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Former NH state rep speaks about lawsuit over alleged abuse at prep school

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 24. 2017 10:16PM

MANCHESTER — Former New Hampshire state Rep. Marie Sapienza said Monday she was so traumatized that she was barely able to function after being sexually abused by a faculty member at an elite Massachusetts prep school when she was a student there in the early 1980s.

Sapienza and her attorney discussed allegations she made in a federal lawsuit against Alexander Theroux, a former writer in residence and English teacher at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

“I was a kid and it was pretty scary,” Sapienza said Monday during a news conference in Boston, where the lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on Friday. “When you’re a child and someone approaches you it’s very frightening and, back then at least, there was very little guidance in how to handle such a thing.”

Sapienza said she was about 15 when Theroux first abused her at his on-campus home at the academy in 1982. She said Theroux later called her at home, promising her a good grade if she enrolled in one of his classes.

Sapienza, who just turned 50, said in addition to physically abusing her, Theroux also caused emotional trauma that eventually led to her leaving the school voluntarily in 1984.

She said she went on to graduate from Andover (Mass.) High School, but that it was difficult and took her additional time because of her experiences at the private school.

“I left there barely able to function,” she said. “I was evaluated by psychiatrist. I was afraid to leave the house. I wouldn’t eat food in a restaurant. I couldn’t stand being closed up in small spaces. I left there such a mess.”

Now an attorney in Hampstead, Sapienza said she left the academy after being frustrated by the response she received from the former headmaster when she wrote her allegations in a letter to the school paper. According to the lawsuit, the letter was not published and the headmaster said Theroux was no longer working at the academy and there was nothing he could do.

Phillips Academy identified Theroux last summer in a letter to students, families and alumni disclosing five sexual misconduct cases involving former faculty members and students in the 1970s and 1980s.

The academy found that Theroux had engaged in sexual misconduct toward a student in the 1970s, then learned of additional concerns about Theroux’s behavior toward students. Although Theroux has denied the allegations against him, he has been barred from campus in accordance with school policy.

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who is representing Sapienza, said if the academy had acted sooner against Theroux, it may have spared Sapienza and other students who would make similar accusations against Theroux.

“This was a criminal act,” Garabedian said at the news conference. “This is not consenting adults. This is a person in a position of trust.”

Sapienza is suing Theroux for $20 million — $5 million for each claim in the lawsuit. Garabedian said the lawsuit would include the academy, too, had the statute of limitations not run out over the last 35 years.

Head of School John Palfrey, who disclosed the previous sexual misconduct cases in the letter last summer following an investigation by a law firm hired by the school, released a statement Monday reiterating the school is committed to preventing future cases from occurring.

“Our hearts go out to all those who were harmed at our school and at all schools in the past,” Palfrey said. “ At Andover, we are committed to learning as much as we can about our school’s past, offering support and acknowledgement for survivors of sexual misconduct, and ensuring the safety and security of all students on our campus today. The harms done to students in the past must never be repeated.”

A message left for Theroux at his address in West Barnstable, Mass., was not returned Monday.

Sapienza said she read about the school’s response and decision to commission the independent investigation last summer. She said she hadn’t been contacted by anybody and questioned how thorough the investigation could have been.

Sapienza said even after 35 years, it was difficult to come forward again.

“Sometimes it takes a little encouragement to do something difficult,” she said. “I publicly thank those who came out, so to speak, before me because that helped me feel like it’s safe to talk about it again.”

Sapienza served in the New Hampshire House of Representatives representing District 8, Rockingham, for four terms — from 1997 to 2002, and again from 2010 to 2012.

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