Former student forces R.I. prep school to confront its past
Anne Scott entered St. George’s School as a 10th-grader in 1977, just a few years after the prestigious prep school first admitted girls at its campus in Middletown, R.I. She was a good student, and a three-sport athlete, from the suburbs of Wilmington, Del.
But a month after she arrived, a field hockey injury brought her into the orbit of the school’s longtime athletic trainer. He molested and raped her, and threatened to come after her if she told anyone.
For years, terrified and ashamed, she did not. Finally, in her mid-20s, her life a shambles of diagnoses and hospitalizations, she told her parents, who took her to see Eric MacLeish, an attorney who would later gain renown representing abuse victims of Catholic priests. It was his first sexual abuse case.
MacLeish filed a lawsuit seeking $10 million, but when the school pushed back aggressively, Scott backed off — and moved abroad to rebuild her life.
This year, almost 40 years after she first arrived at St. George’s, Anne Scott felt strong enough to pursue her unfinished business with St. George’s.
Reunited with MacLeish, she has sought not money but accountability from the school — an end to what she and her attorney call a pattern of coverup and denial concerning the alleged sexual assaults of multiple students at the school in the 1970s and 1980s. They have urged the school to launch an investigation, to inform alumni of its findings, and to set up a therapy fund for victims.
“This was the school’s dirty secret,” said MacLeish. “They’re an educational institution with a mission statement of respect and compassion, and they acted in a way that is completely at odds with that.”
St. George’s officials didn’t act immediately on Scott’s demand, but they did act. Months after MacLeish and Scott voiced their concerns — and shortly after the Globe contacted the school for comment on the case — officials sent a letter on Nov. 2 to alumni saying they had received “multiple credible reports of sexual misconduct at the school, ranging from unprofessional behaviors to outright sexual assault” by former employees. It also named Scott’s assailant.
It was a breakthrough moment. Scott’s courage has moved others to come forward this fall with their stories and their sorrows. And as the school completes its investigation, the full measure of this dark chapter may soon be known.
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Founded in 1896, St. George’s has educated several Astors and Vanderbilts, Howard Dean, and Prescott Bush, father of President George H.W. Bush. Today, it has 365 students in Grades 9 through 12 and charges $56,000 annual tuition for boarders.
It is the latest in a string of New England prep schools that have had to deal with allegations of sexual impropriety, including Deerfield Academy, Fessenden, and the Berkshire School.
At St. George’s, in the fall of 1977, Anne Scott had been sent for treatment of her back to Al Gibbs, the gruff, cigarette-smoking athletic trainer, who began to assault her in his locked training room. He told her that if she reported him to anyone, he would come after her and that she “would be in trouble,” according to court papers. When she objected, “the trainer threatened to send a note to her coach and adviser, requiring that [she] return for ‘treatments.’ ”
Her grades dropped. She called her parents begging to come home. For a while, she simply stopped talking. “I just kind of stopped caring,” Scott said.
Her sister Liz, who is four years older, recalls those days vividly. “I remember we sent off a happy, healthy, vibrant girl and when she came home for Thanksgiving, she was definitely changed. She was withdrawn, anxious, obviously upset, but we didn’t have any idea why. It was very scary for the family.”
She returned to school and, Scott said, the assaults resumed.
According to her therapist’s affidavit in the 1989 lawsuit, she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder, anorexia, bulimia, and major depression because of the assaults and was hospitalized several times between 1983 and 1987.
When she filed her suit against the school, Scott faced a different kind of pain, in the tactics of St. George’s lawyers. They told the court that Scott either could be lying or could have had consensual sex with the trainer, who was 67 years old when the assaults began. She was 15.
Court records revealed that four other girls had told school authorities that Gibbs had also molested them, MacLeish said.
School attorneys also sought to change it from a “Jane Doe” case and reveal Scott’s real name. “Maybe people will come forward and say the plaintiff is a, with all due respect to those in the court, has a tendency to lie, and that would be relevant, also,” said defense attorney William P. Robinson III of the Providence firm Edwards & Angell. (In 2004, Robinson was appointed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Robinson did not return calls from the Globe.)
