What schools do in response to reports of abuse defines them.

Examples of “doing the right thing” in schools’ letters to the community

When school administrations are confronted with the difficult news that their students were sexually abused by faculty, how did they react?  Most reach out to their communities immediately.  Many set an immediate path to learn, take action and heal.  Some work with groups behind closed doors, while others deal with each reporting victim separately.

At Carolina Friends School, even though the abusers could not be prosecuted, “…the school could still try to unearth the truth, no matter how painful, said Mike Hanas, the current principal.  “As a Friends community, at our best, we ought to be relentlessly truth-seeking.” [1]

From the very first message it sends out, a school defines how students, parents and the public will react, and most important:  if survivors will feel safe enough to overcome fear and shame. Examples from letters illustrate how schools create or discourage healing:

“We are humbled by the strength of our former students who had the courage to share their experiences with us.  …we hired two of the nation’s leading experts on child abuse and sexual misconduct to conduct an independent review… Interviews were conducted with a number of former students, parents, former and current staff, and Board members. The information we gathered was shared with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney.”

“At CFS, we teach our children that it is possible to change the world. Those former students and alumni who shared their experiences with us live that value. They have created the opportunity for communal healing and reconciliation. In doing so, they have made our world better by allowing us to both right a past harm and to improve our care of students going forward.” [2]


Hanas said it is important to be transparent about what happened because a “pernicious” culture of silence can only hurt victims of abuse. [3]


“As I have tried to make sense of what unfolded, I’m struck not only by the failure to ask more questions after these inappropriate activities first came to light but also by the atmosphere of silence and privacy at the School…” – Rebecca Upton, Head of School, Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, Oct 10, 2008.

What matters? Openness and ownership. People think the children don’t understand. I guarantee you they do.  Children smell hypocrisy in the way their school tells the truth – or doesn’t.

The best schools invite a dialogue by making it clear immediately that they…

— “You may access confidential counseling and support by contacting a 24-hour confidential hotline.  Solebury School’s door and inbox are open. You may contact [Head of School] Tom directly at [direct phone number] or click here to email Tom. Click here to communicate information directly to the school. Information may be submitted anonymously through this webpage. You may also contact… child abuse professionals and attorneys” [4]

— Whit Sheppard, on Deerfield’s head of school: “Margarita Curtis responded within hours of receiving my e-mail in June 2012. She displayed a clear moral authority and offered unconditional support from the start. At the end of nearly every conversation we had — more than a dozen over the next several months — she would ask me some version of “Are you doing OK? Is there anything I can do for you?”  She saluted my courage in coming forward and offered a sincere and heartfelt apology on behalf of the school. Hers was the first acknowledgement I had ever received that the school bore some measure of responsibility for my troubling experience there.” [5]

— “It is important that the School have a full and accurate understanding of any misconduct that may have occurred, so that we can do our best to support and protect every former, current, and future member of the School community.” — Eric F. Peterson, Head of School, St. George’s School

Carolina Friends, Buckingham Browne & Nichols, Deerfield, Solebury, St. George’s School, Marlborough, Hotchkiss, and others have been able to speak openly about abuse and encourage victims to speak out.

Survivors need to be heard and when administrators see listening as a liability, reconciliation is narrowly defined and turns litigious. Survivors have already been hurt. They shouldn’t be harmed again by being turned away.


A tepid or ambiguous school response is confusing to everyone.  It feels odd.  It’s not normal communication and enforces silence.  Not taking ownership is a deadly message.

— “…there are two schools to tend to: one facing forward with a lifetime of wonderful memories taking shape, and one with students well past college-age seeking support and leadership beyond what a traditional alumni office offers.”[6]

Translation:  The alumni are some irrelevant adults who need to be redirected.  What of the victims among them?  Is this the invitation you would respond to if you were harmed?

— “Defining our choice as between focusing on the “bad past” or the “good present” is a false choice which only serves the interest of those invested in inertia and denial.  How about this: the only bad things we know about HM’s present are the ways the institution is choosing not to respond to its past.”  (A survivor, on healing)

— Telling parents that abuse “may or may not have happened” despite scores of victims

— Referring to victims reporting abuse as “a group of self‐described alumni ‘survivors’ who report that they were abused by teachers who are no longer at the school.”


Denial is destructive. Choosing not to respond to the past is permanent damage — present and future.    

Even after three years, Horace Mann has yet to say the one thing that matters – the one thing that is truly standard in all communications from other schools right now – that they want to know what happened; that if an alum was harmed they want to know and help, without judgment.

And so there are survivors who have not spoken, who have not been welcomed as they truly are, who see others brought back in the fold to HM.  HM opens its doors to some, not all.  And for those who have yet to speak up, this must hurt. The entire community suffers and it brands the school.

“An independent investigation is so utterly logical, so clearly necessary and apparently so very threatening to the current Board of Trustees that one obvious conclusion that can be drawn is that certain key Board members do not want the truth to be known. Whether they are hoping to hide their own complicity and culpability or that of their predecessors is the only question really still in doubt.”  (An alumna)

[1] Jane Stancill, NewsObserver, July 21st, 2014.  http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/community/durham-news/article10027283.html

[2] Michael Hanas, Carolina Friends School, Letter to Members of the CFS Community, June 11th, 2014.   http://www.friendsseminary.org/podium/push/default.aspx?i=117836&s=27&snd=320fa96b-22a9-4c0e-8ba6-9479e9efd684

[3] Jane Stancill, NewsObserver, June 12th, 2013.  http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/community/chapel-hill-news/article10333604.html#storylink=cpy

[4] Thomas G. Wilschutz, Head, Solebury School; Scott Bolenbaugh, Board Chair, Solebury School; Letter to Community, July 29th, 2014.  http://www.solebury.org/about_solebury/a-letter-to-the-community/index.aspx

[5] Whit Sheppard, ‘What Happened at Deerfield,” Boston Globe, July 21st, 2013.  http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2013/07/20/the-former-deerfield-academy-student-making-sex-abuse-allegations-comes-forward/U5kfi3aik8LGVaHy3h9zmN/story.html

[6] Tom Kelly, Head of School, Horace Mann, Letter to alumni/ae, June 10, 2012, http://www.bergencatholicabuse.com/PDFs/20120610_Horace_Mann_letter.pdf