“I thought, this is exactly what happened to me... He's still doing it.”
May 9, 2016 11:55 AM   Subscribe

Private schools, painful secrets. More than 200 students have been victims of sexual abuse and harassment at New England private schools since the 1950’s. At least 90 students or their families have filed lawsuits or other legal claims. At least 67 private schools in New England have been affected by allegations of sexual abuse by employees disclosed over the past 25 years. The Boston Globe's Spotlight team investigates. CW: The link contains content regarding molestation and sexual abuse that is likely SFW for most but some may find disturbing.
posted by zarq (22 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

Just to note, if I'm reading correctly, the 200 students / 90 lawsuits / 67 schools / 37 employees appears to be just during the 25-year period since 1991 and earlier incidents mentioned in the article are in addition to those.
posted by XMLicious at 12:30 PM on May 9, 2016

The same team of reporters that got the ball rolling back in 2002 with the Catholic Church in Boston.
posted by Melismata at 12:49 PM on May 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

I attended a New England Roman Catholic private/prep boarding school in the late '80s. A couple of years after I graduated I was told that the live-in chaplain who had presided over the spiritual life of the student body during my enrollment at said institution was arrested for solicitation of an underaged male prostitute. I don't recall ever hearing any rumors or anything about this guy during my time there, but I wasn't particularly wired into the zeitgeist either, so...?? The school was coed but predominantly male so there was opportunity and presumably motive...

The New England private school is a pretty dissolute animal, it doesn't surprise me in the least that the Globe's Spotlight team has uncovered this. They certainly wouldn't need to dig particularly deep.

(cue the intro to the Pixies' "I'm Amazed")
posted by the painkiller at 12:50 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

A good and necessary report. The Fessenden School story is straight-up horror story, with St.Georges being not far behind. From my perspective today I don't understand boarding school (anymore).

We all kind of knew all there was to know about each other, at the boarding school I went to. And though there were some events which today squick me out, nothing ever 'happened.' Not that got out into the wider gossip mill and - really - you live with these people 24/7 for weeks and months and years at a time, with a little bit of prodding, we all knew what the what was with everybody. Or at least, we thought we did. I loathe finding out that, that we only thought we did and really - X and Y weren't just old bachelors.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:05 PM on May 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was expecting these incidents to be from when the schools were single-sex, before going coeducational. The reason being that all the reported survivors are male. But I am sure there are female survivors out there. I went to one of these schools (not one of the ones with a publicized problematic history) for high school in the late 90's. I remember jokes about one of the female students sleeping with one of the teachers. I have no idea if they had any basis in reality, but it would not surprise me in the slightest if there were male teachers assaulting (both violently and due to an inability on the part of the student to grant consent) female students. There was a precedent for teachers to invite students (both male and female) into their apartments to work with them. I wonder why there is a dearth of women reporting this sort of thing happened to them.

I would also add that the events recounted happened when the schools were bastions of homophobia (I watched the one I was in get better during the four years I was there). That could not have helped the students or made it easier to report.
posted by Hactar at 1:09 PM on May 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Poly Prep, Brooklyn, NY.

At the time (mid 80s) I remember thinking "Wow; those guys got to go to Florida w/ Coach over spring break. That must have been cool."

My lack of drive & abundance of bench-time may have saved me from more sports-related hazards than just concussions.

East Coast prep schools; Mos Eisley Spaceports w/ varsity sweaters.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:21 PM on May 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

My lack of drive & abundance of bench-time may have saved me from more sports-related hazards than just concussions.

Damn. You were very lucky.

At Stuyvesant I interned with Richard Plass for a year. I wasn't there very long before two different teachers suggested that I could come to them if I saw him do or say anything inappropriate. The problem was, he used to talk about how hot/sexy/underdressed kids were, etc., all the time in his office behind closed doors. No one (including me) dared to go on the record with a complaint.

We should have.
posted by zarq at 1:43 PM on May 9, 2016 [9 favorites]

That's a hell of a good movie. But, I wouldn't call it fun to watch.
posted by Bee'sWing at 2:28 PM on May 9, 2016

Hactar, I was curious about the same thing so I used the drop-down menu to see what it said for Miss Porter's - they had a teacher go to prison for sexually assaulting a student, among others.
posted by Aubergine at 2:42 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

The movie adaption is good and should be seen.

Jesus, that's a hell of a cast.

