Megan Stone Venton, Carolyn Surrick and Annie Applegarth say they survived sexual abuse while students at Key School in Annapolis in the 1970s. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

A private school in Maryland has launched an investigation into allegations that a culture of sexual abuse flourished decades ago with administrators’ knowledge.

Multiple former students told The Washington Post they were groomed and sexually abused by teachers in the 1970s at Key School in Annapolis and in some cases had intimate contact with adults that lasted years.

Two Baltimore lawyers are leading the investigation into the alleged misconduct at the school, which serves students from prekindergarten through 12th grade. Matthew Nespole, the current head of school, said in a statement this month that a February review of the allegations indicated former Key officials failed to protect students.

“It appears that members of the Key community neglected to respond appropriately to contemporaneous reports made by former students of faculty misconduct that includes the sexual victimization of students,” the statement said. “I offer my deepest sympathy to the victims and survivors and sincerely hope the investigation will help us begin the healing process.”

Joe Janney, president of Key School’s board of trustees, said in a statement that the allegations are “credible and . . . extremely upsetting.”

“The behavior of many of the accused is inexcusable and intolerable,” the statement said. “On behalf of the Key School, we deeply regret what occurred and apologize to all who were impacted by this.”

The allegations surfaced after 59-year-old Carolyn Surrick, who said she was abused by two Key teachers starting when she was 13, fought for years to shine a spotlight on her story and those of other accusers.

She wrote about the alleged abuse on social media in January using the hashtag #KeyToo — a reference to the #MeToo movement in which women have spoken out about sexual harassment and assault. One other accuser had spoken publicly before Surrick’s campaign this year, but five additional women later came forward.

They do so at a time when institutions across the country — schools, churches and businesses — are reexamining how they have handled sex allegations over time.

Decades after the alleged abuse, the Key School stories, long whispered about, are being addressed by the school for the first time publicly. Some of the alleged perpetrators are dead or incapacitated, and it’s not clear whether those who are living could be prosecuted.

“Because of what’s going on — what’s gone on in America — it’s possible to get people to come forward, be present, and to shine a bright light,” Surrick said.

Surrick and other accusers said it was widely known that some Key teachers had sex with underage students. Some teachers were fired after complaints from students or parents, according to interviews with accusers. But many stayed in the classroom, continuing the alleged abuse. The accusers, now in their 50s and 60s, say the school has yet to confront the scope of the behavior, its effects still felt more than four decades later.

In all, seven former students have come forward to say they were sexually abused by teachers in the 1970s. The women said the abuse occurred while they were enrolled at the progressive coed school, located on 15 acres a few miles from downtown Annapolis.

Founded in 1958 by tutors at nearby St. John’s College, Key was known for its informal atmosphere and curriculum that is based on the college’s famous “Great Books” program. Key School had no dress code, classes were small and students were close to their teachers.

The school today has more than 600 students with an average class size of 16, according to its website. Tuition at the upper school is more than $28,000 per year, and the school’s endowment is $12.5 million.

Anne Arundel County police say they’ve received no reports of any recent inappropriate conduct at the school.

Key isn’t the first private school to have a culture of sexual abuse uncovered decades later. Scores of students were abused over decades at Horace Mann School in New York, a report commissioned by a group of the school’s alumni showed after the allegations were revealed in 2012. Last year, Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut acknowledged that 12 former teachers molested students in the 1960s, and in 2016, the Boston Globe found that 67 private schools in New England faced accusations of sexual misconduct since 1991.

The investigation into the allegations at Key will be conducted by Baltimore lawyers Andrew Jay Graham and Jean E. Lewis. The lawyers said in a statement they will investigate “alleged instances of adult sexual misconduct involving students at the Key School.” Graham recently represented a police officer acquitted of murder in the case of Freddie Gray, whose death in 2015 triggered demonstrations and looting in the city.

David Badger, a headmaster at Key for about five years in the mid-1970s, said in a phone interview he fired “two, maybe three” faculty members during his tenure for what he called “fairly demonstrative allegations of sexual activity” with students.

