Between Guggenheim and Sieg Halls, a small gray portable building about the size of a few Odegaard study rooms houses the Halbert and Nancy Robinson Center for Young Scholars, the home of many programs for young people’s academic enhancement.
The Center has one of only a few programs in the United States that offer children age 13 to 14 years old early entrance to college. Upon acceptance to the program, students leave middle school after seventh or eighth grade to complete a crash course that condenses four years of high school into a single year. They work with 15 to 17 other highly-capable children and live at home while they complete the coursework at the UW. This crash course is known as the Transition School.
The Center boasts high achievement among its graduates — among whom there have been three Rhodes scholars and one Rhodes finalist — and claims to offer a place of solace for gifted youth who have often felt unwelcome at their grade schools.
But the Robinson Center made headlines in October of this year when the university publicly disclosed that John Sahr, a professor of electrical engineering and former interim director of the Robinson Center, had sexually abused two students, one of which was a 17-year-old at the Center.
According to several children who have gone through the Transition School, the Robinson Center’s issues spread beyond one man.
Since this summer, The Daily has spoken with six students who went through the Transition School before matriculating into the UW. They detailed allegations of sexual misconduct, drug use, and hate speech within the Transition School, while also describing an environment that led to anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and eating disorders. A seventh student, on the other hand, described an atmosphere that did more good than harm and emphasized that many students that go through the Robinson Center are generally happy with their experiences.
Many of these students were willing to go on the record out of sheer frustration with the university and the Robinson Center administration.
However, The Daily decided to exclude any identifying details to protect the sources, all of whom were minors at the time, and many of whom are still underage.
Both accusers and the accused painted a consistent picture of a toxic and harmful environment at the Robinson Center and all allegations listed here have been corroborated by multiple Transition School students.
The six students made one similar conclusion: Despite the Robinson Center administration’s best intentions, the program deeply harmed their mental health and emotional well-being.
Students at the Transition School go through one of the most rigorous programs offered on campus. The program entails dropping out of grade school and enrolling in 22 credits that squeeze four years of high school learning into one year. Depending on their performance, the students matriculate the following fall to complete a four-year degree by the time most kids are applying to college.
In the past 10 years, 21 students have either chosen to leave the Transition School or were not offered admission to the UW as freshmen, according to Robinson Center Director Nancy Hertzog.
Once the students are on the UW campus, a significant age gap still exists between them and the rest of the student body.
Transition School students believe this can lead to a particularly egregious trend among female students: that many of the female teens end up in relationships with much older male students.
“During my first quarter as a freshman, I myself was taken advantage of by an older male student,” one student said. She was 15 at the time and he was 28.
“I think when you’re in a really emotionally vulnerable place, you feel like having sex with someone a lot older is a way to regain power,” another student who was also taken advantage of by an older student during her year in the Transition School said.
According to Hertzog, the Center responded to all allegations by providing the impacted students with university resources, following the UW’s mandatory reporting policy, and working with parents and guardians.
Read the full statement below.
The students said Robinson Center staff openly encouraged students to date within the Center. Although many Transition School students are around the same age, TAs can be up to 10 years older, and some students hang around the Center even after they graduate from the UW.
Within the center itself, male students and TAs maintain an environment of misogyny by making crude sexual jokes in class and online. According to several sources, one TA mimicked masturbating next to a female student’s head while he led a class session.
The TA continued to teach the student for the remainder of that quarter.
Female students said the boys would regularly comment on their breast sizes, call them “sluts,” and say they were only admitted to the program because they performed sexual favors.
Male students were accused of stalking and physically assaulting female students, including allegedly pinning one to a wall to ask her on a date. In this case, the accused student denied all allegations of wrongdoing but declined to discuss any specifics.
Students said they were also routinely exposed to racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and homophobic comments by other students, particularly through memes sent through the Robinson Center’s group chat on Discord, an application frequently used for online gaming communication. Students allegedly sent swastikas and other white supremacist memes in the chat.
Hertzog explained that oftentimes student privacy laws prevented the Center from sharing disciplinary action with The Daily or the public.
“Hateful and grossly inappropriate behavior is something that middle schools, high schools, and colleges across the country are struggling to address,” Hertzog said. “Unfortunately, the Transition School is not immune to those problems, and we have seen it firsthand.”
‘Maybe you shouldn’t talk about how you feel’
Students frequently reported these instances of bullying, harassment, and assault, which resulted in “community meetings,” also referred to as “shitshows” and cited by sources as ineffective in remedying the situations.
“All the people who did this sexual harassing and bullying are still there,” one student said. “We went to administration and told them this can’t be called a safe space.”
The students said they met with the Center’s administration regularly to report these instances, but didn’t feel like they were taken seriously.