(Not really commenting on the article because flames on the side of my face)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:11 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

There was a precedent for teachers to invite students (both male and female) into their apartments to work with them. I wonder why there is a dearth of women reporting this sort of thing happened to the

I went to a co-ed boarding school slightly south of the those listed.

Male teachers that had sexual relations with female students were usually quietly fired. Female students were asked to quietly withdraw. Student gossip being what it was, it was usually the female students who were blamed for seducing/ getting popular teachers fired.

While I was a student (in the early 1990s), a well-liked older teacher was accused of abuse by a girl friend of mine. The administration's initial reaction was to accuse her of lying and threaten to expel her as an honor code violation. When she came back with a lawyer and testimony from several other alumna who had suffered the same (or worse) at the hands of the same teacher, the school "allowed" the teacher to "quietly retire." My friend graduated and never returned. The teacher came back for alumni weekend events, where he was cheered and celebrated until he finally passed away. This is at least one very large reason why I will never contribute to their annual fund.
posted by Ask A Sockpuppet at 4:21 PM on May 9, 2016 [20 favorites]

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.

Then shut them down. They and their administrators and patrons are a threat to children if they have "struggled" with reporting abuse to law enforcement.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 5:23 PM on May 9, 2016 [10 favorites]

As someone who was raped in a private boys boarding school in Edmonton, and had no one believe me, and no justice being served...it was not the rape that was as traumatizing, as was the heirachal games, the petty cruelty.

there was physical violence, but it's kind of hard to work out how to explain the tension. the trauma was not having a teacher in power spank you because that was heavily ritualized, and could be put into context...it was having students beat you, or have a teacher drag you out of bed, or force you to run until you vomit, or push you into the snow...

never knowing what is coming next.

being caught b/w the unstable violence and the expected violence...
posted by PinkMoose at 8:40 PM on May 9, 2016 [6 favorites]

That's gotta be massively underreported.

I've been thinking about this recently. High schools are a festering issue w/r/t sexual predation and molestation. In my own high school career, I personally remember hearing of two teachers who, according to accounts by fellow students, crossed boundaries inappropriately. I didn't report them or any such thing because, at the time, it seemed like common knowledge that some teachers were 'creepy' and it was completely unremarkable to students; there are also all the social pressures against "making a fuss," "creating an issue," etc. But as I look back and wonder what substance there might have been to those allegations - with all the adult, middle-aged awareness that it's not at all unlikely - I feel like secondary education, in public as well as private schools, has harbored a disturbing number of predators. Almost every time the subject comes up in adult conversation, not a person in the room doesn't have a story about the 'creepy' teacher or coach who was never asked to leave, who retired with honors, who no one could muster the social capital to go up against because the power differentials are so very great.
posted by Miko at 8:58 PM on May 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

Not completely unrelated, The Master, a story about a charismatic and predatory teacher at Horace Mann in the Bronx. It's a sick story - the teacher wrote back to the magazine to suggest they were too dumb to understand the enlightened relationships he was conducting.
posted by Miko at 9:01 PM on May 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

And just like that, a sequel to Spotlight gets greenlit.

Seriously though, I can only hope that the increasing media exposure emboldens survivors of molestation at other institutions to come forward in large numbers. We're obviously looking at the tip of an iceberg here.
posted by jklaiho at 12:40 AM on May 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

I went to a similar boarding school. I am very lucky that I was treated with kindness and dignity by all of my teachers. But I had a pedophile's hands on me every time I saw the doctor. As a girl, though, I was not in his wheelhouse, and he regarded me with the gruff disinterest I thought was normal for his generation of doctors. I did not know -- until a few years ago, when everyone knew -- that the boys muttered and joked among themselves about Dr. Keller.

There was also a popular teacher expelled for enticing children at the time I was there, but I do not believe that he shat where he ate. Among the kids, it was as much a joke as a scandal, because a certain cruel joking is what you do to get through a school like that. Opponents at our games taunted us with "Pumpkin Man" masks.

All of the alumni received an email yesterday referring to this article, and urging us to come forward with anything we might know and wish the administration to address. I have a notion to write them and thank them for this proactive stance, asking them not to forget to use this time to take measures to prevent sexual abuses among the students themselves. The teachers were kind to me. The teachers are not why I was sobbing in therapy fifteen years later.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:47 AM on May 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

We just watched Spotlight, the movie, the other day. I'm glad to know the team still exists. I was feeling sort of elegaic about the decline of investigative journalism.
posted by not that girl at 10:01 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

One of my kids is a gymnast, so among other gymnastics news I'm aware that there have been a number of cases in the past year of sexual abuse by coaches, including one local to us, though not at our kid's gym.

