Choosing a school is an intense and important decision for parents, and for older students involved in planning their educational journeys. Hunting for the best-fitting environment to meet a student’s needs should be about comparing campuses, amenities, college admission support, educational programs in the student’s areas of interest, and other exciting elements of the school experience.
The last thing students and their parents should have to worry about is whether they’ll be subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of faculty, staff, or other students, and whether the school will respond appropriately to any criminal conduct that does arise.
Unfortunately, sexual violence mars the school experiences of all too many American private school students, and these institutions are often more concerned with protecting their images than the students entrusted to their care.
“Troubled Teen” Private Schools Are Havens for Sadistic and Predatory Adults
Also referred to as “Therapeutic Boarding Schools,” private schools that market themselves as ways of treating or reforming “troubled” teenagers are pervasively abusive by design, emotionally, physically, and in some cases, sexually. This sprawling industry, as it exists now, stemmed out of an organization called the Worldwide Association of Specialty Schools (WWASPS), founded in 1998 by Robert Lichfield, who has owned several of these for-profit “schools.” Most appear to exist for the sole purpose of torturing minors, extracting money from parents, and, arguably, providing those who enjoy exploiting power over teenagers with unfettered access to a large pool of victims.
The abuses, both sexual and otherwise, consistently reported by survivors of WWASPS-affiliated schools and related programs are almost unfathomable. Denial of food, sleep, and restroom access are commonplace. Teens have died of preventable illnesses after being refused medical care. Suicides complete with notes have been quietly labeled “accidents,” and survivors have been forced to dry themselves with towels stained with the blood of a dead classmate.
Some overseas programs, like Tranquility Bay in Jamaica, have been shut down due to exposed use of torture and unsanitary conditions. However, many more still exist in U.S states with lax private school regulations, principally Utah, as well as Arizona, Montana, and Georgia. In Utah, these facilities often receive no oversight at all beyond a twice-yearly internal inspection, performed by individuals who profit from the institutions’ continued existence.
Following a rash of bad publicity, representatives of WWASPS claim that the organization has been disbanded, but it legally still exists, sharing its official mailing address with one of its notorious Utah schools, Diamond Ranch Academy.
In July of 2017, a student and her parents sued Diamond Ranch Academy for allegedly allowing a counselor to groom and repeatedly sexually assault her. According to the lawsuit, the “academy” had extensive, documented knowledge of the counselor initiating inappropriate physical contact with students in the past, but continued to allow him to meet with students alone in his office, which had its window covered with butcher’s paper to prevent passersby from seeing inside.
While this may sound like the kind of apathy toward sexual violence that can sadly be observed in a variety of settings, the sexual abuse in “troubled teen” schools is often systematic rather than just inadequately prevented.
In 2011, nine former students of Mount Bachelor Academy in Oregon sued for alleged emotional, sexual, and physical abuse. Their suits contain harrowing accounts of girls being raped, blamed for being raped, and forced to perform lap dances for male staff members and students in the name of “therapy.” Counsel for the survivors has described them as “some of the most emotionally damaged young adults that I have encountered,” while noting that she has also represented survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church.
Some Parents of “Troubled Teens” Have No Idea What They’re Signing Their Children Up For
Although some parents are fully complicit in the abuse of their children in “troubled teen” schools and programs, buying into the promise of having their teenagers crushed into submission for them, other parents are taken in by misleading marketing practices. Some “troubled teen” schools present a compassionate facade, claiming to be able to treat any and every issue a teen might have, from drug addiction to eating disorders to learning disabilities. Above all, they aim to convince parents that their teen will die or irreparably ruin their life without the program’s help, so that they can justify charging exorbitant fees — sometimes more than the most expensive college tuition — to take that teen off the parents’ hands.
Once enrolled in a program, teens are sometimes subjected to routines of abuse, which contain no education and no clinically approved forms of therapy for their individual conditions. These teens can be cut off from any unmonitored communication that might enable them to report what’s being done to them. When they turn 18 and are legally free to leave, students are sometimes left with no high school diploma, no job skills, crippling emotional damage on top of the problems they were enrolled for in the first place, and nowhere to go. And further, those who refuse to return home to parents sometimes find themselves dependent on their abusers within the program into adulthood.
It should be easy for parents to learn by reputation the allegations against these programs, but many “troubled teen” schools rebrand themselves at the first sign of bad publicity, voluntarily shutting down and then reopening with a new name, often in the same buildings with the same staff.
At the end of 2018, one “therapeutic” boarding school in Montana, Reflections Academy, was sued three times in three months with allegations of sexual grooming and, in one case, sexual assault by a counselor. The counselor in question had allegedly been bringing female students to live with him after their graduation from the program, under the guise of offering therapeutic services he was not qualified to provide.
