St. George’s is one of the so-called Saint Grottlesex schools (along with Groton, Middlesex, St. Paul’s, and St. Mark’s), bastions of the Wasp establishment founded in the late 19th century to educate the sons of the Gilded Age elite. Graduates have included Mellons and Vanderbilts, Bushes and Biddles, Astors and Auchinclosses. It was patterned, like many other American prep schools, on English institutions like Eton and Harrow, and the legacy is visible in the stone neo-Gothic Episcopal chapel that towers over the campus, in the mandatory uniform (coat and tie for boys), in the terminology (9th grade is third form, 12th grade is sixth form).
Over time, St. George’s developed a reputation for producing clubbable Establishment heirs more than brainy members of the meritocracy. “It was a school where at one time very wealthy families would send their not so bright kids,” says a late-80s graduate. “We’re not talking about Nobel Prize winners here,” echoes Daniel Brewster, a 1974 graduate. “If you’re part of an entity that relies exclusively upon its reputation for its status in the world, that reputation will be protected at all costs. At St. George’s, it was built on, frankly, the Social Register of a century ago. Otherwise you went to St. Paul’s, Andover, or Exeter.” F. Scott Fitzgerald described the students of St. George’s as “prosperous and well-dressed,” and by the 1970s, the school had acquired the nickname “St. Gorgeous,” not only because of the school grounds but also because its admissions policy seemed to select for physical attractiveness.
The campus at St. George’s School in Middletown, R.I. More than 40 former students at the school alleged they were molested, mostly in the 1970s and ’80s. Some of the distinguished New England boarding schools that have long been training grounds for America’s elite are facing a reckoning with alumni and students coming forward with complaints of sexual abuse at the hands of schoolmates and teachers.
Exclusive boarding schools face reckoning on sexual abuse
PROVIDENCE, R.I. >> A series of sexual abuse scandals is forcing a reckoning at some of New England’s most exclusive boarding schools and sending a shudder through similar institutions around the country that have long been training grounds for members of America’s elite.
At St. George’s School in Rhode Island, scores of alumni have come forward to complain of being sexually violated by teachers or schoolmates. At St. Paul’s in New Hampshire, a rape trial revealed a tradition in which senior boys competed to have sex with younger girls. And at New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy, several graduates have accused faculty members of sexual abuse and other inappropriate behavior.
“It’s an environment built on manners and politeness and not talking about sex and money. And there’s an environment of being stoic, I guess, and not talking about personal failings. It’s an environment about success and competition,” said Anne Scott, who played a major role in exposing the abuse at St. George’s by telling The Boston Globe last year about being raped repeatedly by the athletic trainer in the 1970s.
St. George’s, an Episcopal school near Newport, recently apologized for decades of abuse and for failing to report it to the proper authorities. It hired an independent investigator in January, and victims’ lawyers said they are aware of credible reports of rape, fondling or other abuse involving more than 50 victims, with some cases perhaps as recent as 2011.
None of the accusations have resulted in criminal charges, but state police are investigating.
In the St. Paul’s case, 2014 graduate Owen Labrie was convicted last year and sentenced to a year in jail for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old freshman girl as part of a competition known around campus as the Senior Salute.
St. Paul’s has brought in experts to instruct students about harassment and relationships and has threatened to expel anyone participating in sexual competitions at the 160-year-old Episcopal school, whose alumni include Secretary of State John Kerry, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, at least 13 U.S. ambassadors and three Pulitzer Prize winners.
New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy, which was founded in 1781 and is the alma mater of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and President Franklin Pierce, acknowledged last month that a teacher who was forced into retirement in 2011 had admitted to two cases of sexual misconduct dating back to the 1970s and ’80s.
Since the disclosure, police said they have received a number of reports from alumni and are now investigating “sexual misconduct and abuse of students by at least two current or former faculty members.” Exeter said it has hired a law firm to investigate.
After a months-long investigation of sexual abuse at St. George’s School, a report released Thursday described the elite Rhode Island prep school in the 1970s and ’80s as a cauldron of sexual exploitation of students.
