PRIVATE SCHOOLS, PAINFUL SECRETS
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
Vermont Academy fired an assistant dean in 2007 for allegedly propositioning a 16-year-old female student in lewd text messages. Yet the boarding school still produced three recommendations for its former employee, and he landed a job months later at Wesleyan University in Connecticut — overseeing student sexual misconduct hearings.
Brooks School in North Andover kicked a former admissions officer out of her campus residence in 1993 after she was accused of sexual misconduct with a male student. Even after her banishment — and Brooks’s $300,000 settlement with the student and his family — the admissions officer held jobs at two more private schools in Massachusetts.
And at Emma Willard School, a private school in Troy, N.Y., a teacher was fired in 1998 after he allegedly raped a student. But the school still wrote him two recommendations, and he later found a job at a private school in Connecticut.
The Globe Spotlight Team, as part of its ongoing investigation of sexual misconduct at the region’s private schools, identified 31 educators since the 1970s who, after being accused of sexually exploiting, assaulting, or harassing students, moved on to work at other schools or other settings with children, sometimes with a warm recommendation letter in hand.
It is a pattern that put additional children at risk. In seven of the cases reviewed by the Globe, the educators faced fresh sexual misconduct accusations in their new jobs.
In an era when employers routinely conduct multiple interviews with job candidates, check references, and search their backgrounds online, how could some of the most prestigious private schools in the country fail to discover that applicants had left previous jobs amid accusations of misconduct?
The answer, it turns out, lies in a toxic combination of schools and abusers alike trying to hush up scandals, schools failing to ask enough questions before hiring educators, and the fact that these are private institutions, with nothing like the scrutiny given their public counterparts. Private school teachers don’t even have to be licensed in most states, meaning it is harder for the state to block fired teachers from continuing to work in education and less likely for there to be a public record of any disciplinary action.
Revelations this year that some of the leading private schools in the country covered up sexual misconduct have infuriated and distressed many parents, students, and alumni, and have prompted at least two dozen schools to launch investigations. More than 100 private schools in the region have been touched by sexual abuse allegations involving more than 300 students over the past 25 years, the Spotlight Team found, including many cases that are only now coming to light.
Some of the schools played a direct role in sending accused staffers to other institutions. In nine of the 31 cases examined by the Spotlight Team, schools where teachers faced allegations of sexual misconduct nonetheless wrote the teachers letters of recommendation or served as references, in what critics describe as a deliberate effort to conceal scandals and help disgraced employees.
That total doesn’t include the notorious case of an athletic trainer at St. George’s School in Rhode Island who got a recommendation but didn’t take a new job. Headmaster Tony Zane wrote a letter of recommendation in 1980 for Al Gibbs, whom he had just dismissed amid allegations that Gibbs had sexually abused female students in the training room. Gibbs “has had a great deal of experience as a trainer, and he is most certainly competent,” Zane wrote — the same day he sent a St. George’s colleague a letter saying that Gibbs could not return to school “because of Al’s behavior in the training room.’’ A total of 31 former St. George’s students recently told investigators that Gibbs — who died in 1996 — harassed, groped, or raped them.
Officials at several schools that unwittingly hired teachers with a history of misconduct allegations were dismayed, when contacted by Globe reporters, to learn of their staffers’ pasts. A Wesleyan spokeswoman, Lauren Rubenstein, said administrators had no idea that its associate dean of students, Scott Backer, had been dismissed by Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, Vt., in 2007 and later sued by the former student whom he allegedly propositioned. The case was settled out of court in 2011.
“Had we been aware of this, Mr. Backer never would have been hired,’’ Rubenstein told the Globe in an e-mail in July. She added that Backer had received letters of recommendation from two deans at Vermont Academy and its athletic director.
Hours after the Globe inquired about Backer’s past, Wesleyan fired him and promptly hired a law firm to review about eight years of misconduct hearings that Backer participated in. The review concluded he handled those hearings properly, according to Wesleyan. Backer did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Stanley Colla, the recently appointed interim head of Vermont Academy, said the 2007 recommendations were “unauthorized letters’’ but declined to elaborate.
