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MONTPELIER — An attorney for more than 30 survivors of abuse contemplating civil action against the Kurn Hattin Homes for Children presented a timeline of abuse and neglect at the school spanning decades — along with accompanying insufficient oversight by state education, law enforcement and child welfare agencies — to members of the state Senate on Wednesday.

Attorney Kim Dougherty, appearing at a hearing called by three state Senate committees to review state oversight of the residential school in Westminster, laid out a history of abuse by employees and house parents stretching back to the 1950s, and a climate in which student-on-student sexual assault and sexualized behavior was passed down from older students to younger students.

Members of the state Senate are holding the hearings with the goal of learning more about the situation, and what lessons they should apply to state laws and rules governing residential schools from the events that led to Kurn Hattin voluntarily forfeiting its residential therapeutic license — which the Department of Children and Families said it was prepared to rescind — and possibly facing the loss of its independent school license pending the results of an Agency of Education investigation.

WESTMINSTER — Kurn Hattin Homes for Children has voluntarily surrendered its license to provide residential treatment to children. After receiving reports of recent sexual abuse at the …

Dougherty had been asked by Senate leaders to produce a timeline of abuse allegations at the 125-year-old school. The allegations she outlined include:

• In 2019, according to Dougherty, a female student came forward to say she had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by another girl with a toothbrush in the shower. The assailant had threatened to kill the student with a knife if she told anyone what was happening.

• In 2016, a boy was sexually assaulted by another boy, who Dougherty said “had already been identified … as having a propensity for sexual misconduct. Rather than removing him from the facility they put him in our client’s bedroom.”

According to Dougherty, the house parents acknowledged they were aware of the perpetrator acting out specifically so he could be sent to bed at the same time as the victim.

• A 15-year-old cafeteria worker allegedly solicited and obtained nude photos from other students.

But Dougherty also went back as far as the 1950s, detailing physical and sexual abuse of students by staff and house parents, sexual assault of younger children by older children, and sexualized behavior among students.

She noted the “Mark Davis era” of the 1980s in which the former employee, who later pled no contest to molesting students at the school, was allowed to resign in 1988 when allegations of abuse surfaced, and was allowed to return six months later as the spouse of a house parent.

According to one of the survivors Dougherty represents, students would tie bedsheets together before Davis would enter their room so they could escape before he chose to victimize them. “They’d run away and be picked up by state troopers who would bring them back to Kurn Hattin, where they’d be beaten for leaving,” she said.

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During the 1980s, a 12-year-old student was “repeatedly raped” by a staff member, and the house parent and executive director at the time were aware of it, Dougherty said. Their response was arranging for the girl to be fitted with a diaphragm and providing her with birth control pills at graduation, she said.

Another student, a 6-year-old girl, was repeatedly sexually assaulted with doll legs and other objects during the 1980s, Dougherty said.

Dougherty said allegations of student-on-student sexual assaults date back decades. She put the blame on inadequate supervision and improperly grouping teenagers with younger children in the school’s nine residential cottages.

Sexual conduct is not normal behavior for younger children, she said. “They learn these types of behaviors from others.”

School Executive Director Steve Harrison followed Dougherty in Wednesday’s hearing and said she had broken a “confidentiality agreement” by presenting the allegations. But Dougherty replied that nothing in her presentation was subject to a confidentiality agreement or was part of the independent investigation, and that documents were provided through public records requests.

“I have no idea what he was talking about. There’s nothing confidential,” Dougherty said. “Everything presented was public record.”

Dougherty, of Easton, Mass., represents 34 survivors of abuse at Kurn Hattin. Those survivors are cooperating with the school’s own independent investigation into past incidents of abuse.

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“I understand the pain Ms. Dougherty referred to from her clients,” Harrison, the executive director of the 125-year-old residential school, said. “We want to he sensitive to that, open to that ... we’re moving in a direction of trying to hear what they have to say and rectify their concerns.”

Sean Brown, the commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families, commended survivors of the abuse for coming forward to tell their stories.

“I want to take a moment and recognize the courage it took for many of the victims that Kim identified in her presentation to come forward, and for many, to relive the trauma and pain,” Brown said. “It takes tremendous courage.”

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Harrison said the school gave up the license voluntarily after winding down its therapeutic program over several years. That contradicts the narrative offered by DCF Commissioner Sean Brown, who said in September, “Had [Kurn Hattin] not chosen to voluntarily relinquish their residential treatment license, we would have taken it away.” The department’s report cited the school for not promptly reporting some of the allegations of abuse.

Enrollment at the school is 60 children, with 39 from Vermont, 18 from New Hampshire and three from New York, and the school intends to move forward with enrollment of about 60 students, Harrison said. Only one Vermont student is attending on public tuition at present, he said. The school’s mission is serving children and families experiencing “need and instability,” and its finances are solid, Harrison said.

Harrison said the school has been making changes since his arrival, including training on mandatory reporting of suspected abuse, and invited senators to visit unscheduled at any time to see what the school is about for themselves. He said the school has been repeatedly recognized as a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports school of merit.

START OF A LONG PROCESS

It’s the first of what Senate leaders believe will be many hearings into the issues. “We’re at the tip of a very large iceberg,” state Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, said of the process. Lyons, the chair of the Senate Health and Welfare committee, was joined by state Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion, both D-Bennington, in questioning witnesses.

From their questions, it was apparent senators are concerned as to who in state government is monitoring the school.

The Department of Children and Families no longer has jurisdiction over Kurn Hattin now that its residential therapeutic license has been forfeited. The agency is still empowered to investigate allegations of abuse or neglect, but cannot disclose such investigations or their details. That’s according to Jennifer Benedict, the agency’s director of residential licensing and special investigations, and Jennifer Myka, DCF’s general counsel.

While the Agency of Education is investigating whether to rescind the school’s independent school license, it has done so remotely due to COVID-19 protocols, Education Secretary Daniel French and Agency of Education general counsel Emily Simmons said.

Asked by Campion whether she was confident that students at Kurn Hattin are safe, Simmons said “we have confidence in our DCF partners and law enforcement to do their jobs.”

The agency is doing its job to assure compliance to the laws that apply to independent schools, but child protection or criminal laws are not within the agency’s orbit, Simmons said. “But if we find anything not known we will be forwarding that information” to relevant agencies, Simmons said.

After the hearing, Dougherty expressed concerned about the lack of direct agency supervision.

“Clearly there’s a past history of problems. Now for it to be left unregulated without oversight, with 50 children there — that’s a problem that needs to be regulated,” she said.

Benedict, questioned by Sears and Lyons, laid out the timeline of when and how DCF came to investigate Kurn Hattin. She said investigators had visited in 2017, and started having “a very clear discussion” with the school that it was “apparent it was not functioning as a residential treatment program.” The decision was made to extend the license a year, which would also give the school time to complete accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

A follow-up was set for 2019, and at that time, “because they were not in form or function operating as a residential treatment program,” the decision was made to agree upon license closure, Benedict said.

Campion released a statement after the hearing. “Today’s testimony was deeply disturbing,” he said. “There appears to have been a breakdown in the controls and oversight. I am committed to get to the truth of this matter and to create systems that will prevent this from happening again.”

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.