Sixty-one alumni gave investigators first-hand accounts of the abuse they say they suffered, with 51 saying the abusers were faculty or staff and an additional 10 reporting abuse by classmates. Two staff members abused at least one student every year they worked at St. George’s.
“The picture that emerges from this investigation is profoundly disturbing,” attorney Martin F. Murphy wrote in a preface to the 390-page report. Murphy, a partner at the Boston firm Foley Hoag, was appointed in January by St. George’s and the victims’ group SGS for Healing to investigate sex abuse at the school in Middletown, R.I.
For many of the alumni interviewed by Murphy’s team, the school was a place “where their abusers created a kind of private hell for them, a place where they suffered emotional wounds and trauma that for many remain unhealed,” according to the report. And what was worse for many, Murphy wrote, was “betrayal at the hands of an adult entrusted with their care, at a school where they saw few, if any, places to turn for help.”
In August, the school agreed to a financial settlement for 29 alumni. In June, under fire from alumni who felt he had not been responsive to the burgeoning sex scandal, headmaster Eric Peterson announced that he would not seek to renew his contract when it expires at the end of this school year.
In response to the report, Heaney said: “It is now quite clear that the school repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when reports of sexual abuse were brought to the attention of administrators and teachers.
Read the full St. George’s report
A 1980 yearbook photo of athletic trainer Al Gibbs. Nearly one in five female students who attended St. George’s School between 1972 and 1980 say he sexually abused them.
The most egregious case of abuse centers on Al Gibbs, an athletic trainer who, according to the report, allegedly abused 31 of the 51 victims of staffers. Murphy said nearly one in five girls who attended the school from 1972 to 1980 made first-hand reports of abuse by Gibbs, who “began sexually assaulting female students nearly as soon as” the campus went coed in 1972 and continued until he was fired.
The total is probably higher, Murphy said, since many victims choose not to report: “We expect the number of women actually abused by Gibbs substantially exceeds the reported figure.”
Zane Dorm will revert back to its original name, West Dorm.
Although Zane fired Gibbs in 1980, he wrote him a letter of recommendation. And, according to Murphy’s report, St. George’s continued to pay Gibbs an annual stipend of $1,200, given to employees with distinguished service.
Murphy’s investigation is the second at the school in the past year. The first one was headed by attorney Will Hannum, but when victims learned that he is not only the law partner of the school’s then-counsel but also her husband, they objected to what they considered a conflict of interest.
Though Murphy found that the report based on Hannum’s investigation was thorough and done in good faith, “an investigation begun with the best intentions went horribly awry” because alumni felt misled about Hannum’s independence from the school.
The Hannum investigation came after Scott and MacLeish began to push the school to launch an investigation into sexual abuse. The resulting report, released in December 2015, identified six staff abusers, all them anonymously except for Gibbs.
MacLeish and Durso, who are representing about 40 alleged St. George’s victims, earlier identified four of the staffers as choir master Franklin Coleman (who, like Gibbs, “sexually abused at least one student in each year of his tenure at the school,” the report said); assistant chaplain Howard White; and teachers Bill Lydgate and Timothy Tefft. They were also named in the report released Thursday.
Some of the St. George’s perpetrators went on to work at other schools and settings with children. The Globe reported in February that White is being investigated in North Carolina on allegations that he abused two teenagers while a rector there in the 1980s. Tefft, who is serving a prison term for child pornography, was also accused at two other schools in Connecticut and New York. Lydgate resigned from the Island School in Kauai in 2003 after students told school officials that he had made sexual advances.
The report also addresses a more recent allegation against technology head and dorm master Charles Thompson, who in 2004 was put on leave after several boys complained that Thompson had invited them into his apartment and touched them inappropriately. Months later, he was allowed to return to teaching, though not to live on campus. On advice of the school’s outside counsel, who told Peterson the behavior did not constitute sexual abuse, the school did not report Thompson to state authorities.
