Private schools, painful secrets

Jenn Abelson, Bella English, Jonathan Saltzman, and Todd Wallack, with editors Scott Allen and Amanda Katz, Private schools, painful secrets. The Boston Globe, 6 May 2016. “More than 200 victims. At least 90 legal claims. At least 67 private schools in New England. This is the story of hundreds of students sexually abused by staffers, and emerging from decades of silence today.”

So far this year, at least eight New England private schools have launched or disclosed sexual misconduct investigations. At least five of the probes — at St. George’s School in Rhode Island, Taft School in Connecticut, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Thayer Academy in Braintree, and Concord Academy in Concord — have led to staff members being placed on administrative leave or fired.

The troubles go way beyond those institutions. At least 67 private schools in New England have faced accusations since 1991 that staffers sexually abused or harassed more than 200 students, the Spotlight Team found through an examination of court cases, as well as interviews with alumni, relatives, school officials, and attorneys.

At least 90 lawsuits or other legal claims have been filed on behalf of the alleged victims, and at least 37 school employees were fired or forced to resign because of the allegations. In addition, nearly two dozen eventually pleaded guilty or were convicted on criminal charges of abusing children or related crimes.

The Globe also found 11 cases in which private school employees who were accused of sexual misconduct went on to work at other schools — an echo of the Catholic church scandal in which abusive priests were often moved to other parishes. At St. George’s School alone, at least three staff members accused of misconduct have gone on to jobs where they faced subsequent sexual misconduct allegations involving children, including one teacher accused in a lawsuit of abusing a teenager in Hawaii.

Large as those numbers of cases and victims are, they almost certainly underestimate the problem. No central database exists of allegations against private school employees, who are typically not required to be licensed. And schools often keep the reports confidential, even when payments are made to alleged victims. And it can sometimes take decades for survivors of sexual abuse to find the strength to come forward, if they do so at all….

There is no research available on the prevalence of abuse at private schools and whether it is more common than in public schools, where one federal study found nearly 10 percent of students are targets of unwanted sexual attention by educators in grades K-12. But boarding schools, in particular, present unique opportunities for educators to have close contact with students. Students often go weeks or months without seeing their families, while spending time with staff before and after classes and living alongside them in dorms.

The schools, many with rich histories and famed alumni, have often struggled to balance the need to respond robustly to abuse allegations with a desire to guard their reputations. Historically, few allegations were reported to law enforcement, and many schools avoid publicizing them even today. Getting past the schools’ reticence is a challenge; because these are private institutions, they are exempt from public records laws. And when the Globe sent surveys to 224 private schools on their experience with sexual misconduct allegations, only 23 — about 10 percent — chose to reply.

Survivors of abuse are now trying to change this culture, simply by telling their stories….

The question of when and what to report is not always straightforward. Educators and individuals such as health care professionals are required to report suspected child abuse to state welfare officials under mandated reporting laws, but even state agencies can differ on what that means in practice. In Rhode Island, the attorney general’s office told the Globe that schools must report every allegation of sexual or physical child abuse, including by school employees, to the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families within 24 hours. But the child welfare agency said the law generally only requires schools to report abuse by parents and guardians, not by teachers.

Some are pushing efforts nationally, including in Massachusetts, to prevent schools from allowing problem teachers to move from institution to institution….

For all the investigations, some survivors feel there still needs to be a more comprehensive look at how independent schools operate.

“I wish there would be a deeper conversation about behavior, about culture, about signs of someone who is being abused and how to respond to that,” said Anne Scott, the St. George’s alumna. “There’s an important opportunity for independent schools right now. It is not about protecting the image. It’s about using this as an opportunity to transform how we talk about and deal upfront with something that all these years we’ve buried.”