Alumni of private schools are stepping up to hold their school administrations accountable in response to accounts of assault and abuse. Emerging reports reveal a now familiar pattern of inaction, silence and cover up by school leaders. The community is adding another word: complicity.
“Across the archipelago of prep schools clustered mainly in the northeastern United States, a truth-and-reconciliation process is fitfully unfolding as school after school sends letters to alumni acknowledging past abuse and asking if they, too, were abused.”
Alumnae recognize what school administrators haven’t – the accumulated damage from abuse unaddressed, and the systemic conditions still in place which obstruct reporting and enable abuse.
When grads hear the accounts of schoolmates in the news, they have made good use of social media to gather and share their experiences. The larger story begins to emerge. Survivors learn they weren’t alone. In addition, they learn of reports the school received – often cases where the administration failed to act as a pattern begins to take shape. Private schools rarely alert authorities when they get reports of abuse by teachers. Abusers love that. Once a school covers up an incident with an abuser, every next incident is preventable and inexcusable.
Institutions aren’t simply places where abuse may occur – they have contributed to the mess. When schools themselves hide accounts of abuse, they don’t protect children. They make more victims.
Time and again, alumni have joined to demand schools answer to and embody a higher standard .. however long it takes for legislators and the justice system to catch up. What is the public learning about the role of institutions?
“Because really, what says “I am sorry for assaulting you” better than fresh baked bread?” – an alumna
When alumni found that the school had mediated a weekly loaf of bread as “restitution” by an abuser, the outcry was immediate and massive. What they found was chronic mishandling of a legacy of abuse. 1,000 alums signed a letter to withhold donations.
“The men (then Exeter principal Richard Day, several other school leaders on campus and Hank DeSantis, uncle of the victim) all agreed the best way to handle the matter was to “keep it as quiet as possible and make it go away,” according to DeSantis. The police were never mentioned.
St. George’s School:
An example in one school highlights how survivors found they were not alone, joined with alums and the school board together to find a path for reconciliation and healing.
“The school itself acknowledged it did not report the abuse to authorities. Anne Scott, who leads the group SGS for Healing, says it is hard to put into words what it feels like “to receive this kind of validation and support after all these years.”
Leslie Heaney, chair of the board of trustees, said she hopes that the agreement will assist in that healing. “We look forward to continuing to work with our survivor community so that the lessons learned can ensure the safety of our current and future generations of St. George’s students,”
Eric MacLeish, counsel for the claimants, commented, “While no amount of money can make victims whole, today’s settlement says to survivors: ‘This was not your fault, it affected your life in profound ways, it happened at our school, and we are truly sorry for what you have lost.’”
The example at St. George’s shows a school board working *with* survivors and alums to reconcile and heal in a manner that unspoken victims can hear:
“This was never about the money. This was about being heard, and St. George’s realized that what they have done to us in the past is completely wrong,” abuse victim Katie Wales Lovkay said in an interview. “It’s nice to know it’s done, it’s over.”
“To give them this news — people have been in tears,” MacLeish said. “People feel like this is the school recognizing what they went through. So many of these people thought they were the only ones,” he said. “Many of them felt guilty. They thought it was their fault. Many had difficulties with trust, intimacy, even feeling that the abuse was their fault. We had a large group of people who did not tell anybody about their abuse, even their spouses.”
With so many places identified in the news, have any handled it better? The Globe Spotlight team cited 67 schools in New England states, and many more are known throughout the East Coast. Have any handled their legacy with compassion? Yes, Deerfield; Buckingham, Browne & Nichols; Carolina Friends.
The article below should be required reading for anyone interested, especially school administrators. How did the head of school respond? Dr. Margarita Curtis flew to sit down with the survivor in person.
Greater Boston Video: Whit Sheppard Tells His Story
The school continues to work with those alumni harmed.
A NY boarding school is a recent example where details are just emerging. 1,200 alumnae have gathered on social media to support classmates and demand transparency. Though alumnae had been aware of various accounts of misconduct and some alerted board members over the past few years, it took a published account by a brave survivor to mobilize the community into action.
Despite timely reporting, the school provided letters of recommendation for the abuser after firing him for “inappropriate boundaries,” putting other students at risk.
Almost immediately, the alumnae confronted the school administration with a letter outlining 12 specific practices as a roadmap for change and prevention.