One journalist’s subsequent investigation reported that the counselor and the school’s principle had been working together for 15 years across multiple “therapeutic” teen programs in Montana, including Spring Creek, which was closed down following a suicide and class action lawsuit. According the news report, the principle has a history of submitting paperwork still bearing the names of previous, defunct programs, and the Reflections Academy website was already equipped with parent testimonials before it was even opened. Was “Reflections” merely the latest name for a repeatedly disgraced and rebranded program?
Some of the Most Prestigious Academic Private Schools Are Not Immune to Allegations of Abuse
Sketchy “troubled teen” programs aren’t the only private schools with allegations of rampant sexual assault problems. Highly respected prep schools also have an allegedly sordid history that is finally coming into public view.
Under increasing pressure from a snowballing number of survivors coming forward and encouraging others to do the same, several of these schools have released reports detailing their past sexual abuses. Though some have avoided documenting transgressions within the statute of limitations, the information they have released speaks of a long-standing culture of enablement and coverups. A few of the supposedly top-tier private schools to have their past sexual assaults documented so far include:
- The Hotchkiss School — Sexual abuse by both teachers and doctors, including unnecessary vaginal exams. One abuser reportedly found out that his victim was also being molested by another staff member, and responded only by telling her to check the other staff member for STDs so she wouldn’t pass them back to him.
- The Emma Willard School — Sexual assaults of students by both male and female teachers. Administrators who tried to intervene report having been stopped by a “cult” of male teachers.
- Choate Rosemary Hall — Assaults and rape ranging from the 1960s to the 2010s, involving at least 12 faculty members. In the most recent case, a teacher who reportedly kissed a student and made inappropriate sexual comments was made to sign a resignation letter, but told that it would only be used if his behavior became a publicity problem for the school.
- Loomis Chaffee School — Numerous cases of sexual misconduct spanning 1960-2004, including unaddressed repeat incidents surrounding the same eight staff members.
- George’s School — At least 61 identified victims willing to give firsthand accounts. These survivors describe living in a “private hell,” where their abuse was an open secret no one would do anything about. Staff members who became the subject of enough accusations were given recommendation letters to teach at other schools, instead of being reported to police.
- Horace Mann School — At least 64 victims from the ’60s through the ’90s. This all-boys school claimed to be launching an investigation after its sexual abuse scandal first broke in 2012, but it never did. The report that was eventually released was commissioned by alumni hoping to protect present and future students.
Individual accusations have also come out against other famous prep schools, including Poly Prep Country Day School, where one woman states that she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her tennis coach in the ’80s.
More specialized schools have had similarly vast records of alleged sexual assault surface as well, including the American School for the Deaf, whose former executive director and other former staff members have been accused of grooming and sexual assault involving deaf and hearing impaired students as young as 12.
The Problem of Sexual Assault in Private Schools Is Not Over
Because intensive investigations of institutional sexual abuse often detail events from some distance in the past, many people make the repeated mistake of assuming that the problem itself is now in the past. This is far from the truth, no matter which niche of the private school industry you look at.
The reality is that most sexual assaults are not reported until years later, if at all. This is not only because of cultural shifts like #MeToo making survivors feel less isolated and therefore more comfortable coming forward. Regardless of the surrounding social climate, survivors often need years or even decades to process their trauma to the point of being able to stop turning the blame inward. This is especially true of survivors of institutional and childhood sexual abuse.
In some of the most recent cases of survivors coming forward with their experiences of private school sexual abuse, a New Jersey wrestling coach has been arrested on charges of sexual assault and filming child pornography, after allegedly providing “private coaching sessions” to at least one underage student in 2016. He had coached at eight different high schools in his career, including two Catholic private schools.
Another private school coach, this one in Nebraska, has pled no contest to repeatedly sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl on her basketball team in 2012, a private school teacher in Detroit has been arrested for allegedly having sex with his 14-year-old student in 2010, and a former student is suing Westover School in Connecticut for allegedly allowing her squash coach to sexually abuse her in the mid-2000s.
All of these stories broke in the first two months of 2020 alone, and they represent both the ongoing nature of the private school sexual assault problem, and a fairly typical reporting delay among even the bravest and best-supported young people, who need time to process the fact that what happened to them was neither normal nor their fault.
The Stoddard Firm Proudly Represents Survivors of Institutional Sexual Abuse
Private schools and other private institutions that enable sexual assault to thrive on silence. Their policies and internal cultures are sometimes designed to prevent victims from speaking up, through intimidation, isolation, and conditioned self-doubt.
The passionate legal experts at The Stoddard Firm are committed to helping survivors of institutional sexual abuse find their voices, get the compensation they deserve, and hold the schools and programs that took advantage of them accountable, thereby protecting countless other potential victims.
If you or your child have been sexually assaulted while attending a private school, reach out to The Stoddard Firm immediately to learn more about your options in a free consultation. You can talk to a lawyer instantly at any time through our online chat function or at 678-RESULT.