Wednesday, July 27, 2016

PRIVATE SCHOOLS, PAINFUL SECRETS: The unexpected price of reporting abuse: retaliation

When a small boarding school in the Berkshires discovered that a music teacher was having a sexual relationship with a female student, administrators responded in a way many parents would applaud: They fired him.

But Buxton School officials took another step as well. They asked the teenager to leave.

Just weeks before graduation in 1982, 18-year-old Erika Schickel was told that her continued presence would make others at the school uncomfortable. That included the teacher’s girlfriend, who worked there.

Buxton officials unceremoniously sent Schickel a diploma in the mail and included her picture in the yearbook only at the insistence of indignant friends.

"The top priority for the school was to get rid of me,” said Schickel, who remembers boarding the bus in Williamstown to leave, heartbroken and confused. "I walked around in a daze for years, so torn up and destroyed. I had made that my home and my family.”

The Globe Spotlight Team, in its ongoing investigation of abuses at New England private schools, found at least 15 instances of apparent retaliation against students who were sexually exploited by staffers or against employees who raised concerns about alleged sexual abuse and harassment. Some cases date back decades, while others are quite recent. But all of them are still raw for the people who felt the backlash.

The retribution, they say, came in various forms, including abusers lashing out at their accusers or enlisting other students to ostracize them, and administrators punishing or expelling students who complained of being victimized. At Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Waterbury, Conn., a fifth-grader who told officials a teacher had sexually assaulted her repeatedly in the early 1970s was forced to kneel and recite the "Hail Mary” prayer to atone, according to a 2010 lawsuit that was later settled.

Many of these retaliation allegations surfaced after the Globe first reported in December about a sexual abuse scandal at St. George’s School in Rhode Island, where lawyers for victims say they have received credible allegations that nearly 50 alumni were sexually abused. Since then, at least 22 private schools in New England have launched investigations into sexual misconduct by staffers, many sparked by the Globe’s reporting.

The troubles go way beyond St. George’s. Since a May investigation by the Spotlight Team found 67 private schools in New England that had been touched by allegations of sexual misconduct by staffers over the past 25 years, scores of additional private school alumni and students have contacted the Globe to tell their stories. The count now stands at more than 100 schools, where more than 300 former students say they faced sexual abuse or harassment.

Many of these cases were not reported to authorities at the time, and the doubting, shaming, and alleged arbitrary punishment of some who report abuse may partly explain why. This pattern of reticence is consistent with a 2004 national study that found only 6 to 10 percent of students abused by educators report it to someone who can do something about it.

Retaliation cases can be ambiguous and tricky to prove. Abusers often seek out students with issues — such as family problems or learning disabilities — that make them insecure and more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Then, after their victimization, children and teenagers who suffer sexual abuse sometimes act out disruptively or develop substance abuse or psychological problems. That can lead schools to take disciplinary action against them for violations of school rules.

Particularly difficult are cases involving older teens, who may feel they are in consensual relationships with school staffers and may be of legal age.

Although some states, such as Connecticut, make it a crime for an educator to have sexual contact with a student regardless of age, many others do not. In Massachusetts, it’s not illegal for an educator to have sex with a student, as long as the student is at least 16 and the relationship is considered consensual.

Even if the relationship is not a crime, schools still assume a duty to protect students from exploitation by staff members. But some institutions, the Globe review found, have responded to allegations of sexual exploitation by cracking down on the students, as if they were the wrongdoers.

A former student at the Emma Willard School in upstate New York recently went public with allegations that the school forced her to leave in 1998 after the 18-year-old — who had been having a sexual relationship with her soccer coach and history teacher — told officials the educator had gagged, bound, and raped her. A spokeswoman said the school fired the teacher that year and has hired a firm to investigate the allegations, which officials there take "very seriously."

Many private schools do have policies for staffers that strictly prohibit sexual contact with students. The standard for schools should be unambiguous, said Peter Upham, executive director of The Association of Boarding Schools.

"For a teacher, coach, or other school employee to have sexual contact with a high school student, even if the student is legally of the ‘age of consent,’ is an egregious breach," he said.

Upham said his group condemns retaliation against anyone who brings a good-faith allegation of educator misconduct.

"When directed against an abuse survivor, retaliation re-injures the victim," Upham added. "When directed against a witness or other knowledgeable party, retaliation creates a new victim and suppresses future reporting of concerns.”

Students and school staff have both felt the pain of reprisals for reporting abuse. But it is the young who often bear the brunt: In 13 of the 15 cases reviewed by the Spotlight Team, the alleged retaliation was toward students.

In November 1994, officials at the Forman School in Litchfield, Conn., discovered that a married teacher, Susie Stiles, was having sex with a 16-year-old junior at Stiles’ apartment on campus. The headmaster of the school, which specializes in teaching students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, promptly fired Stiles and ordered her to stay away from the teenager. The school did not report her to police, though it was and is illegal in the state for a teacher to have sex with a student.

The teenager was distraught over the ousting of his teacher, according to the student’s parents. The boy ran away from school and, after a confrontation with police, was placed on suicide watch at a local hospital. When the teenager returned to Forman, things only got worse. Classmates taunted him, and the boy felt Stiles’ husband, also a teacher at Forman, glared at him every time they crossed paths, according to the student’s father, Michael, who requested that only his first name be used to protect his son’s identity.