The board responded by hiring a law firm to begin an investigation, and found a few of the problems inherent in rebuilding trust with its community. It turned out the firm had worked in 2014 on previously unknown reports of abuse, alumnae had questions about how information they may now bring would be used or disclosed, and whether the school would urge its staff to come forward as well as former students. Each step along the way comes with frustration on all sides, as leaders find that transparency can be (un)seen as being invisible when the community expects change.
Here is the original article which brought pressure from alumnae to examine reporting and prevention:
Schools are being proactive recently, even prior to hearing of past abuse. Choate informed its alumni about efforts to refine policy and practices following the Globe Spotlight report. Has a new awareness taken hold or are schools frightened of being tagged as hiding the past following examples of Poly Prep, Yeshiva, Hackley, Woodward, Fordham and Horace Mann. What these schools have in common is location: New York State.
When Pennsylvania finds decades of abuse in a school, it investigates. When New York finds decades of abuse in a school (and a dozen others), it shrugs.
“As the grand jury investigation into nearly six decades of alleged child sexual abuse by Solebury School faculty continues, some victims are taking their stories to Harrisburg to call for lawmakers to adopt proposed legislation that would expand criminal and civil statute of limitations.”
But despite the lessons learned, legislators in PA and NY folded to pressure from institutions petrified of accountability. Lawmakers in PA gutted recommended reform, deleting the necessary window to identify known abusers still teaching children among the huge backlog of cases created by the short statute of limitations. In NYS, the Child Victims Act didn’t get voted on, as elected reps apparently scrambled to avoid being seen by constituents as protecting abusers. Neighboring states have enacted reforms, with MA extending access to justice for victims and CT actually charging administrators who fail to alert authorities of reported abuse. A commander in Rhode Island put the abuse problem succinctly:
“I think people would look at it and they’d say the school should be held accountable if they knew of the behavior,” says Rhode Island State Police Maj. Joseph F. Philbin, detective commander. “Were the proper people notified of this misconduct? What steps did they take, if any? Was the student body notified? Were the parents of the student body notified?” Philbin said. The failure to report sexual abuse, or known sexual abuse, can be prosecuted as a felony, said Philbin.”
HM is an example of the school with the longest struggle, the largest scope and size of abuse, and sadly the least reconciliation and healing between the community and the administration. Even when confronted with evidence of four decades of sexual abuse, the school refused to investigate. When the administration balked, concerned professionals among grads supported survivors, alumni organized to commission an investigation, joined to raise funds for therapy, and alumni pushed for statute reform. The school may decide to own its past at some point, if only to repair its reputation.
Meanwhile, alumni see the issue as bigger than their school – they wrote a detailed report as a summary of lessons learned for all schools. They defined many of the systemic conditions common to private schools and assembled best practices and findings with the help of nationally recognized experts.
When survivors emerged later at other schools, they had the benefit of some guidance from the path the HM Action Coalition (HMAC) had followed. Lawyers cited examples from our report at MakingSchoolSafe.com and school heads saw the narrative and the pitfalls. Over the next four years, alumni from a score of schools linked up to work together and share resources, as groups had made different progress in the struggle for truth and resolution. Today, the Interschool Network continues to expand with new schools and links with national advocates. We’ve seen the same systemic conditions not just in schools, but in every institution.
Sports authorities have followed the very same betrayal by not alerting authorities and instead, hiding assaults to protect adults, rather than child victims:
How have so many of our institutions continued to enable abuse and assault for so long and hurt so many? Dennis Hastert was #2 in the line of presidential succession. Now he is inmate # 47991-424. Bill Cosby was protected by agents and the industry all around him. The public is just now learning of the ongoing corporate tolerance of years of abuse of women by Roger Ailes. None of this could continue for so long without the muzzling of bystanders and observers, the intimidation of survivors and a culture of silence.
Have we made any progress? Surely, as seen by the examples of those refusing to be silent and the growing awareness of the role of institutions in enabling abuse.
We owe thanks to the survivors who have found the courage to speak up and appreciation to those not yet ready. And to the many alumni who have joined in support and worked behind the scenes. Also,
— To the generous lawyers fighting for justice: Eric MacLeish, Carmen Durso, and Kevin Mulhearn
— To advocates confronting silence: Marci Hamilton, Kathryn Robb, Terri Miller, Jetta Bernier, Bridie Farrell, Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder
— To the journalists and authors revealing truth: Amos Kamil, Marc Fisher, Robert Boynton, Jonathan Saltzman, Ben Wallace, Michael O’Keeffe, Kate Pastor