“It was a very awkward time. I guess I kind of lost control of the faculty at some point,” Badger said. “I thought they were good teachers. I thought they were honest people. I think I was naive as hell.”

Megan Stone Venton, 60, said she was 16 when a teacher approached her for sex.

She said she had sexual contact with two teachers, whom she identified as Eric Dennard and Peter Perhonis, while she was a student. She said Dennard, an art teacher, asked her to perform oral sex in 1975 during a trip to an Eastern Shore bird sanctuary when she was 17. She said sex with Perhonis began when she was 16 and lasted into her 20s.

“I was just under his thumb for decades,” Venton said of Perhonis. “It’s only been in the past — since my daughter became the age I was — that I really woke up about it all. I’m full of outrage now.”

Dennard, accused of sexual abuse or misconduct by six women who spoke to The Post, died of cancer in 1993. Perhonis, who has Parkinson’s disease, lives at an assisted-living facility in Massachusetts and requires round-the-clock care. A family member who serves as medical proxy said the disease causes hallucinations and makes it difficult for him to have a coherent conversation.

“I believe you could interview him,” the family member said. “He’ll tell you something. I don’t know how much confidence I’d have whether it is true or not.”

The Post reviewed a letter Perhonis wrote to Venton in 1976, which Venton said she kept partly because she feared him.

“I hope you’ll come by at Thanksgiving and visit,” he wrote a month after she turned 18. “If you’re still interested in sleeping with me, I’ll be here — if not, I’ll still be here.”

Venton said when she was a student she told a staff member — Paul Stoneham, who retired from Key in the past few years — about Perhonis, and Stoneham told her he already was aware of it.

“He said, ‘I know, baby, I’ve got eyes,’ ” Venton said.

Annie Applegarth, 58, said Stoneham “made a full-on aggressive attack” on her in 1977, when she was a junior, and “made every attempt to do a full-on aggressive rape.”

Stoneham, who public records indicate is 70 or 71, did not respond to repeated phone calls and a letter sent to an address in Annapolis found in public records seeking comment. He also did not respond to a message left at an apartment in Annapolis where his name is listed on the directory.

Applegarth also said two teachers exposed themselves to her at the school, including Dennard, who she said would sometimes “drop his pants” while bragging of his sexual exploits with other students.

“Eric Dennard was a big proponent of showing how fabulous his penis was all the time,” she said.

Applegarth said she reported the behavior to another teacher, but nothing was done. She said she was inspired to come forward after hearing the story of Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics physician who was accused by hundreds of women and girls and convicted of sexual assault last year.

“Now I’m a 58-year-old woman who would like to hear, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” she said.

Sarah Conway, 55, a former student, said she had sex with Dennard and a former female student, who also worked at the school, beginning in 1978 when she was 14. The arrangement, which she characterized as an “open secret,” lasted for at least 18 months.

It continued after Dennard, who married the former student, left the school for reasons that aren’t clear. (The Post isn’t naming the former student. Her attorney says she also was a victim of abuse.)

Conway said she stood up during a memorial service for Dennard in 1993 and spoke about how his behavior affected her, and later met with school officials. She was told nothing could be done.

“There was no sense of institutional responsibility,” she said of the school.

Conway detailed the allegations in an Anne Arundel County police report filed in 1997 — a heavily redacted version of which was obtained by The Post. She spoke to police after Ronald Goldblatt, then headmaster of the school, sent a letter to the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services, indicating “he was reporting that [redacted] had possibly been the victim of sexual child abuse while she was a student at Key,” according to the report. Goldblatt didn’t respond to telephone messages left for him.

The report continued: “She attended the service and publicly denounced Denard [sic] to those in attendance and related to them how he had abused her. She received a phone call from Mr. Goldblatt who apologized for her bad experience at Key School and related that he was unaware of the school’s hostory [sic].”

