Phillips Exeter alumni vow to withhold donations over mishandled abuse complaints
Nearly 700 alumni of Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire have signed a petition vowing to withhold donations to the elite boarding school until leaders crack down on sexual abuse of students.
The alumni signed a letter to the board of trustees saying they have lost confidence in the school administration over the issue.
“Listen, Exeter cares about two things above and beyond anything else, based on what we’ve seen recently,’’ said one of the signers, Michael Whitfield Jones, a 1975 graduate who works in finance and digital marketing in New York City. “They care about money, and they care about public opinion, which is a sad thing.’’
Exeter has been rocked by sexual misconduct scandals this year, including a report in the Globe this week that the school minister tried to resolve one student’s allegations of sexual assault by asking the alleged abuser to bake bread for her.
Whitfield Jones said the safety of students should be the top concern, but the school administration’s priorities “as demonstrated by their behavior, are backwards and upside down.’’
Neither principal Lisa MacFarlane nor the president of the trustees, Eunice Johnson Panetta, responded to requests for comment Thursday afternoon.
However, MacFarlane issued a statement on Wednesday expressing “grave concern” over a recent alleged sexual assault “and the manner in which it was handled.” But she said the case is under investigation and “we cannot comment further, other than to say we approach this investigation with humility, openness, and a sincere desire to improve” student safety.
The campaign to withhold money came after a Boston Globe Spotlight Team report Wednesday on the recent allegations. Last fall, 17-year-old Michaella Henry told administrators that Chukwudi “Chudi’’ Ikpeazu, a star athlete, had put his hands under her shirt and grabbed her backside as she repeatedly said “no,’’ according to the story.
Rather than take the allegation to police, the Rev. Robert Thompson tried to get the two to work out their differences. Out of that meeting came an agreement that Ikpeazu would bake a cinnamon-laced concoction called “monkey bread’’ and deliver it to her weekly as an “act of penance.’’
Henry told the Globe that the arrangement only traumatized her again because she had to face her alleged abuser regularly. She ultimately reported the episode to Exeter police in May. Ikpeazu was arrested on June 3 on a misdemeanor charge of sexual assault and released on $5,000 personal recognizance bail.
In response to the story, leaders of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support group of more than 20,000 members, called on the school to fire Thompson.
“Thompson made an arrogant, self-serving, and perhaps illegal decision to stay silent about a sexual assault,’’ wrote Barbara Dorris, a spokeswoman for the group.
Thompson did not return a call requesting comment.
The school’s handling of the alleged assault on Henry was one of several embarrassing episodes on campus that have raised profound concerns among alumni and cast a shadow over the academic year.
In March, the Globe reported that a celebrated faculty member, Rick Schubart, was quietly forced to resign and permanently barred from campus after he admitted to two cases of sexual misconduct with students in the 1970s and 1980s. Tom Hassan, MacFarlane’s predecessor as headmaster, was censured in April by the Association of Boarding Schools for not disclosing Schubart’s behavior before the group gave him a national leadership award in 2012.
In May, a former admissions officer, Arthur Peekel, turned himself in to police in Exeter to face two misdemeanor charges that he sexually assaulted a teenager decades ago.
The school has hired an independent investigator and says on its website it is committed to maintaining a safe environment for students. It mentioned precautions such as running comprehensive background checks on all employees, providing appropriate “boundary training’’ to staffers, and notifying workers of their duty under law to report sexual misconduct to authorities.
In light of those precautions and heightened scrutiny, alumni said they were staggered and furious to learn this week that school officials had not reported Ikpeazu’s alleged assault on Henry in the basement of the school church.
“There can be no illusions left about the academy’s breathtaking inadequacy on sexual assault,’’ said the petition. “After two major revelations of past incidents at the academy, and similar incidents at other peer schools, Exeter should have never been on higher alert. . . . Yet instead, Exeter’s most senior administrators could not have been more asleep at the wheel.’’
Evan Soltas, a 2012 graduate who helped organize the petition drive, said the signers believe it is pointless dealing with administrators and chose to confront the trustees with the vow to withhold donations. Phillips Exeter’s endowment, roughly $1 billion, is among the biggest of boarding schools in the country and larger than that of many colleges.
Another alumnus was also furious at the school’s handling of Henry’s allegations but not ready to sign the petition.
“I actually don’t think it’s strategically a good idea to come out of the gate threatening to withhold donations,’’ said Seisei Tatebe-Goddu, who graduated in 2001 and is now a vice president of accounts at a New York City creative agency.
Tatebe-Goddu wrote an e-mail to MacFarlane saying the latest Globe report underscores that the school’s senior administrative team lacks the training, empathy, and skill to address sexual misconduct on campus.
“When a student plagiarizes an author, do we ask that student to send the author cookies?’’ she wrote.
Ikpeazu’s lawyer, Richard Samdperil, of Exeter did not return a call for comment.
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