named: “He’s a wonderful teacher. We had no inkling” of the charges.

Several parents were concerned that administrators did not inform parents sooner.

School officials said they had acted appropriately. Until charges are filed, “they simply are allegations,” said upper school Principal Ellis Turner. “The police could have decided that there were no charges to move forward.”

Turner said that the school was not aware of any allegations or concerns about Peterson during his 30-year career at Sidwell and that the school did not “at this time” think that any other students were involved. But he said the school was circulating news of the charges among its alumni and among non-Sidwell former camp students to make it “as easy as possible for anyone with information about inappropriate behavior to come forward.”

Peterson’s attorney, Barry Helfand, said his client will plead not guilty.

“We’re pleading not guilty, and we’re going to try to prove he’s not guilty,” Helfand said. He said that parents of many Sidwell students have called his firm expressing support for Peterson.

Police said that the alleged contact between Peterson and a male Sidwell student “outside of school activities” began in summer 2008, when Peterson offered to pay him to do chores at his Silver Spring home. The alleged sexual contact occurred there in 2008 and 2009 and was reported to police in September.

According to charging documents in Queen Anne’s County District Court, a Sidwell student who was at the camp said that Peterson came into a cabin and touched him inappropriately.

Police sources, court documents and Helfand indicate that the alleged victim in both cases is the same boy.

Queen Anne’s authorities charged Peterson with sex abuse of a minor, second-degree assault and fourth-degree sex offense. In Montgomery, he is charged with sex abuse of a minor and two counts of fourth-degree sex offense. He was released on $250,000 bond.

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"I have watched Mr. Helfand in trial and in negotiations. He is remarkable. Mr. Helfand is extremely knowledgeable in the law, and even more knowledgeable in the ways to deal with people." Afshin Pishevar, Criminal Defense Attorney in Rockville, MD
"I strongly endorse this lawyer. I have known Mr. Helfand for many years. We have worked together on cases and represented conflicting parties. I have watched Mr. Helfand in trial and in negotiations. He is remarkable." David Felsen, Criminal Defense Attorney in Rockville, MD
"It’s one of the biggest cases that’s been tried in Montgomery County in a long time,” said Steve VanGrack, a Rockville lawyer considering a Democratic bid for state’s attorney." Washington Post