“I feel like the Robinson Center is silencing people who reach out [for help],” one student said. “They say they’ll tell SafeCampus and you never hear about it again.”
Female students said they didn’t think male students who behaved inappropriately were properly disciplined. The students were told to keep their complaints to themselves and the Center’s staffers.
“She says to me, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t talk about how you feel and some of the things you faced in this space,’” one student said of an administrator at the Center after she reported sexual harassment. Other students said they were told nearly the same thing.
Often times, male students were given little more than a slap on the wrist and were assured their parents wouldn’t be notified of the misconduct. Multiple female students independently stated that they were repeatedly told, “boys will be boys.”
According to sources, Hertzog herself was directly involved in what they considered to be victim-blaming.
“She said that we have to be aware of what we were doing to cause this to happen to us,” one female student said. “And that it was our own fault for what was going on, and that we have to make these people stop bothering us.”
Having already faced what they saw as the consequences of administration’s inaction, the students worried for future classes of Transition School students. Even after matriculating from the Transition School, male students repeatedly and specifically “talked about how they liked younger girls,” one student recalled. “They — multiple times — said they wanted to get in contact with the new year because that’s what they would do, they would prey on younger girls.”
‘You get used to the abuse’
Students said they felt an immense pressure to stay in the program, even if it was impacting their mental health. While the Center seemed to want to support its students in every way possible, it often fell short.
“I genuinely believe that the professors and faculty I see every day greatly care for their students and their well-being,” one student said. “The Robinson Center, as under-equipped as it is in some regards, is staffed by good people. I do think that the higher university management, in charge of Robinson Center policy, cares quite a bit less.”
These pressures included the cost of tuition (which is higher than that of the UW), the embarrassment of failing out and being sent back to high school, and the need to impress peers and parents and staff.
“Success of the students directly reflects the success of the program, the research being done through the program, and the people in charge of the program,” one student said.
Multiple students experienced depression and anxiety that they attributed to the pressure, workload, and a toxic atmosphere at the Robinson Center.
“I was having an anxiety attack before every section,” a female student, who remembers crying in the bathroom every day before class in the Transition School, said. “You get used to the abuse.”
Students felt they were left vulnerable to abusive relationships because of the extreme stress toxic culture; it was a coping mechanism.
Multiple female students reported eating disorders that they attributed to both the workload of the Center and misogynistic bullying by male students. One student said boys would target this point of insecurity about her and intentionally try to trigger her.
Students said most of them slept somewhere between three and eight hours a night, with an informal competition to see who could sleep the least and work the most.
One student confirmed that their peers sometimes used Adderall without a prescription to handle the workload while others drank to cope with stress.
“I can’t speak for anybody else, but I did not leave the Transition School Program with only minimal harm,” one student said. “It was one of the worst decisions I ever made for my long-term mental and emotional well-being,” they said of joining the program.
Hertzog says that administrators are aware of the intense stress caused by the program, and “have responded by reducing the course load, adding resources focused on student well-being, creating accessible support systems for students and families, and encouraging healthy behavior.”
Intentions versus reality
The Center publishes research using the data produced from Transition School alumni follow-up studies. One of these studies specifically highlighted the prevalence of stress, pressure, eating disorders, and depression among Asian American women who entered college early.
But generally, the alumni of the Center have exhibited high levels of educational attainment. They obtain doctoral degrees at nearly 14 times the rate of the regular UW alumni population, according to Hertzog and Rachel Chung’s study of early entrance graduates after 35 years.
The Center often leads to positive outcomes for its students. According to Hertzog’s research, 70.4% believed they experienced a rich social environment and 69.5% felt they were prepared to find satisfying relationships after college.
The students who join are often disenfranchised from their grade schools. 94.5% of Robinson Center students said they felt they needed a challenge from regular grade school. Students were often self-motivated; only 37.9% of students said their joining of the Robinson Center was related to parental pressure.
The Center is often presented as an alternative to a public schooling system that otherwise lets brilliant students slip through the cracks. The premise is simple: Gifted students develop and mature differently and have needs that differ from students with closer-to-average IQs, so they need a specialized environment that can feed their curiosity and keep them engaged in school.
According to Hertzog, the Center plans on working with Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs Ed Taylor’s office to undertake a full review of the Transition School this coming year.
Students can reach out to SafeCampus 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 206-685-7233.
Cover photo by Photo Editor Lydia Ely and Engagement Editor Hailey Robinson.
Managing Editor Josh Kirshenbaum, Editor-in-Chief Mira Petrillo, and Science Editor Thelonious Goerz contributed to this article.
Reach or send tips to Investigations Editor Manisha Jha at email@example.com. Twitter: @manishajha_
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