Official: Sexual misconduct at schools 'a national scourge'
With the Phillips Exeter Academy community shaken by revelations of sexual misconduct by former teachers, the head of The Association of Boarding Schools is calling for a national response to the “scourge” of sexual assault on school campuses.
Peter Upham is executive director of TABS, based in Asheville, N.C. He said the problem is not confined to boarding or private schools.
Studies have shown nearly one in 10 kids will experience some form of sexual misconduct at the hands of school personnel between kindergarten and 12th grade, Upham said. “It’s a national scourge,” he said.
Upham said TABS is putting together a task force to take a comprehensive look at the issue and provide tools, guidance and recommendations to its member schools.
But he said, “I would love there to be a real blue ribbon panel at a national level to say: We’ve got a cancer afoot. What are the national resources and tools we can put in place to address this blight on society? Because that’s what it is.”
Boarding schools have special responsibilities “because the kids are with us 24/7,” Upham said.
The vast majority of teachers at such schools “have honorable intentions and do this work with a real spirit of devotion,” he said.
But any settings that bring young people into proximity with adults, including schools, camps and international trips, are “going to be a magnet for people who have wicked designs,” he said. “And these people are master manipulators.”
“They work very hard to remain under the radar. They prey upon the vulnerabilities of young psyches.”
Tom Hassan censured
The trustees of TABS recently voted to censure Phillips Exeter Academy’s former principal, Tom Hassan, for not disclosing that a PEA teacher had been forced to resign in 2011 after admitting to a sexual affair with an 18-year-old student decades earlier.
TABS honored Rick Schubart with its top award in 2012 and Upham said that would have been “unfathomable” had trustees known about his past misconduct.
Hassan became a trustee of TABS in July 2012, five months before the award was presented, but did not reveal Schubart’s misconduct, he said.
Upham said there have been “dramatic changes” in how the public expects institutions to address such cases.
A few decades ago, he said, “The general approach tended to be: Let’s deal with this matter but let’s deal with it quietly.”
Nowadays, he said, “Victims who often lived in the shadows of pain and guilt and shame, I think, in general feel much more empowered to come forward with reports of past abuse.”
That may help account for the recent reports of past sexual misconduct at private schools, including St. George’s School in Rhode Island and at Phillips Exeter, he said. “I think many people who may have suffered in silence and solitude have come forward,” he said.
Penn State scandal
Upham said the 2011 Penn State sexual abuse scandal was “a watershed moment” for schools. Before then, he said, “It would have been very unusual for a school to send a letter to its entire alumni body about an allegation of abuse.”
Tom Hassan cited the “chilling allegations” at Penn State in a Nov. 22, 2011, letter to the school community that outlined steps the Academy had taken to prevent, report and respond to sexual abuse.
Hassan wrote that he had asked PEA’s senior management team to develop “a comprehensive Code of Conduct” for adults at PEA “that articulates in one document the limits of personal behavior and describes appropriate interactions with children.”
That letter did not reveal, however, that PEA had just learned of allegations against Schubart — reported by a former student who had become a teacher there in 2011, according to documents recently released by Exeter police.
It wasn’t until March 30 that Lisa MacFarlane, who became principal last September, sent a letter to alumni notifying them of disciplinary actions taken against Schubart in 2011 and 2015.
Schubart was forced to resign in 2011.
After a second alumna in 2015 also reported past sexual misconduct by Schubart, the school barred him from campus and stripped him of his emeritus status.
Both cases were reported to police but no charges were filed; the statute of limitations has expired.
Transparency called key
Since the March 30 letter, PEA administrators have taken steps to keep alumni and parents informed of ongoing efforts to address the issue.
They also created a web page, www.exeter.edu/response, with links to past communications and victim support services.
Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said transparency is key.
“We believe that students, faculty and staff have the right to know about an offender in their community so they can make decisions about their own safety,” she said.
And she said boarding schools have a special duty to protect students.
“There’s something very unique about a residential setting where minors live in such close proximity with adults,” she said. “The school has responsibilities that would otherwise be attributed to parents for the safety and welfare of the students living on campus.”
Parents place their trust in school leaders, she said, and expect they will “communicate openly when there’s a safety issue,” she said.
She said administrators at Phillips Exeter failed in that obligation after they learned about Schubart’s past sexual misconduct. “We think that once they knew about this, and he had acknowledged that he engaged in this conduct, that the school should have communicated in a forthright manner with students, faculty and staff.”
Tom Hassan, the husband of Gov. Maggie Hassan, retired as PEA principal at the end of the 2014-15 school year and was hired as the new president of School Year Abroad in North Andover, Mass., starting June 1. An SYA spokesman has said the organization will continue to “closely monitor” the situation at Phillips Exeter.
Last week, PEA principal MacFarlane revealed that a current teacher, Steve Lewis, had been fired and barred from campus after admitting to “sexual encounters” with a student more than two decades earlier.
Concern for the victims
TAB’s Upham said it’s not enough to encourage victims to come forward. Schools also must have systems in place to protect victims, report crimes and offer whatever help they need.
“We should never lose sight of the fact that the victim is the primary tragedy,” he said, “because these incidents can have terrible, life-long impacts.”
The broader community is also affected, he said.
“You have an erosion of trust between families and faculty members,” he said. “You have a pall of unjustified suspicion over the heads of the scores of faculty who make this their life work, their vocation. ... It injures members of that community even if they went to the school 50 years ago.”
Laurie Hurd is executive director of the Independent Schools Association of Northern New England, whose members include PEA, Coe-Brown Academy in Northwood and Pinkerton Academy in Derry.
After the recent revelations of sexual misconduct at private schools, Hurd said many schools are taking another look at policies they have in place to protect students and empower victims.
Hurd said reports of past sexual misconduct should be handled “transparently, while also protecting the victim’s privacy.”
It’s a challenge, she said, and every situation is different. “But I think there’s an expectation that a school alert its community that it is dealing with something that has affected or may have affected members of its community.”
In the end, Hurd said, “As all of this conversation is going on, the victims, whether past or present, are the ones that we are most concerned about.”