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Private schools kept decades of sexual abuse secret

May 9, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Startling allegations of sexual abuse in private schools have surfaced over the past few years. At least eight schools in New England have launched or disclosed sexual abuse investigations this year alone; according to a new Boston Globe report, some 67 schools in the region have faced similar accusations since 1991. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Todd Wallack of the Boston Globe.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: The past couple of years have brought new revelations about sexual abuse at private schools. At least eight private schools in New England have launched or disclosed investigations this year.

Now a Boston Globe investigation has opened a wider window on the scope of the problem. The report done by the Spotlight unit that exposed the sexual abuse scandal in the church found at least 67 New England schools have faced accusations since 1991. The Globe also found more than 200 former students say they have been assaulted or harassed, and years of alleged cover-ups in some cases.

St. George’s School in Rhode Island is one school under investigation.

Anne Scott is a survivor who was allegedly raped in 1977 at the school by a former athletic trainer when she was 15. Her family later brought a lawsuit, but the Globe said the school fought back with its own suit and pressured her to sign a gag order.

Here’s part of what she told The Globe.

ANNE SCOTT, Abuse Survivor: They really turned hostile and were trying to come after that, deposing all our neighbors, deposing all my roommates, all community members.

So, I got shocked. I wasn’t as strong then, I think, to put it in context, as I am now. And it became a lot of pressure. I just said, no amount of money is worth tearing my family apart.

When you are assaulted as a child and a victim of rape, you lose your voice. You lose your soul. You are sort of destroyed as a person, your confidence, your self-image. And the gag order just seals all that in.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The trainer died in 1996.

Lawyers for victims now say as many as 50 alumni from the school were abused, mostly by staff.

Todd Wallack is a member of the Spotlight team, joins me now.

So, give us an idea of how widespread this is. This isn’t just a couple of private schools in New England.

TODD WALLACK, The Boston Globe: No, it’s much wider than a lot of us ever imagined.

We originally started reporting on this after Anne Scott, the survivor you featured, broke her silence, broke the gag order and spoke out about the abuse that she suffered at St. George’s in December. And that prompted other victims to come forward, many after decades and decades where they had kept this secret.

And we started building a list. And it kept getting longer and longer. Some were reported before individually. Others hadn’t. We looked through lawsuits. We talked to lawyers. Since our story on Sunday, we have been getting flooded with tips about additional schools, showing that we have not even captured the full scope of all the abuse that’s gone on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Given by the nature of their name, private schools, they are private institutions, do they have to report alleged — or abuse by teachers to the state, like public schools do?

TODD WALLACK: Generally, in public schools, teachers are required to be licensed, and they’re overseen by licensing agencies that can publicly discipline them and let other people be aware of potential problems.

That isn’t true with private schools, which generally don’t have to license their educators. They’re also not subject to public records law. They’re not overseen by public school boards with open meetings laws.

So a lot of this information is kept secret. They are able to sign confidentiality agreements. And for that reason, it allows a lot of the abuse to remain secret. It potentially allows abusers to go to other schools.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There were actually abusers that were moving from school to school, but the parents in these new schools, or the faculty, nobody actually knew that.

TODD WALLACK: Yes, exactly.

There was a person that worked at St. George’s, for instance, George (sic) Thompson, who had been accused by, I believe, a dozen students of inappropriate touching, went to another school, Taft, a few years ago with great recommendations. And Taft had no idea that he had been previously subject to those allegations.

St. George’s hadn’t told the state, and said at the time they didn’t realize. It was — fell under the definition of sexual abuse and needed to be reported. And we found 11 people who had been accused went on to other schools.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what do the schools say? What is their rationale or justification for taking so long to go public with this information?

TODD WALLACK: Well, in some cases, schools will say a lot of these abuses happened in the ’60s or ’70s or ’80s, and they now know more about how to handle it than they once did.

Some will say that sexual abuse allegations are very tricky. They want to respect the privacy of the victims. They want to also be cognizant that they can’t always prove allegations. In a lot of cases, you have an alumnus who makes some accusation, and the staffer is the only other person who was in the room, and the staffer denies it.

So they say they’re trying to be careful about not ruining somebody’s career. Some of those students who have been abused say they are too worried about their reputation and wish they had done more to at least tell the community about the allegations and find out whether there are other students Wanting to come forward.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe, thanks so much.

TODD WALLACK: Thank you. Appreciate it.

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