Last week, the Pomfret School in Connecticut admitted writing recommendation letters for four educators accused at the time of misconduct, including one teacher who resigned his current job in July, days after the Globe contacted his school in Colorado.
A total of six educators were fired, resigned, or left shortly after recent Globe inquiries about the accusations lodged against them in prior jobs in New England.
Among them: H. Andrew Thomsen, a longtime math teacher and soccer coach at Suffield Academy in Connecticut who abruptly left his position this summer a few days after the headmaster talked to a woman who reported Thomsen’s alleged misconduct. Janna Jacobson accused Thomsen of initiating a sexual relationship with her in the 1970s, when she was a student at Kingswood Oxford School in Connecticut and he worked there.
Suffield headmaster Charles Cahn III said that his school contacted Kingswood Oxford to check references before hiring Thomsen in 1995. Kingswood Oxford officials didn’t disclose at that time that they had investigated another female student’s complaint against him in 1994 with inconclusive results, Cahn said. That former student and Jacobson both contacted the Globe this year, and Suffield launched an inquiry. Thomsen did not return several messages seeking comment.
Peter Tacy, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools from 1989 to 2004, said school leaders have sometimes failed to disclose allegations of sexual misconduct to other schools out of a misguided belief that the wrongdoing was an isolated incident.
“They are guilty of wishful thinking,’’ he said. “It might very well be that someone who steals might not do it again. But particularly with sexual misconduct, it’s likely to happen again.’’
Tacy called it “dangerous and irresponsible” for schools to hide sexual misconduct. “A well-run institution that finds out it has been lied to by a colleague institution can no longer roll over,’’ he said. “We have an ethical responsibility to tell the truth.”
. . .
IT HAPPENS OFTEN enough that child protection advocates have a name for it: “Passing the trash.” With a school’s reputation on the line, officials have an incentive to quietly hand off problem employees as well as to discourage victims from speaking out. It can take years for such expedient and ethically questionable decisions to come to light.
In 1998, a story on page B7 of the Daily Gazette of Schenectady, N.Y., named two teachers at the elite girls’ school Emma Willard who had been fired after each, in the words of then-school head Robin Robertson, “overstepped the carefully defined and articulated boundaries for faculty-student interaction.’’
Only this year did the nature of the alleged “overstep” by one of those staffers come to light. Former Emma Willard student Kat Sullivan told media outlets that the school dismissed one of the educators after she reported that he had bound her hands and feet, gagged her, and then anally raped her during her senior year. She said the teacher had initiated a sexual relationship with her the year before.
Her lawyer, Eric MacLeish, identified the staffer as history teacher and soccer coach Scott Sargent, in a letter to the school demanding a financial settlement. MacLeish said Sullivan “was sexually exploited and raped by Mr. Sargent” and had endured “catastrophic psychological suffering.”
Sullivan, now a pediatric nurse in Orlando, recently settled a claim out of court with the school.
The current head at Emma Willard, Susan Groesbeck, in a letter of apology to Sullivan, also referred to Sargent by name and said, “I am sorry that any harm came to you.”
The reaction was much different, however, when Sullivan first brought her complaint to Robertson and other school officials. She said she was forced to leave the school and was put on a bus to New Orleans, where she stayed with a friend of a friend, then became homeless, and, for a while, worked as a stripper.
Sargent, even after being fired, received more considerate treatment. The school wrote him two recommendation letters, according to Groesbeck, and he found a job in 1999 at the King School in Stamford, Conn. Emma Willard officials have declined to say who wrote the letters, citing an ongoing investigation by lawyers for the school. Robertson, who went on to become head of Milton Academy for eight years, could not be reached.