But Judge Jacob Hagopian of the US District Court in Rhode Island denied the school’s motion to dismiss and admonished its attorneys that the teenager could not consent to such “detestable” acts. “It violates the criminal laws of the United States,” he said.
In the end, it was Scott who dropped the case. School attorneys had investigated and deposed her parents and were preparing to depose neighbors. “I was 27 years old, I had struggled, and then they came down on my family like a ton of bricks,” she said. “I just wanted it all to go away.”
St. George’s would not agree to the dismissal unless Scott signed a gag order that prohibited her from speaking about the case. MacLeish advised against it.
“The school did everything they could to intimidate Anne,” said MacLeish, of the Cambridge law firm of Clark, Hunt, Ahern & Embry. “It worked.”
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After she dropped the suit, Scott, who had earned a PhD in folklore and anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania, moved overseas. She and MacLeish lost touch.
But the case continued to haunt him. Over the years, he tried to find Scott, who was working in maternal health in the West Bank, in HIV/AIDS prevention in Senegal and Botswana, and for a nonprofit in Indonesia. Independently, MacLeish, himself an alumnus of St. George’s, contacted the school in 2012, writing current headmaster Eric Peterson about the lawsuit he had filed concerning events at the school under former headmaster Tony Zane.
Around the same time, in 2012 or 2013, Peterson heard from another alumna. “She had been abused by Mr. Gibbs,” he said in an interview. “She asked for help with counseling costs and we gave it.”
In 2013, Scott returned to the United States. She now runs a nonprofit in Virginia. “I’ve worked very hard to get strong,” said Scott, who is 52. “You live with it and you get better at managing it, but the damage runs deep.”
At Scott’s and MacLeish’s urging, the school sent two letters to alumni, in April and August, saying it was launching an investigation into possible sexual misconduct. Scott and MacLeish told the school that the letters failed to give specifics or offer relief to victims.
But the most recent letter, sent Nov. 2 and signed by Peterson and board chair Leslie Heaney, finally named Gibbs, who died at 86 in 1996. It also said there were two other perpetrators who no longer live in Rhode Island, but did not identify them.
The letter apologized for what happened and for the school’s failure to respond. It also said it will establish a fund for counseling costs related to the sex abuse and will arrange victims’ support gatherings.
Scott said that for her, the latest letter resolves the major issues. “I was really heartened by it and sensed a shift toward action and clear, concrete steps,” she said.
But she and MacLeish question the independence of the school’s investigation, which is being conducted by attorney Will Hannum, whose law partner is St. George’s legal counsel. “It’s an inherent conflict of interests,” MacLeish said.
Harvard Law professor Larry Lessig, who has known Scott since they were students at Penn, has signed on as co-counsel to MacLeish. Lessig, who was abused by the choir director as a student at the American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J., said St. George’s needs to make therapy support “immediately available and not filtered through a lawyer.”
Scott said it took Hannum more than a month to respond to her request for therapy costs, and when he did, on Dec. 9, he said that she “may be eligible” for assistance, and asked for documentation.
Scott was upset. “It’s distressing on so many levels to submit to the school’s authority to make a determination on whether or not they will reimburse me . . . I’d rather pass than place the school in that position of power over me ever again.”
Peterson, who arrived at the school in 2004, said he hopes the investigation will conclude by the year’s end. He told the Globe that the two unnamed perpetrators were male faculty members who had left the school by 1988, and that their victims were male. According to his letter, the school is working with law enforcement “with respect to next steps” regarding them.
“The heart of the issue for me is that the school today is trying to do what’s right and trying to help alumni who need it,” he told the Globe. He declined to say how many victims have come forward since he sent out the letter.
After the school’s first letter in April, Peterson told MacLeish that tens of women came forward to complain about Gibbs, a fact that Peterson confirmed to the Globe, though he says not all were “firsthand reports.”
