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.
Julie C. Fay, a lawyer with Shipman & Goodwin, who works with private schools, said the primary concern among the heads of school she has worked with has been: “What’s the right thing to do to protect the wishes of any victim? To protect the privacy of any victim?”
“You can’t go back and erase the past, but I think schools are taking their responsibility very seriously to do what they can for their current students and for their alumni,” Fay said.
“There’s been a general raising of consciousness in this area, recognizing that the way things have been handled in the past is not how we would handle it today” — coupled with the attitude: “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
The investigation showed that, when reports of sexual misconduct were substantiated by Choate, the matter was “handled internally and quietly.” Even if a teacher was fired or resigned in the middle of the school year, the report said, “the rest of the faculty was told little and sometimes nothing about the teacher’s departure and, when told, was cautioned to say nothing about situation if asked.”
But in the past two years, many prep schools, including Choate, have asked their students and alumni to come forward with any allegations of sexual abuse and have moved toward greater transparency.
Loomis Chaffee in Windsor took similar action, hiring an independent law firm and, in January, issuing a letter to the school community saying the firm received reports of employee sexual misconduct dating back as far as the 1940s, and through the early 2000s. The misconduct ranged from sexual advances to sexual abuse.
Loomis did not release its entire report, however. Lynn Petrillo, a spokeswoman for the school said in an email, “We communicated all we felt was necessary and appropriate to communicate in this matter in the January 10 letter summarizing the report’s findings.”
Last year, Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford told alumni that there was “credible evidence” that faculty members engaged in sexual relationships with students during the 1970s and 1980s. The investigation grew out of an unsigned letter circulated among alumni. Some teachers and coaches named in the letter went on to positions at other private schools, including schools in Connecticut.
“These former faculty members did not uphold the principles and values of the school, and the school is profoundly sorry for their transgressions,” said a letter to alumni from Kingswood Oxford Head of School Dennis Bisgaard, and I. Bradley Hoffman, the chairman of the school’s board of trustees.
Choate has confined its comments on the report to a statement and a letter sent from Alex Curtis, the headmaster, and Michael J. Carr, chairman of the board of trustees, saying that with the investigation and report, the school has taken “a large step forward in understanding the school’s past, as deeply disturbing as that step has been.”
“We honor and thank the survivors of sexual misconduct who came forward,” the letter says. “We extend our deepest apologies most specifically to all survivors of sexual misconduct and their loved ones.”
The school has established an independent therapy fund to assist alumni who experienced adult sexual misconduct at Choate and has retained national experts to help develop better policies and practices.
Loomis’s comments were limited to a letter from Sheila Culbert, head of school, and Christopher K. Norton, chairman of the board of trustees, that detailed “credible reports” of sexual assault by one teacher, sexual abuse by another, and sexual misconduct by a third.
“As we considered the report and its findings, it is clear that the school should have handled some situations better,” the letter said. “We did not report every instance of misconduct; we provided references for a small number of employees who had violated boundaries with students; and when we became aware of past abuse, we did not always follow up with an investigation.”
Often in the past, said Hardoon, the lawyer, prep schools would “lock themselves down in bunker defense mode” when a victim spoke up, and would turn against the victim. “The victims often were the ones that would wind up being alienated, getting drummed out of school because of the way it was handled,” he said, while “the perpetrator ends up not paying any price.”
The fear had always been that releasing such information would sully a school’s reputation, Hardoon said, but school leaders see now that hiding what happened and hoping to escape scrutiny “becomes a far bigger public relations nightmare for them” if it is eventually discovered.
Hardoon said “the more enlightened” schools are starting to see that there’s a better way to handle allegations.
“Protect the institution at all cost is still the mantra,” Hardoon said, but “they’ve come to see that the best way to protect the institution is to, basically, stand up and acknowledge what might have happened and try to fix it as best they can.”
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.”