Sargent left the King School in 2005 after officials there discovered he was in a relationship with a recent graduate, King’s head of school, Thomas Main, recently told the Globe. Main said there was no evidence that Sargent had sex with any of his students. Sargent did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Officials at another school in Connecticut, Choate Rosemary Hall, barred French teacher Bjorn Runquist from working alone with female students and ultimately forced him to resign after learning in 1992 of his sexual relationship with a recent graduate, Cheyenne Hawk. But Choate acknowledges an administrator nevertheless wrote a recommendation for Runquist, who landed a job months later at another private institution in Connecticut, the Kent School. (The schools that hired Sargent and Runquist said their personnel records do not contain the letters.)
Hawk said Runquist began the sexual relationship when she was a senior and he was her dorm adviser. In an interview with the Globe, she called the recommendation letter “educational malpractice.’’
Choate said it is investigating the case.
“Choate chose to protect the perpetrator instead of the victim — and set up the potential for there to be future victims,” said Hawk, who only recently decided to speak publicly about her ordeal.
Runquist, in an e-mail to the Globe, said his relationship with Hawk “was an extremely painful, utterly isolated event in my life.”
Even when administrators don’t actively help accused teachers find new jobs, they sometimes help them continue their educational careers by downplaying details of sexual misconduct or keeping the accusations secret. In some cases, schools negotiated gag orders that bar victims from speaking out.
In 1995, Brooks School in North Andover quietly struck a $300,000 settlement to resolve allegations that a former admissions officer, Lois Poirot, had sex with a male student in the early 1990s.
But the agreement had an important catch: None of the parties — including Brooks, Poirot, the student, and the student’s family — were allowed to talk about it.
When the allegations first surfaced in 1993, Brooks said, it made Poirot move off campus, where she lived with her husband, who taught at the school even after Poirot resigned in 1989. But Brooks never told the Fay School of Southborough, where Poirot went to work in 1990, about the allegations or the settlement. Nor did it tell the Glen Urquhart School of Beverly, where Poirot went to work in 2003.
It wasn’t until a decade later that Fay and Glen Urquhart learned about the allegations, when a second Brooks alumnus filed a lawsuit in 2013 accusing her of sexually assaulting him at Brooks in the late 1970s. By then, Poirot, now 70, had already retired. (Poirot declined to comment through her lawyer, but she acknowledged in a deposition that she had sex with the Brooks student who filed the lawsuit, but not before he’d turned 18. Poirot, however, denied in the deposition that she was asked to move off campus.)
Brooks officials declined to say whether they were aware of any allegations of sexual misconduct when Poirot resigned. But, when she was hired by Fay the following year, Fay said, Brooks hinted there were problems by vaguely mentioning that she had “boundary issues.” Brooks didn’t offer details.
“The review from Brooks was positive but for the mention of boundary issues,” said Andrew Paven, the Fay spokesman. “It wasn’t a negative review.’’
. . .
SEXUAL MISCONDUCT HAS long been a concern at both private and public schools — one federal analysis estimated that nearly 1 in 10 public school students faces sexual abuse or harassment from educators at some point. No equivalent study has been conducted of private schools. But the lack of public accountability at private schools — independent schools are generally exempt from public records laws, for instance — may make it easier for ousted teachers to rewrite their pasts.
After Greens Farms Academy in Connecticut fired a teacher in 2007 for allegedly making harassing phone calls to a student, he omitted the job from some versions of his resume and later landed a job at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham. (Greens Farms said it refused to provide a reference or recommendation for the teacher.)
Cushing declined to renew his appointment earlier this year, but the teacher announced he was starting a new job at Groton School starting in August. However, after the Globe asked Groton about the teacher’s past, school officials removed his name from its faculty Web page and said he wouldn’t be working there. (The teacher didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Shaun Jayachandran, a chemistry teacher fired in 2014 by Dexter Southfield School in Brookline for allegedly sending inappropriate texts to a student, subsequently landed jobs at two more schools. First, the teacher moved to the Winchendon School in Central Massachusetts, which says it contacted someone at Dexter, but not an employee in the headmaster’s office who might have warned about the texting. The teacher later got a job at a third school — the Pike School in Andover — after submitting a resume that Pike officials said misstated his employment dates, hiding the fact that he had been forced to leave Dexter Southfield in the middle of the academic year. Pike fired the teacher in May after Dexter discovered he was working there, tipped Pike off about his past, and Pike found the resume discrepancy. The teacher has denied any misconduct.