But one firsthand report came from Katie Wales, class of 1980, who went to see Gibbs after a horseback riding injury. He began to molest her and took photos of her naked in the school’s whirlpool, she says, which he then circulated among the boys at school.
“The taunting by the boys was horrible,” said Wales, 53, who lives in Granby, Conn. She said she went to see Zane in 1979 about Gibbs. “He told me I was crazy, making it up to get attention, and that I had to see the school shrink,” Wales said.
Zane says today that he believed Wales at the time, but thought that she came to him in confidence and “didn’t authorize me to go to Al Gibbs.” He added: “Gibbs declared his innocence until the end, so I was operating on hearsay.”
But Wales said that after the experience, her school life was miserable, and she began drinking and smoking marijuana. By the end of her senior year, she was into heavier drugs, and the week before graduation, she was expelled. “This whole thing kind of screwed me up,” said Wales.
When she got the school letter in April, Wales reported her experience to Hannum and has met with Peterson. She also posted a comment on Facebook. Among the alumnae who responded was Joan Reynolds.
Reynolds, class of 1979, was 13 years old when she entered St. George’s as a freshman. Now 54, she is a teacher who lives in Idaho and shared her story with the Globe — a story she said she had told no one but her husband and, recently, St. George’s.
Her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were St. George’s alumni. Her father was director of development and alumni affairs at the school, her mother was director of day student affairs, and Reynolds lived on campus with them. The Reynolds family has for 35 years sponsored an annual scholarship at the school.
Reynolds played three sports, and sometimes her female coach would send her to Gibbs. “She’d say, ‘Al wants to see you for hamstrings,’ or this or that,” Reynolds said. There was no girls’ locker room; Gibbs’s training room was next to the boys’ locker room. All three women who spoke to the Globe recalled the sound of Gibbs locking the door behind them.
When she was first sent to Gibbs, Reynolds said, he started off by showing her how to “properly dry” her breasts. “He’d talk about what a good athlete I was, how I had to get healthy for these games. He’d tell me to strip down. There was this metal hot tub and he’d hang the towel far away. He would hug you, these suffocating hugs.”
Reynolds refused to take off her underwear; Gibbs never raped her, she says, but groped her on the training table. This went on periodically for two years, she said — until she got her first boyfriend, a strong athletic type.
After graduation, Reynolds moved out west, cutting all ties with the school. When, at her mother’s urging, she returned to campus for the first time in 2006 to be inducted into St. George’s sports hall of fame, she became physically ill.
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Zane, now 85 and living in New Bedford, said after he heard from students about Gibbs, he fired him in 1980. “He was doing things he shouldn’t have done as a trainer,” Zane said.
He did not, however, report the incidents to law enforcement, as required by law. Asked why not, he responded, “Was that true in Rhode Island in 1980?”
By 1967, MacLeish said, all 50 states had mandatory reporting laws about child abuse, which means Zane was required to call child protective services and the police. “If that had occurred, then Gibbs would have been stopped, treatment would have been provided to children, and a tremendous amount of human suffering would have been avoided,” MacLeish said.
In 2002, St. George’s named a new girls’ dorm after Zane.
Asked about the school’s aggressive response to Scott’s lawsuit, Zane said: “Instead of bringing a lawsuit against the school, she could have called me up and said, this happened to me. Don’t blame us for trying to defend ourselves against a $10 million lawsuit.”
Gibbs would have been 70 when he left St. George’s. According to an obituary in the Providence Journal, he had previously spent 30 years in the Navy.
Though they appreciate that the newest letter names Gibbs, the women who have brought forward complaints are upset that it doesn’t mention Zane. They want Zane Dormitory renamed and his portrait removed from the dining hall.
“At the very least, they shouldn’t be enshrining him,” said Scott. “It undermines the credibility of what they’re doing.”
Peterson has met twice with Scott, who says she is grateful that he apologized to her.
Asked what he apologized for, he said: “I’m sorry she was hurt. I’m sorry she came away from the school with her experience with Gibbs and thereafter feeling the school didn’t care for her, because the school does. I’m sorry she was wounded in all the ways she was.”