Exclusive boarding schools face reckoning on sexual abuse
PROVIDENCE, R.I. >> A series of sexual abuse scandals is forcing a reckoning at some of New England's most exclusive boarding schools and sending a shudder through similar institutions around the country that have long been training grounds for members of America's elite.
At St. George's School in Rhode Island, scores of alumni have come forward to complain of being sexually violated by teachers or schoolmates. At St. Paul's in New Hampshire, a rape trial revealed a tradition in which senior boys competed to have sex with younger girls. And at New Hampshire's Phillips Exeter Academy, several graduates have accused faculty members of sexual abuse and other inappropriate behavior.
Those schools and ones that have yet to be touched by scandal are now rushing to adopt safeguards and reassure parents, while also launching internal investigations and asking former students and others to come forward if they know of any misconduct.
"Absolutely, there is a period of intense self-examination happening," said Pete Upham, executive director of the Association of Boarding Schools, an organization of 280 college prep schools, mostly in the U.S. and Canada.
While similar scandals have broken out in the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, ordinary public schools and a host of other institutions, some abuse victims, alumni and former faculty members say there are certain features peculiar to elite boarding schools that contributed to problems there.
For one thing, the students are living away from home in dorms in close proximity to one another and to teachers, and often do not see their parents for months at a time. Students as young as 13 are on their own for the first time. Also, the institutions, many modeled on English boarding schools, often foster a stiff-upper-lip mentality and have a long tradition of upperclassmen hazing younger students.
"It's an environment built on manners and politeness and not talking about sex and money. And there's an environment of being stoic, I guess, and not talking about personal failings. It's an environment about success and competition," said Anne Scott, who played a major role in exposing the abuse at St. George's by telling The Boston Globe last year about being raped repeatedly by the athletic trainer in the 1970s.
St. George's, an Episcopal school near Newport, recently apologized for decades of abuse and for failing to report it to the proper authorities. It hired an independent investigator in January, and victims' lawyers said they are aware of credible reports of rape, fondling or other abuse involving more than 50 victims, with some cases perhaps as recent as 2011.
None of the accusations have resulted in criminal charges, but state police are investigating.
In the St. Paul's case, 2014 graduate Owen Labrie was convicted last year and sentenced to a year in jail for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old freshman girl as part of a competition known around campus as the Senior Salute.
St. Paul's has brought in experts to instruct students about harassment and relationships and has threatened to expel anyone participating in sexual competitions at the 160-year-old Episcopal school, whose alumni include Secretary of State John Kerry, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, at least 13 U.S. ambassadors and three Pulitzer Prize winners.
New Hampshire's Phillips Exeter Academy, which was founded in 1781 and is the alma mater of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and President Franklin Pierce, acknowledged last month that a teacher who was forced into retirement in 2011 had admitted to two cases of sexual misconduct dating back to the 1970s and '80s.
Since the disclosure, police said they have received a number of reports from alumni and are now investigating "sexual misconduct and abuse of students by at least two current or former faculty members." Exeter said it has hired a law firm to investigate.
Seisei Tatebe-Goddu, a 2001 Exeter graduate, said she was troubled to see some faculty members and alumni expressing support for the teacher on Facebook. She said current students approached her to say "there is still a problem, there still needs to be a solution, and the solution needs to happen fast."
"The school needs to take leadership. It needs to set the tone. Without that, you have kids trying to figure it out on their own," she said. "That's not OK."
As for what went wrong, some alumni say the formerly all-boys' schools were unprepared when they began admitting girls. They say students may also be afraid to report abuse, especially if it happened to involve drugs or alcohol, which are often grounds for expulsion.
At St. George's, some alumni recalled an environment where the weak were ridiculed and preyed upon.
A yearbook made a veiled reference to a 1978 case in which a male student was sexually brutalized with a broomstick. Holly Johnson, who graduated in 1995, recalled an incident involving a boy who was repeatedly stuffed into a trashcan. She said a faculty member witnessed it but told her, "Boys will be boys."
"You can make the case that every high school in America has bullies, but they're not living next to them," Johnson said.
Other alums say their time at the school was a positive and unparalleled educational experience. Many have sent their own children there.
Alix Coolidge, a St. George's graduate and current parent, said she sees positive changes in the school's culture. She said her daughter has had repeated opportunities to talk about relationships and there are several counselors on campus.
After the St. Paul's scandal, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, wrote to parents last year about its efforts to combat assault, including holding conversations about sexual behavior and respect for others. Last month, Andover wrote to ask that anyone with information about abuse report it to the school.
The Pomfret School in Connecticut said it, too, is reviewing its policies and campus culture and has hired an investigator to receive reports of wrongdoing. Pomfret's headmaster was formerly an administrator at St. George's and has acknowledged not reporting some of the alleged abuse there to authorities when it came to light more than a decade ago.
And the Association of Boarding Schools announced last week that it is forming an expert task force to develop training and practices for preventing sexual misconduct.
Upham said many boarding schools across the U.S. have actually been working for years to address the problem, especially after the Penn State furor. Among other things, they have adopted more stringent faculty background checks, created tip lines and set aside safe spaces for people to speak up, he said.
The recent scandals appear to have made it easier for people to unburden themselves.
Eric MacLeish, a lawyer for more than 30 alleged victims at St. George's, said he has received recent reports from victims at boarding schools around the country.
"People who thought 'Oh, my god, I was the only one,' all of a sudden they realize they were not alone," he said. "It's sent out shockwaves, and victims are now coming forward."
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