Boarding Schools Drop Secretive Response On Sexual Abuse

In Nation
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A stunning investigation into decades-old allegations of sexual abuse at the elite Choate Rosemary Hall school in Wallingford documented a pattern critics say is emblematic of how private boarding schools have long handled these issues: In secret, doing nothing or simply pushing the offending faculty member out the door.

In one of the more egregious cases, a former Choate teacher accused of sexually abusing students nearly two decades ago spent the years since then working in Connecticut public schools — until he resigned his position as principal of a regional high school in Litchfield last week, shortly before the Choate report was released.

“It was all part of that bunker, protect-ourselves-at-all- costs-mentality,” said Larry Hardoon, a Boston lawyer who represents victims of sexual abuse. “‘Here’s a problem, let’s just get rid of the problem, make him somebody else’s problem. Life will continue for us unaltered.'”

But after a series of newspaper articles — most notably the Boston Globe’s series last year on sexual abuse in New England prep schools — and lawsuits with awards in the millions of dollars, there has been a massive shift in how prep schools are handling past and present allegations, as demonstrated by the release last week of the 50-page report done by a New York investigator for Choate.

That report documented actions by 12 former faculty members at the Wallingford boarding school between 1963 and 2010, including detailed accounts of relationships, groping and forced intercourse involving 24 victims — not the kind of reading material a prep school would have divulged willingly in the past.

Paul Mones, a Los Angeles lawyer, was skeptical about Choate’s motives. “They stayed silent and sat on their hands for decades while generations of students suffered silently,” he said.

Mones pointed to one example in the report to bolster his opinion: In that case, a teacher was confronted in 2002 with allegations of a liaison years before involving a 15-year-old girl in a study abroad program that was not operated by Choate but was run by a retired Choate teacher. The teacher at first denied the allegations, but then “conceded that he may have paid special attention to [the student], held her hand, and kissed her.”

The next day, the report says, the teacher resigned, saying he would teach only at boys schools in the future. Edward Shanahan, then headmaster, offered to support him as he looked for a position at a boys school, the report says. The notes on the case conclude, the report says, that the teacher “resigned with no finding on the part of the school in this matter.”

Mones insists that by 2002, “They should have been acting more aggressively, not just allowing somebody to go to another school.”

Mones sees the recent actions taken by a school like Choate as an attempt to avoid future lawsuits and an effort to “give a good public face. I think they are worried about their bottom lines in terms of alumni and donors. … It’s incumbent on them once the covers are pulled back to do a mea culpa.”

Fay, the Shipman & Goodwin lawyer, said she expects that more schools will begin efforts to reach out to alumni to ask if any have allegations from the past, rather than wait for them to come forward. “These are the conversations I think schools are having: Do we have anything back there? They want to make sure there is no one out there who is an alum of their school who is suffering in silence.”

She said that schools also have been working to improve their policies on prevention and responding to allegations of sexual abuse. The schools have strengthened background checks on prospective employees, Fay said, and asking more “pointed, directed questions” of applicants’ past employers.

In the Loomis letter, Culbert and Norton said they now conduct background checks on employees every two years and on all adult family members living in school housing. They have also adopted a centralized procedure for providing references for employees who leave the school — an effort to guard against references from colleagues who may not be aware of complaints.

Still, boarding schools present particular challenges for school leaders as they attempt to prevent sexual abuse or inappropriate behaviors.

The report on Choate notes that the school has a “statement of expectations” that says “[a]dults must not lean on students for emotional support, share personal information with students to an inappropriate degree, or engage in any behavior that blurs the lines between adult and student.”

But Mones said that private boarding schools “pride themselves on the informality between the faculty and students,” with teachers inviting students to their homes and taking them to non-school activities.

Hardoon said: “You’ve got students there 24-seven. You’ve got faculty and staff there 24-seven. The opportunity for relationships to develop is much more prevalent. I think the temptations are greater.”

Mones called the schools “the perfect petri dish which allows these kinds of acts to fester and grow because there are no inquiring eyes.”

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