The report indicated the case was closed because Dennard was dead. An Anne Arundel County police spokesman said that “the female wanted no further police action.”

Goldblatt also detailed claims of abuse in a 1997 letter to the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services.

Another woman, Valerie Bunker, 59, detailed what she called “grooming” by Dennard and another student that Bunker estimated began when she was a 16-year-old sophomore and the other student was a senior. Bunker would drink with them in downtown Annapolis bars, and Dennard would “try to set me up with different people,” she said.

“We all crawled in bed together — the three of us,” she said. “The two of them seduced me together. . . . It continued for years. It was our thing.”

Bunker never reported the abuse, because having an affair with a teacher conveyed “rock star” cachet at Key, she said. She didn’t think of herself as a victim until she had children of her own.

Now, she’s angry. A history of abuse — at Key and elsewhere — has made it difficult to trust others. She said she’s been hospitalized in psychiatric facilities three times under suicide watch.

“Your whole life trajectory is now changed,” she said. “Imagine if those teachers had taken me under their wing and pushed me toward something great.”

Bunker said she also had sex with another teacher, Vaughn Keith, while a student. Keith, who later taught at St. Albans School in the District and died of AIDS complications in 1990, according a Post report at the time, often hosted parties where Key students and teachers mixed, she said.

Badger, the school’s headmaster in the mid-1970s, said Keith was one of the faculty members he fired over allegations of sexual activity.

Surrick, whose social media comments helped trigger the Key investigation, said she first had sex with Dennard in 1972 when she was 13. She became pregnant with his child at 14, she said, and he paid for an abortion.

She said she had sex beginning at age 14 with Richard Sohmer, a music teacher at Key, and she and Sohmer were members of a Renaissance musical group called Nymphs and Satyrs. Another former Key student in the group, Robin Bisland, said she also had sex with Sohmer, beginning when she was 16 and continuing into her 20s.

When Bisland told her father, who was a Key board member, about it, he had Sohmer fired from the school, she said. Sohmer had already been warned by the school once, she said — about sex with Surrick.

Bisland, now 60, said the abuse still affects her. Sohmer didn’t respond to phone calls and letters seeking comment sent to a Massachusetts address found in public records.

Many former Key students who spoke to The Post said dating teachers wasn’t just socially acceptable but also conferred social status.

Cari Nyland said she began having sexual contact with Key teacher Bill Schreitz the summer before her senior year in 1975 at age 16. It began during a backpacking trip that other students attended, she said.

In an email, Schreitz said the physical contact occurred in the summer of 1975 after he left Key in the spring.

“My understanding is that your story is about sex abuse at Key, presumably by Key School teachers teaching at Key School while simultaneously being sexually involved with their students,” he wrote in an email. “That was not my situation. Key School was not responsible for my actions. That responsibility was mine alone.”

Nyland also said Dennard put his hands in her pants at his home when she was in ninth grade.

“There was the culture of the school — if you were willing to go out with a teacher, that was considered a great thing to do,” Nyland said. “Why would you look to someone your own age when you could go out with an older man?”

Surrick said she reported the allegations to a board member in 1993 and the school’s headmaster in 1996. She reported incidents to Anne Arundel County police in 1996 and met with six board members in 1997.

Police told her they couldn’t help, and the school assured her such behavior would not happen again, Surrick said.

“They said, ‘We’re not going to do anything,’ ” Surrick said. “ ‘It’s a different school now.’ ”

Roz Dove, a daughter of a Key School founder, attended the school in the 1960s from third grade to eighth grade, when she was president of her class. She left Key for high school, then joined its board from about 1976 until 1990.

Dove said she has no firsthand knowledge of sexual misconduct at Key, but rumors — even jokes about the behavior — were pervasive. She said she regretted having been “a little blase” about what she said was “common knowledge” of abuse.

“I wish I had done more,” Dove said. “At the time, did I think anything about it? I did not.”

Anne Arundel County Police have set up a tip line for their investigation into the case, at 410-222-4700. Callers can remain anonymous.

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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