An independent report
released on September 1 detailing the long-term sexual abuse that went
on at St. George’s School, an elite boarding school in Rhode Island,
shed light on the policies that fostered an environment where faculty
and staff took repeated advantage of students.
The report, commissioned by St. George’s and an organization
called SGS for Healing and conducted by an outside law firm, found that
six employees abused at least 51 students, and that students sexually
bullied or hazed 10 others.
Among its findings, the report determined the rules and standards in
place at the school — which “paved the way for abuse of students” — were
common among most boarding schools during the 1970s and 80s, and the
school’s leaders “did little, and certainly not enough” to remedy the
situation, according to the report.
For instance, the school allowed faculty to take students on
overnight and weekend trips at the school’s expense, and dorm parents –
adult advisers who live in student dorms – often let older students
supervise dorms in their absence. These practices were, according to the
report, not unique to St. George’s, and l eaders at the school were not
found to have “acted differently than the leaders of many other
boarding schools in New England or elsewhere in the United States.”
While the nearly 400-page report paints a disturbing picture of the “private hell” many students experienced, it also investigates how a scandal of this scope could have happened in the first place.
“…[T]he most relevant question is whether school leaders took the
steps necessary to prevent, to the extent possible, teachers or staff
from molesting students, or to prevent older students from sexually
assaulting younger students,” the report reads.
Despite its overall inaction, the school took some steps to address
the abuse, according to the report. It fired three employees: Howard
White, the associate chaplain; Al Gibbs, the athletic trainer; and
Franklin Coleman, the choirmaster and music teacher. A fourth employee
and English teacher, William Lydgate, was “likely fired” for the same
reason, according to the report.
St. George’s, however, continued to support Gibbs and Coleman after
their departures. St. George’s found that Gibbs was abusing girls,
taking naked photographs of them, and circulating those pictures among male students, and at least 31 girls made firsthand reports of abuse at Gibbs’ hands, according to the report.
Despite being aware of Gibbs’ misconduct, however, the school
continued to award him a $1,200 annual grant for “distinguished
service,” a grant he received until his death in 1996.
The school’s Dean of Faculty also continued to recommend Coleman for
other teaching positions. Coleman joined St. Georges’ during the
1980-1981 academic year and worked there until May 1988. He “sexually
abused at least one student in each year of his tenure at the school,”
according to the report.
“But we believe there is no credible justification for the actions the school took to help Coleman and Gibbs after the school fired them,” the report reads.
The revelation of such widespread abuse at the school prompted
investigators to question why officials ignored the reports and why
these issues were not brought to light earlier. The tendency
of administrations to look the other way is not unheard of though.
“Often, in these environments, it’s common to have victims report the
crime and not be taken seriously, or be silenced by the administration
and have their reports buried,” Terri Poore, policy director at the
National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, told Business Insider.
“What we’ve seen historically is that whenever there’s a closed
system, whether it’s the military, or in this case, a school, there’s a
strong hierarchy and a sense of secrecy and authority,” Poore said. “The
need for the organization to protect its own reputation can trump the
well-being of the victim.”
Students and others demonstrate on the Penn State campus. AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Soon after the report’s release, St. George Headmaster Eric Peterson announced that would not renew his contract, set to expire in June 2017, and essentially step down from his role.
Despite the school’s previous mistakes, the investigation itself was thoroughly handled, according to Anne Scott, whose account of being raped repeatedly as a sophomore by Gibbs in the 1970s was the key to bringing about the investigation.
“It was very well done, in terms of how the investigation was
conducted and the final report itself,” Scott told Business Insider.
“I am happy with the steps the school has taken, especially the fact
that they’re going to remove Mr. Zane’s name from the girls’ dormitory,
which was very important to the Gibbs survivors,” she continued.
Scott was referring to Anthony Zane, headmaster of the school during
her years at St. George’s. Saying Zane represented a “massive failure”
in child protection when he was headmaster, Scott cited his seemingly
lenient behavior toward Gibbs, as well as his alleged dismissiveness
toward another victim, Katie Wales.
Although Zane was aware of allegations of sexual abuse against Gibbs,
he signed off on a recommendation letter for him and approved a stipend
Gibbs received annually until his death, according to the report.
“When Katie Wales went to Zane, she was not believed and not treated well at all,” Scott said.
Zane “has said it was he who approached Wales, after a senior boy
happened to catch Gibbs photographing a naked girl with a towel over her
face and reported him, and said that he never called Wales crazy,” according to Vanity Fair.
Zane did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
Since the report’s release, St. George’s also noted it’s taken
action to improve the school’s culture. A representative for St.
George’s pointed Business Insider to a letter sent to the St. George’s
community on September 1 by Leslie Heaney, Chair of the Board of
Trustees. Heaney highlighted several steps the school would implement in
light of the report’s findings.
First, she announced that St. George’s would retain “David Wolowitz,
an attorney who specializes in this area, to review the school’s
reporting procedures and policies and to conduct additional boundary
training of faculty and staff.”
The letter points out that a training session occurred in June.
St. George’s would also conduct more extensive and ongoing background
checks of employees and volunteer staff and create a “Community
Response Team” to handle allegations of sexual abuse in partnership with
the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.
“It’s a very good idea and an effective tool for schools to partner
with local rape crisis centers to better address sexual violence on
campus,” Poore said. “Along with that, they should also find ways to
improve the conversation itself around sexual assault.”
While Scott expressed relief the school has address the issue, she
said “there is always more to be done, and that applies to how schools
make it a habit to be ever vigilant …. This isn’t something that just
happened decades ago; it happens today. And schools, including St.
George’s, need to be vigilant in keeping children safe.”
When asked about steps that can be taken on a larger scale, Scott
stressed the need for legislative reform in addressing sexual violence.
“We need mechanisms to regulate private schools, we need to reform
reporting laws, and we need to put forward a legislative and regulatory
reform agenda,” she said, underscoring the flaws in current Rhode Island
law, particularly on the civil side.”