What I take away from all these stories—and from my own experience of sexual harassment by teachers in middle and high school back in the late 70s and early 80s—is that any time you gather kids together and put them in the control of a relatively small number of adults, the risk of abuse is very high. But the risk of sexual abuse in the home, by relatives, is also very high.

So. What's the underlying pathology here? How can it be addressed? How does it relate to patterns of authority, abuse of authority, disempowerment of young people, punishment (or lack of) for abuses of power?

I wrote this when I learned about the local coach who'd been arrested:

Another gymnastics coach has been convicted of sexual abuse of a minor. There have been at least 5 or 6 cases in the past year. This one is local, though not at TT's gym. One of the questions I'm planning to ask at TT's coach conference today is what the gym is doing to protect coaches and gymnasts. I'm thinking about the kind of precautions that are in place in preschools and daycares—like at TT's preschool, where an adult and kid couldn't be alone together, so, for instance, if they were playing outside and a kid needed to go to the bathroom, the kid would invite a "bathroom buddy" to come along.

I recently read a former gymnast's story of finding out about sexual abuse by her coach during the time she was in the gym. She wasn't targeted, and didn't know about it at the time, but she noted that the coach targeted girls who were almost-but-not-quite in the top tier. She said that there were girls who were clearly "contenders," and girls who clearly weren't, and the coaches targeted girls who didn't fall into either of those categories, but might become contenders if they had a little extra help and support, who were therefore anxious about their positions, and vulnerable to feeling flattered by the attention.

I think a lot about how hard it is for young people to speak up when something makes them uncomfortable. My own experience with male teachers being creepy or harassing began in eighth grade with a teacher who commented a lot on how much he liked my shirts while staring at my chest, and continued with one teacher in high school who was creepy to me personally, and two who were more globally creepy to the class as a whole (like a gym teacher who, during stretches, would say things like, "c'mon girls, we know you get them farther apart for your boyfriends on Saturday night"). I never said anything to an adult because I wasn't sure it was wrong; because it was just one variety of asshole/abusive teacher that I'd encountered, so clearly asshole/abusive teachers were an accepted norm; and because I had that variety of uncertainty about male attention where it was maybe flattering? or maybe not? and maybe it meant you were attractive? but maybe paradoxically it actually meant you weren't? And if you were to say, "Mr. Stevens stares at my chest all the time," maybe the reaction would be "don't flatter yourself" and it would almost certainly be some form of "so what?" Also, my mother had more than once, in middle school, succeeded in getting me moved out of a classroom where a teacher's behavior was inappropriate—including one teacher who was physically violent toward the boys in the class—but the teacher just kept on teaching, so I'd learned a lesson there as well.
posted by not that girl at 10:11 AM on May 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

I never said anything to an adult because I wasn't sure it was wrong

Yeah, I think this is probably pretty common. I mean, when I look back and ask myself why I didn't say anything about the creepy teachers I'd heard about (nothing happened to me directly in school) it just didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary, that would be taken seriously. This seems to point for a need for culture change. Are there any schools where kids are told, in some age-appropriate way, that they deserve to be treated with respect and that teachers should not be making innuendos, sexual jokes, spending too much time with them alone, etc., - and that if that seems to be happening, they should tell someone? Also, what about the teacher community? One of the worst things about teaching is how often you work alone, with no other adult in sight. Unless someone is observing you, which is rare, you're running your own show, and in between times you're in charge of your own time, for the most part. The isolation of teaching isn't only a burnout risk, it's an abuse risk, since adults aren't observing one another close up too often.
posted by Miko at 12:12 PM on May 10, 2016

And if you were to say, "Mr. Stevens stares at my chest all the time," maybe the reaction would be "don't flatter yourself" . . .

Our societal messaging works to make girls believe they are unattractive. No amount of radiant beauty can entirely protect a girl from these messages. This idea leaves girls wide open to the charms of the first asshole who comes along who will praise their looks. It is one of patriarchy's better installed levers.

Even positive action has a blast radius. It occurs to me that, as a teenager, I never discussed, much less complained about, the bad things that happened to me because I was afraid of losing my freedoms. I was certain that if I told anyone, "this happened to me when I was [doing a thing]," the response would have been, "my God, you are never [doing a thing] by yourself again." Being independent and tough was, supposedly, my deal. It is supposed to be the deal for everyone who goes to a boarding school like one of these. I didn't dare let on that I wasn't.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:49 PM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

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