Sometimes, however, what allows a teacher to move on to another school isn’t a fib on a resume but the decision by a prior employer to allow them a quiet exit — especially when the alleged misconduct didn’t lead to disciplinary action or a report to police.
In 2000, physics teacher Mark Zagaeski left Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge to join the faculty of Lexington High School. About a year before the move, two female students at BB&N had complained that he touched them inappropriately — one on the breasts, the other on the buttocks, according to interviews with the two women.
The student who alleged Zagaeski inappropriately touched her breasts said she reported the alleged sexual assault to school officials. And her mother, at the time a member of the BB&N board of trustees, recently told the Globe that she complained to the head of the school, Mary Newman. According to the mother’s account, Newman, who died in 2011, told the trustee that she had encouraged Zagaeski to move on, and he had landed a job at Lexington High School.
“I never imagined he would be passed forward with a positive recommendation,” said the former trustee, who requested anonymity to protect her daughter’s identity, “just to make it easy for BB&N.’’
BB&N has declined to discuss the matter, citing an ongoing investigation launched in response to Globe inquiries. Zagaeski denied the breast touching allegation outright, and said he couldn’t recall the other alleged incident. He told the Globe that he was never accused of inappropriate conduct at BB&N, and that he left “in very good graces’’ and with positive references after Lexington High lured him away with a higher salary.
In 2011, a 17-year-old student at Lexington High complained that Zagaeski had joked about her trading sexual favors for a better grade. Although Zagaeski apologized to school officials in a letter, admitting to “the weakness of an appropriate boundary between myself and my students,” then-superintendent Paul Ash fired him. Ash was “convinced this person should not be in a classroom with students,” he told the Globe.
Zagaeski, now a private tutor, fought back in a legal case that went all the way to the state’s highest court, which ultimately upheld his dismissal.
. . .
THE GREATEST FEAR about educators who move on to new jobs after facing accusations of sexual misconduct is, of course, that they might offend again. The Spotlight Team found seven cases where ousted teachers faced subsequent allegations, including St. George’s staffers Bill Lydgate and Howard White. White is accused of abusing children at St. Paul’s in New Hampshire, St. George’s, and a church in North Carolina.
Another case involved a teacher, William Jacobs, who was forced to leave Taft School in Connecticut in 1971 for inappropriately approaching a student but went on to two other teaching positions from which he was fired for sexual misconduct, according to the Star Tribune. He eventually became the Minneapolis parks police chief. By the time he was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2012, nearly two dozen men had accused him of molestation.
The movement of these staffers among private schools has caused some critics to draw parallels with the clergy sex abuse scandal, with its many offending priests moved from parish to parish. But others reject the analogy. Peter Upham, executive director of The Association of Boarding Schools in North Carolina, noted that each private school is independent and has its own hiring practices.
Nonetheless, Upham said, the private school community “bears its own marks of shame” for how it has handled sex abuse cases over the years. In August, Upham’s group and the National Association of Independent Schools appointed a task force on educator sexual misconduct, including child abuse prevention experts, school leaders, abuse survivors, and a former sex crimes prosecutor, to examine the problem.
Some victims and advocates say that additional regulations could help prevent alleged abusers moving from school to school. Five states have enacted “pass the trash” laws that require public or private schools to share the job history of staffers — including alleged sexual misconduct — with prospective employers, and mandate that schools considering a hire ask about that history.
Jetta Bernier, executive director of the Boston-based child advocacy nonprofit Massachusetts Citizens for Children, lobbied for such a bill in Massachusetts last year, but it never got out of committee. She said she is considering trying again in the coming legislative session.
“Schools should be havens of safety for children, and their protection should be core to every school’s mission,’’ she said.
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