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Breaking The Cycle Of Sexual Abuse Of Students By Prep School Teachers

Gary Waters
Ikon Images/Getty Images

When it comes to sexual assault of students, some say private secondary schools are still being a little too private about how they handle misconduct.

A recent Boston Globe investigation found hundreds of students were allegedly abused by teachers and staff at scores of New England prep schools since the 1950s. Many of the perpetrators were quietly let go, and then moved on to re-offend at other schools.

To many who've been through private boarding schools, the stories of sexual abuse comes as little surprise. There are not only more opportunities for misconduct with kids at school day and night, but also, arguably more pressure on elite, competitive prep schools to keep such problems private.

"That's just how it is," says Maggie Fitzgerald, who enrolled at the Williston Northampton School in western Massachusetts five years ago as it was being sued for trying to cover up a teacher's sexual misconduct with a student. The news didn't dissuade her. "I mean, every boarding school has come out that they've had one of these scandals. I mean, how was I supposed to find a school that hadn't?" she asks.

That case eventually settled. Just last year, another faculty member resigned after it came out that he had a relationship with a student in the 1970s. Former administrators knew about it but kept promoting him anyway.

"It reminds me of the Catholic Church," Fitzgerald says. "[There's] an air of 'Let's keep this quiet [to] protect our brand.' "

Not Enough Change

Current Williston administrators have apologized, noting that times have changed, and schools everywhere have since changed their ways. But some say, not enough.

"If you're asking me if I believe there are instances where people duck under table here and push things to the side, I'm quite sure things like that happen regularly, still," says Paul Reville, the former secretary of education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and now a professor at Harvard's graduate school of education.

"Private schools who depend on the tuition of paying customers would rather not raise concerns so that becomes rationale for, 'Well, let's just get it off stage with as little fanfare as possible,' " he says.

Attorneys for survivors of sexual abuse say they will often discover, after the fact, that schools let an employee go under a confidential deal that requires both sides to keep quiet.

"Schools that have a problem teacher fairly frequently say, 'Look, if you resign quietly and go somewhere else, we'll give you a reference saying that you were teacher here and we won't say anything beyond that,'" says Boston attorney Carmen Durso.

Breaking The Cycle

The practice is known as "passing the trash." Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, is pushing a bill aimed at stopping it, by mandating better vetting of teachers in both private and public schools. Modeled on laws that have passed in other states, the bill would require a school who's hiring to specifically ask former employers if an applicant was ever investigated for sexual misconduct. The applicant would have to sign a waiver so his or her former bosses could answer, without worrying about getting sued for defamation.

"We need not be playing games around child protection," Bernier says. "We need to make sure that our schools put the protection of children first."

But some teachers have objected.

"I think that putting children's safety first shouldn't mean that due process rights for teachers shouldn't also be considered," says Matt O'Connor, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers in Connecticut, where a similar bill recently passed. The union has protested to the fact that unproven allegations would remain on a teacher's record, arguing that leaves teachers effectively "presumed guilty."

"Simply having claims against them is then used against them," O'Connor says, "so it is a very unfair burden being placed on innocent teachers."

Many private schools declined to comment for this report. But Peter Upham, head of the Association of Boarding Schools, concedes administrators are in a tough spot when trying to deal with suspicions that haven't been substantiated.

"It gets a little murkier in terms of how a school properly fulfills its ethical obligation" to alert other schools about unproven allegations, Upham says, "because believe me, there's defamation lawsuits coming."

' A No-Man's Land'

Private schools are also vulnerable to getting blindsided by a candidate with a checkered past, since most don't require teachers to have a state certification or license to teach as public schools do. That means private schools also can't access the national database that tracks teachers who've lost certification due to misconduct.

"If they don't require certification, then they are in a no-man's land, " says Phillip S. Rogers, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, the nonprofit that runs the database.

For example, Rogers says, if a teacher lost his certification because of misconduct at his most recent job, he could simply leave the school off his resume, and a private school might never know to check there for a reference.

Rogers says the group is considering allowing private schools to start using the database next year.

It's hardly a perfect system, Rogers says, but it would help private schools at least have the same information that public schools do. "It's really meant to be a trigger, so then they would know who they needed to call," he says.

The Association of Boarding Schools says it would welcome that. But Upham says what's really needed is a database that covers not only certified teachers, but also everyone who works with kids, including in camps and scouting and church groups. Otherwise, he says, there will always be holes in the system that will allow some bad apples to move around undetected.

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Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.
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