A former admissions officer at Phillips Exeter Academy turned himself in to police in Exeter, N.H., on Friday to face charges that he sexually assaulted a teenager decades ago, the first criminal charges brought as officials investigate dozens of reports of abuse at one of the nation’s top boarding schools.
Arthur Peekel, who was charged with two misdemeanor counts of sexual assault, quietly left the New Hampshire prep school in 1973 after he was accused by a prospective student, Lawrence Jenkens, of sexually assaulting the boy during an overnight visit to campus. Peekel then moved to Illinois, where he was later honored as the 1991-1992 Illinois Teacher of the Year.
The sexual assault charges come just days after the Spotlight Team exposed widespread sexual misconduct at private schools: At least 67 independent schools in New England have faced accusations since 1991 that staffers sexually abused or harassed more than 200 students. At least eight private schools have launched investigations this year into sexual misconduct complaints.
“He needs to be held accountable for what he did. He took a lot away from me,” Jenkens said.
Peekel, who lives in Palatine, Ill., was released on $25,000 personal recognizance bail with conditions to surrender his passport, sign a waiver of extradition, and have no contact with minors. Peekel did not return repeated messages seeking comment. His arraignment is scheduled for July 5.
Peekel recently spoke on the phone with Jenkens in a conversation that was secretly recorded by police. Peekel later confirmed to the Globe that he apologized to Jenkens but not for any wrongdoing.
“I invited [Jenkens] and another student to stay with me. . . . I’m just sorry that I put him and another boy in a situation where they could have imagined something happened,” Peekel said.
Jenkens said that on a visit to the campus in the fall of 1973, Peekel insisted the 14-year-old sleep in his room. During the night, the admissions officer allegedly reached under the covers and fondled the boy and used the teenager’s hand to stimulate himself. Those two acts are the grounds for the two sexual assault charges.
“I was pretending I was asleep. I didn’t know what the hell to do,” Jenkens said. “I didn’t know where to run. I thought he was going to kill me.”
The next morning, Jenkens told his mother what had happened. His uncle, Hank DeSantis, who lived in Massachusetts, drove up to meet with school officials the following day. Then-principal Richard Day questioned the boy. DeSantis said he also met separately with Day and other school leaders.
“They were definitely concerned,” DeSantis recalled. “They knew they were in such a precarious position.”
The men all agreed the best way to handle the matter was to “keep it as quiet as possible and make it go away,” according to DeSantis. The police were never mentioned. “We didn’t want to do anything that would cause [Jenkens] to not be able to go to Exeter.”
Peekel previously told the Globe that school officials confronted him with the accusations in 1973 and he denied it. Peekel took a leave of absence in December 1973 and resigned from Exeter in June 1974. Peekel said he left to take care of his sick mother in Illinois.
Normally, the statute of limitations on sexual assault allegations would expire 22 years after the victim’s 18th birthday. But Peekel’s decision to leave New Hampshire stopped the clock, allowing Exeter police to bring charges decades later. Each misdemeanor charge carries a possible penalty of up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $2,000 or both.
“We allege that the suspect violated the trust placed in him by a prospective student by committing multiple acts of sexual assault,” Exeter Police Chief William Shupe said in a statement. “We salute the bravery of the victim in coming forward to report this incident to us, allowing us to bring this case forward.”
Peekel went on to work at several other schools before settling down as a teacher at Rolling Meadows High School in Illinois, where he served from 1986 to 2004 and received various education awards. A spokeswoman for the school said officials there were not aware of the allegations from Exeter or any accusations made during his tenure in the district. Peekel retired voluntarily in 2004.
“He had a successful life with a lot of accolades and some of them he may have deserved, but he needs to be held responsible for what he did and he hasn’t been,” Jenkens said.
Jenkens decided to speak out in March after seeing classmates break their silence about another award-winning teacher, Rick Schubart, who had admitted in recent years to sexual misconduct with two students in the 1970s and 1980s. Schubart was quietly forced out in 2011.
The school reported the incident to police and hired an independent investigator in the wake of new allegations about other staffers. In April, teacher Steve Lewis was fired after confessing to sexual encounters with a student more than two decades ago.
Phillips Exeter Academy turned over a number of complaints of alleged misconduct, some dating to the 1960s. Police have closed numerous cases, but roughly a dozen cases remain open.
“We are all shocked and angered by the experience described by Mr. Jenkens,” Exeter principal Lisa MacFarlane wrote in a note to the school community on Sunday.