Monday, April 18, 2016

Prep Schools Wrestle With Sex Abuse Accusations Against Teachers

Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite New Hampshire boarding school whose prominent graduates include Daniel Webster and Mark Zuckerberg, disclosed last month that it had forced out a popular teacher in 2011 because of sexual misconduct in the 1970s and ’80s.

The school’s delayed announcement — officials said they had been protecting the victims’ privacy — brought forth allegations against other employees. And on Wednesday, Exeter announced that it had fired a second teacher who had admitted to sexual encounters with a student more than two decades ago.

The revelations at Exeter are the latest to rock the insular, privileged world of American prep schools. In the past decade, sex abuse allegations have tarnished a litany of top private schools, including Horace Mann in the Bronx, Deerfield Academy in western Massachusetts and the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. Since December, more than 40 alumni of St. George’s School, an elite boarding school in Rhode Island, have reported several cases of molestation and rape, mostly in the 1970s and ’80s.

Sexual misconduct is, of course, not limited to select private schools. Educators say that it occurs with alarming frequency across all types of educational institutions. [...]

A 2004 analysis of the scant research on sex abuse estimated that 9.6 percent of students in public schools experience some form of educator sexual misconduct, ranging from offensive comments to rape, between kindergarten and 12th grade.

“Boarding schools are fertile ground for predatory behavior, mostly because you’re with the kids all the time,” said Eric MacLeish, a lawyer representing several alumni who say they were sexually abused at St. George’s.

“It is accepted that teachers will get very, very close to students as they become mentors,” he said. “They work out together, eat together, take trips together, go to Europe together with the school choir. Many live on campus and are dorm parents.”

Hawk Cramer, 48, an elementary school principal in Seattle who said he was molested by a faculty member at St. George’s when he was a student there in the early 1980s, agreed that the unfettered access to students at boarding schools can allow a pedophile to groom victims.

“You can call kids into your home, you can be alone with them, and kids think you have control over their future,” he said.

And students are loath to report the abuse, at least in real time. “Students are embarrassed and under huge pressure to perform,” Mr. Cramer said. “They don’t want anyone to think they aren’t measuring up or that they’re a victim.”[...]

“I do think a lot of schools are grappling now in a way they haven’t before with what are the best practices in terms of providing safety and enough prevention, training and education,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. [...]

He and others attributed the changes in part to liability concerns stemming from the explosive Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal at Penn State in 2011. Mr. Sandusky, a coach who was convicted of abusing 10 boys over 15 years, has cost the university more than $92 million in settlement costs.

More recently, the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” an account of The Boston Globe’s exposé of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-up, may be spurring a new round of reporting. [...]

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