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As attitudes change, more report sexual abuse at schools

The spotlight on the Penn State sex abuse scandal, perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky (above, in October), may have served to help other victims come forward.

Pat Little/Reuters

The spotlight on the Penn State sex abuse scandal, perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky (above, in October), may have served to help other victims come forward.

Last summer, a graduate of the Landmark School in Beverly demanded that the school inves­tigate past abuse allegations, asking a counselor at the school, “Do you want to be ­Paterno?”

In January, the Brooks School in North Andover disclosed that the former headmaster had an improper relationship with a student.

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Two weeks ago, Deerfield Academy in Western Massachusetts announced that a former faculty member had admitted to sexual contact with a student in the 1980s and urged any other victims to come forward.

The series of startling revelations, which has embroiled the schools in controversy and put them under unfamiliar scrutiny, exposes the hidden neglect of past decades and the cost of placing reputation and prestige over the well-being of children, abuse specialists say.

But the recent reports also reflect a growing awareness of child sexual abuse, particularly in the aftermath of the high-profile scandal at Penn State University, and the fading stigma surrounding sexual crimes.

“More allegations are coming to light in every setting, and survivors are drawing inspiration and courage from them,” said Jetta Bernier, executive ­director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, a leading children’s advocacy group. ­“Society is beginning to understand these cases are happening with far-too-frequent regularity.”

Schools are also handling alle­gations with greater urgency and openness, say those who work with abuse victims. The Brooks School, for instance, disclosed the improper relationship in an e-mail to alumni and parents, describing former headmaster Lawrence Becker’s conduct as “objectionable, manip­ulative, and an abuse of his ­position.”

Brooks officials also acknowledged that the head of the board of trustees at the time, former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, did not ­involve authorities when the ­relationship came to light.

At Deerfield, the most recent case, the school disclosed the sexual contact on its website.

Both schools urged any abuse victims to contact them.

“We will make every effort to ensure the confidentiality of any information, and we are offer­ing professional counseling if needed,” officials at ­Deerfield Academy wrote.

Brooks and Deerfield officials declined to comment for this report.

Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan said detectives in his office would help any former Deerfield students wishing to report in­appropriate contact.

That approach, while probably motivated by fears of legal liability and public criticism, has encouraged victims to break their silence, often after decades, specialists say. As more victims come forward, more are spurred to do the same.

“Many come to feel that they have a responsibility to speak out,” said Suzin Bartley, executive director of the Children’s Trust Fund, a statewide group that works to prevent child abuse. “Because if you don’t speak out, this individual may very well continue to abuse ­other children.”

Many victims do not come to terms with their abuse until years later, Bartley said.

In addition to the high-
profile allegations at three prep schools in Massachusetts, abuse claims have emerged at two well-known independent schools in New York. Last year, allegations came to light at ­Horace Mann School. In ­December, a venerable private school in Brooklyn, Poly Prep Country Day School, settled a lawsuit contending that the school had for years ignored ­reports of abuse at the hands of a winning football coach.

Bartley, whose organization has just released a new manual for required reporters of sex abuse in Massachusetts, said the succession of abuse reports at prep schools should not be surprising.

“We aren’t surprised when there are drunks at a bar,” she said. “Why are we surprised to find pedophiles near children?”

Bartley calls for training those who work with children to recognize signs of abuse and establishing strict codes of conduct that discourage adults from being alone with children.

“It’s about limiting their ­access, period,” she said.

Myra McGovern, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools, said that outrage over the Penn State child abuse scandal has raised awareness to an unprecedented degree. She believes that has led more victims to ­recall past abuse.

“Even a few years ago, it wouldn’t be discussed so openly,” McGovern said. “Whenever there are big stories of abuse alle­gations, it makes survivors think about their own history.”

Since Penn State, private schools have adopted a range of new training and policies aimed at preventing abuse, she said.

McGovern cited Brooks and Deerfield as examples of how schools have become more forthcoming, pointing out that both schools contacted alumni and conducted investigations after learning of the reports.

“It’s a very different time,” she said. “Schools are taking a much more proactive ­approach. That willingness to reach out is much more prevalent today.”

David Finkelhor, a leading specialist on child sexual abuse who directs the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said child sexual abuse cases have declined by more than 60 percent over the past two ­decades.

The decline reflects growing public awareness, more vigorous prosecution of offenders, and improved treatment of abuse victims, he said.

At the same time, past incidents at prep schools might be surfacing because of publicity around these types of cases, he said.

“Victims may feel like they are less likely to be attacked and doubted,” he said.

Bernier said that while schools that reach out to past victims deserve credit, few are doing all they can to prevent ­future abuse.

“You really need some ­enlightened leaders to say not only are we going to address the past, but also put in place comprehensive reforms so that this never happens again,” she said. “They are missing the opportunity.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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