The report criticized another attorney for the school, William P. Robinson III, for the “aggressive approach” he and former head of school Archer Harman took toward Anne Scott when she brought a lawsuit against the school in 1989. The strategy included efforts, which the court rejected, to disclose her name publicly and to say that she may have had consensual sex with Gibbs when she was 15 and he was 67.
Robinson was appointed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court in 2004.
St. George’s is only one among a snowballing list of prominent prep schools recently shaken by accusations of abuse, as one after another is forced to reckon with a shameful past. They include Groton, Horace Mann, Deerfield, St. Paul’s, Hotchkiss, Pomfret, Pingry, and Exeter. “Elite boarding schools turn out an outsize number of societal leaders,” says Whit Sheppard, a Deerfield graduate who has written about being a victim of abuse there and now advises schools on handling similar crises (including, for a short time, St. George’s). “This is the part of the story that no one wanted to talk about.”
Anthony Zane looked like he’d stepped out of the sort of oil portrait meant to be hung against wood paneling. Arriving at St. George’s in 1972, he was a patrician, old-fashioned headmaster, a hale man of action more than introspection, his Dalmatian always at his side.
After the parents of a St. George’s student reported to the school in 1974 that sports-car-driving associate chaplain Howard “Howdy” White had raped their son, Zane expressed shock that the relationship had been more than “paternal.” He fired White but also seemed not to fully grasp the harm White had inflicted or the danger he represented. Zane didn’t report White to the Rhode Island State Police or the Department of Children, Youth & Families. When White contacted him shortly thereafter, seeking help, Zane responded warmly, saying that he would pay him an additional month’s salary and reimburse him for his moving expenses. He did add that “if you find yourself hard pressed in the future I suggest that you consider selling your Porsche . . . . I feel strongly that you should not be in a boarding school and that you should seek psychiatric help.” He asked White not to return to St. George’s “until one generation has gone through, that is, not for another five years.” White didn’t return, but he did go on to serve as dean and chaplain at Chatham Hall, a girls’ prep school in Virginia, and then as rector at a church in North Carolina from 1984 to 2006; state police are investigating an allegation that he molested a teenage girl there, and the Providence Journal located at least one other alleged victim from that period. (White is now retired in Bedford, Pennsylvania, where he is under ecclesiastical review by the Episcopal Church. He has not commented on the allegations.)
Why didn’t the school catch on to Gibbs earlier? Clearly, there were rumors circulating about him, even if they were expressed jokingly: in the 1979 yearbook, a caption under a photo of Gibbs with a girl read, “Mr. Gibbs, get your hand off my . . . Elbow.”
As he had done with White, Zane failed to report Gibbs to any state agencies. (Zane told Vanity Fair that he had not been aware of any legal obligation to do so.) Upon Gibbs’s departure, Zane announced at a school assembly that the trainer had left merely because of a health issue. This may have been justified by concern for the privacy of the girls, but shockingly, the school gave Gibbs a pension as well as a letter of recommendation which described him as “most certainly competent” and attributed his departure from St. George’s to a “medical leave.” Gibbs even reappeared on campus a few years later, attending a cocktail party during homecoming weekend.
The school became a factory for Holden Caulfields, alienated kids whose parenting had been outsourced to a not very nurturing place. Freshmen and sophomores were effectively in the care of the seniors who ran the dorms. It was a Darwinian environment, which several St. George’s alumni separately described to me as Lord of the Flies. Certain years, the hazing got way, way out of hand. In the fall of 1978, a senior made a freshman named Harry Groome stand on a trash can and pull down his boxer shorts, whereupon the older student sodomized him with a broomstick in front of several other students. It was neither a secret incident nor one that was taken seriously by the school: a later yearbook photo of Groome in a trash can was captioned: “It’s better than a broomstick!” Four years later, several boys experienced unwanted nighttime visits from seniors trying to fondle them. After Charlie Henry awoke one night during his third-form year, in 1982, to find a darkness-obscured figure touching him, he slept with a knife under his pillow for the remainder of the semester. The same year, some seniors took a freshman boy to a dorm basement, where they beat him up and raped him with a pencil.
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