New Hampshire

Alumni are boycotting a Phillips Exeter probe

The campus of Phillips Exeter Academy.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
The campus of Phillips Exeter Academy.

Dozens of Phillips Exeter Academy alumni are urging abuse victims to boycott the prep school’s investigation into sexual misconduct, calling it a “trustee-controlled” review that so far has contacted few victims.

More than 40 alumni, including graduates who say they were sexually assaulted, criticized the five-month-old investigation for its slow pace and lack of transparency in a letter circulated Thursday. They demanded an inquiry similar to the one conducted at St. George’s School in Rhode Island, where victims and the school jointly retained a lawyer who released a public report.

Susannah Curtis, who started a Facebook group for Exeter survivors of sexual violence, said only one of the more than a dozen victims in the group has been contacted by Holland & Knight, a national law firm hired by Exeter in April to conduct the investigation.

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“I’m not only concerned about the firm’s lack of urgency but also its ability to impartially investigate when it has been retained on Exeter’s behalf,” said Curtis, who recently reported for the first time that she was sexually assaulted by a male classmate in the fall of 1989.

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A Holland & Knight lawyer involved in the investigation did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Although many private schools have hired lawyers to investigate sexual abuse and report back to boards of trustees, the recent St. George’s effort appears to have set a new standard for independence. That investigator, Martin F. Murphy, released a 390-page public document in September that found “profoundly disturbing abuse” involving scores of students.

“Why should we settle for less?” the Exeter letter asked. “Exeter must commission a truly independent investigation reaching into all aspects of misconduct — individual and institutional. To this end, we also encourage victims of sexual misconduct at the Academy to . . . refrain from participation in the current investigation. There is a better way.”

The alumni letter is being released at the start of Exeter Leadership Weekend, an annual gathering of class officers, admission representatives, alumni leaders, among others, at the New Hampshire boarding school. And it comes as the prestigious academy is under increasing scrutiny for its mishandling of accusations of sexual assault.

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Exeter hired Holland & Knight in April when the Globe reported that the school had quietly forced out longtime faculty member Rick Schubart after he confessed to sexual misconduct with two students in the 1970s.

School leaders have come under fire for bungling other cases, including one in which a school minister arranged for an alleged victim of sexual assault to receive weekly bread deliveries from the classmate she says groped her in the church basement.

Julia Callahan, an Exeter alumna who recently criticized the school’s handling of her sexual assault in the 1990s, said she raised concerns about the investigation several weeks ago when she met with Exeter principal Lisa MacFarlane and board president Nicie Panetta.

“I would like to see a report that is completely transparent,” Callahan said in a recent interview. “If the report is not made completely public, are we really seeing what the problems are?”

Exeter has not answered previous questions from the Globe about whether its report will be made public. MacFarlane said the school has imposed a five-year ban on doing any future business with Holland & Knight and limited its interactions to providing information at their request “to ensure that Exeter would not in any way influence the integrity or impartiality of their work.”

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Exeter police have investigated dozens of abuse complaints at the school but have closed many because the statute of limitations has expired.

MacFarlane and Panetta issued a letter late Thursday saying the investigation is taking so long because the school is waiting for Exeter police to conclude its criminal investigations. The department released a handful of cases in the summer that Holland & Knight has completed and the police released additional cases in August. The school hopes the investigation will be completed by the end of the year.

”We understand that for those who reported misconduct in April, there has been a long wait, and for that we are truly sorry,” the letter said. “We are committed to sharing what we have learned from those investigations.”

Eric MacLeish, who represents several Exeter victims and dozens of survivors of sexual abuse at St. George’s, said Exeter should learn from the mistakes of other schools like St. George’s, which faced fierce criticism during its first investigation because it failed to disclose that the investigator was married to the school’s lawyer. In addition, school leaders released only selected portions of the report.

St. George’s then agreed to launch a second investigation led by Murphy.

“Exeter is a first-class institution and it has to do a first-class investigation and it should have all the protections to make sure it is perceived as independent,” MacLeish said.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at jenn.abelson@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @jennabelson