Prestigious US boarding schools shaken by sexual abuse scandals

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island
Published 12.04.2016 18:58
Part of the campus of the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy is seen Monday, April 11, 2016, in Exeter, N.H. (AP Photo)
Part of the campus of the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy is seen Monday, April 11, 2016, in Exeter, N.H. (AP Photo)

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 United States that have long been training grounds for members of the elite in American and overseas.

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.

Schools are now rushing to adopt safeguards and reassure parents while 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. The association says international students make up about 15 percent of enrollment in its schools.

The association announced last week that it is forming an expert task force to develop training and practices for preventing sexual misconduct.

While similar scandals have emerged in the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and a host of other institutions, some alumni and former faculty members say elite boarding schools have certain features that contribute to problems there.

Students live away from home 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. The institutions, many modeled on English boarding schools, 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," 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, recently apologized for decades of abuse and for failing to report it to the proper authorities. 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 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 Episcopal school, whose alumni include Secretary of State John Kerry.

New Hampshire's Phillips Exeter Academy, the alma mater of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, 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."

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.

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