College counselor warns parents to stop tattling on other kids

Do parents need a college admissions time-out?

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/ Source: TODAY
By Allison Slater Tate

In the high-pressure world of college admissions, maybe it's the parents who need a time-out most of all.

In a letter to parents of seniors at the prestigious Washington, D.C.,-area Sidwell Friends School at the end of December, director of college counseling Patrick Gallagher made it clear that he was done entertaining bad behavior — not from the teenagers in his school, but from the adults.

Apparently, some of those adults have been trying to improve their own children's chances for college admission by anonymously badmouthing other classmates — with a desperation not unlike that of a group of rich and famous parents now indicted by the FBI for cheating and bribing their children's way into highly selective universities.

Gallagher's letter stated he felt it necessary to lay down new rules "due to unfortunate behavior of some parents," he wrote.

Among those policies, as first reported by The Washington Post: "The College Counseling Office will not answer phone calls from blocked numbers. The College Counseling Office will not open any mail without a recognizable return address." Also: "While I often arrive at the office well before 8:00 a.m., that does not mean a parent should ever be waiting for me in the vestibule, parking lot, or outside my office door," Gallagher wrote.

He added, "If a parent ever feels the need to inform me or my colleagues regarding the actions of a child that is not their own — I will ask you to leave my office or end the phone conversation. If you refer to yourself as, 'I am not that type of parent,' you are telling me loud and clear that you are!"

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Parental meddling and bad behavior, as it was very publicly revealed recently in the college admissions cheating scandal, is not isolated to the tony halls of Sidwell Friends, where Sasha Obama is a student.

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The director of college counseling at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in the Washington, D.C., area wrote a letter to the parents of the senior class in December enacting new rules for his office due to the "unfortunate behavior" of some of the adults.Ken Cedeno / Getty Images

Independent college consultant Sara Harberson, who has worked in the admissions office at both the University of Pennsylvania and at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, told TODAY Parents that the offices received anonymous letters, emails, and phone calls "tattling" on applicants every year.

"They would allege that the student was involved in cheating, illegal activity, or misconduct," Harberson said. Though most application materials were usually taken at face value during the review process, receiving a clandestine communication would trigger an informal investigation by the admissions officer handling the accused student's application, she said.

After reaching out to the student's counselor of record and other members of the school community to find out if the accusations were true, the admissions officer would contact the student to hear their side of the story.

"No matter what, the student usually had to put something in writing to explain the situation," she said.

In the end, the "tattling" was often effective. "While there were investigations that revealed no truth to them, most of the time there was a thread — or more — of truth to the anonymous tip.

"Overcoming any thread of truth was difficult for the student in the admissions process, as admissions officers weed out students for the smallest little thing given the size and quality of their applicant pool," said Harberson.

In his letter, Gallagher — who describes himself as a 52-year-old Jesuit man in his fourth year at the Quaker Friends school — urged parents to "get hold of yourselves."

"To those parents who feel superior and entitled — you are working with a Director of College Counseling who maintains ethics and does not believe that an Ivy League admission spot 'belongs to anyone' simply by class or position," Gallagher asserted. He also asked for only the students to use the drop-in times at his office.

Harberson also encouraged parents to let their children take control of the process. "This is a student process and should be led by students," she said — even in cases where there is misconduct.

"If they learn of something that is inconsistent or antithetical to the college process, they should approach their counselor of record or another faculty member at their high school to help navigate this delicate situation," she advised.

It is the high school's responsibility to determine what should be reported to colleges, said Harberson: "It is not only the reputation of the accused student on the line; the high school's reputation could take an even bigger hit if they knew something and didn't share it."

Harberson also made a call to action for colleges to help end this kind of behavior she believes is at least partially caused by the current college admissions climate.

"Colleges need to get ahead of this and come together to make clear instructions as a collective industry," she said. She urged college admissions offices to implement verification processes into their application reviews immediately and to let students know there will be repercussions for falsifying their applications or for falsely accusing another student.

"We reached a nadir this year as it was finally revealed that colleges weren't being completely truthful and transparent themselves," said Harberson. "Some families felt the only way to overcome the odds was to play dirty. This behavior fueled those 'tattle-talers' even more."

Gallagher cited a personal favorite quote as advice to his seniors' parents, adding that it fits well with Sidwell Friends' Quaker tenets: "Don't speak unless you can improve the silence."