The junior began getting into fights, including one with a student who had teased him about Stiles, Michael said. Just a month after Stiles was fired, records show, a school disciplinary board voted 3-to-2 to expel the junior.

When Michael picked up his son, he found the boy’s belongings dumped in trash bags in the hallway.

"They didn’t try to control the situation there,” Michael said. "Rather than see that he was a victim and should be treated as such, instead they were treating him as if he were the problem. They decided to wash their hands of him.”

Forman officials today say that an administrator who had agreed to monitor the boy after he was released from the hospital saw no signs of retaliation. "It was all pretty awkward,” Stiles’ now ex-husband told the Globe, but added, "The idea that I glared at him is absurd.”

The school now acknowledges that police should have been alerted about the abuse.

After the teenager was expelled from school — and against the wishes of his parents — the student followed Stiles and lived with her for a time in West Virginia, where she had moved and continued teaching. Stiles abruptly resigned from Jefferson County schools in February 1997. She told the Globe she decided not to teach any longer. Jefferson County school officials declined to comment on the terms of her departure.

Stiles, who now works with rescued animals and has changed her name, said in a phone interview that she was abused by a family member as a child and was going through a "difficult period” when she was at Forman, including struggles with alcohol.

"It was horrible,” she said, recalling the problems her former student faced at Forman after their relationship was discovered. "I would never intentionally hurt anyone.”


Conventional Wisdom on Education?

The Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week has showcased plenty of hoopla and boilerplate rhetoric – some of it apparently plagiarized – but provided little enlightenment on key themes such as education. On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan and New Jersey governor Chris Christie bypassed the subject completely. Not so Donald Trump Jr., son of the Republican nominee, who is not running for office.

"Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class, now they’re stalled on the ground floor,” he told the conventioneers. "They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.” According to the nominee’s son, the reason other countries are besting the U.S. is that in other nations, "They let parents choose where they send their own children to school. It’s called competition. It’s called the free market.” In other countries, "They let parents choose where they send their own children to school. It’s called competition. It’s called the free market.” Trump Jr. said the free market is "what the other party fears,” and "They want to run everything, top-down from Washington. They tell us they’re the experts and they know what’s best.”

As Education Week noted, despite the speech, RNC delegates were "totally in the dark about what Trump stands for when it comes to K-12 policy.” The candidate is on record that "Our public schools have grown up in a competition-free zone, surrounded by a very high union wall,” and that teacher unions "take a strong stand against school choice.” He also said last year: "I may cut Department of Education.”

Ronald Reagan and other Republicans failed to cut the department and it has grown in power, with a budget of nearly $70 billion, up $1.3 billion over 2016. The federal department also deploys an armed enforcement division. For a wider assessment of federal education policy see Vicki Alger’s Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.


Fort Worth Schools Modify Transgender Policy to Include Parental Oversight

The Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas has altered its policy dealing with transgender students to include parents in decisions made for their children who attend the public schools.

"The primary difference is these guidelines focus on parent communication,” School Superintendent Kent Scribner said on Wednesday as reported by a local CBS affiliate. "Parent rights and responsibilities.”

As reported earlier, the guidance issued in June put students’ privacy over parental involvement in decisions, including what bathroom a transgender student could choose to use and whether the decision to "transition” to the gender the student prefers was made known to parents.

Parents and others were reportedly outraged at the guidance, and at the request of Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a non-binding opinion on the policy following its release.

"Far from creating a partnership between parents, educators, and administrators regarding their children’s education, the guidelines relegate parents to a subordinate status, receiving information only on a need-to-know basis,’” Paxton said.

"Limiting parents' access to information in this way impairs their ability to ‘actively participate,’” the opinion stated, referencing Chapter 26 of the state’s Education Code.

The Dallas Morning News reported on Wednesday that the changes reflect what was heard from concerned parents and others and also a change was made as it refers participation in athletics based on established rules.

"The new guidelines reflect what we've heard from students and teachers, parents and pastors," Scribner said in a statement published in part in the paper. "Our focus from the beginning has been the safety of all children and that, overwhelmingly, was the concern we heard from our parents and others."  

"Transgender students and their parents must now contact a school administrator or counselor to request a meeting to discuss their unique circumstances,” the article stated. "Any accommodations — including the access to restrooms or locker rooms — will be determined on a case-by-case basis based upon individual needs and school facilities.

"When students are separated by gender for facilities or activities, transgender children may participate according to their individual support plan,” the article stated. "However, high school sports sanctioned by the University Interscholastic League must adhere to that league's rules, which uses the birth certificate to determine gender.”

In a statement, Paxton praised the changes.

"I applaud the Fort Worth Independent School District for revising its guideline to ensure it complies with state law and my recent attorney general opinion,” the statement said. "This guideline now allows school officials to consider the needs of students and their families on a case-by-case basis while considering the health and safety of all students.

"Unfortunately, the Obama administration disagrees with allowing school officials to make common-sense, case-by-case choices,” said Paxton, referring to guidance issued by the Department of Justice earlier this year in response to a law in North Carolina requiring students to use the bathrooms and other facilities based on the sex on their birth certificate.


1 comment:

R Johnson said...

It is a shame that students who are victimized face this kind of retaliation instead of the support that they so desperately need. Often, the drug or alcohol addiction that develops down the road for them can be traced back to inadequate support during this crucial time.