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Elite Rhode Island prep school settles up to 30 sex abuse cases

A sign stands at an entrance to St. George’s School in Middletown, R.I. (Steven Senne/AP)
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What began nearly 40 years ago with a field hockey injury, a string of sexual abuses, and a systematic cover-up by one of the country’s most elite prep schools finally came to an end on Wednesday.

St. George’s, a Rhode Island boarding school, reached a settlement with up to 30 former students who suffered sexual abuse under the school’s watch between the 1970s and the 2000s. The amount was not disclosed, but the victims’ lawyer, Eric MacLeish, told the Boston Globe it was “very significant.”

Anne Scott, the aforementioned field hockey player, said it wasn’t about the money. “It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to receive this kind of validation and support, after all these years,” she told the Globe.

Scott entered St. George’s in 1977, among the first classes of women to attend the formerly all-boys school. A month later when she was sent to the athletic trainer Al Gibbs for a field hockey injury, he molested and raped her. The school acknowledged Gibbs’s string of abuses, investigated by the Boston Globe, in a report in December. Gibbs died in 1996.

When Scott worked up the courage to sue the school a decade later, the school’s attorney argued she was lying. Or that the sex — between then-15-year-old Scott and 67-year-old Gibbs — was consensual. When the judge rebuffed the school’s claim, the school tried to force Scott to identify herself in public record, rather than filing the case anonymously.

Scott, intimidated, dropped the case.

But last year, she returned. Rather than asking for money, she wanted the school to take responsibility, support survivors and prevent what happened to her from happening to other students.

And they did, to an extent. The school sent a letter to alumni saying there were “multiple credible reports of sexual misconduct” by former faculty members, including Gibbs.

Then, the reports flooded in. Scott’s lawyers told the Boston Globe they heard of about 40 other victims of sexual abuse at the prep school. And an investigation by the school yielded 26 reports. An independent investigation is pending.

The school admits that, when students came to them with accusations, they didn’t report the incidents to the authorities, as was required by law beginning in 1979. But with a statute of limitations of three years, a police investigation yielded no charges despite finding misconduct by seven former faculty members, one current faculty member and three former students.

But failing to report was not the extent of the school’s problems. Some students’ accusations were flatly not believed. And of those that were, the accused teachers were fired but became teachers elsewhere.

Katie Wales was also abused by Gibbs at St. George’s, following a horseback riding injury in 1979, according to the Boston Globe investigation and the school’s report. Gibbs molested and took naked photographs of her, which he circulated around the school, she said. She promptly reported him to the headmaster, Tony Zane, who told her she was crazy and sent her to a psychologist, according to the Globe. The incident led her to addiction, resulting in her expulsion a week prior to her graduation.

She told the Associated Press of the settlement, “This was never about the money. This was about being heard.”

Gibbs wasn’t the only problem. When he was a student in the early 1980s, Hawk Cramer fell asleep in the passenger seat of a car on a choral trip. He awoke to the choir director fondling him. This was not a unique experience. Other boys in the choir had been fondled on these trips, had to sleep beside their director, and received naked full-body massages. The director was let go in 1988, but child protective services was never contacted, under advice from the school’s legal counsel. These incidents were investigated by the Boston Globe, and acknowledged in the school’s report, which refers to the director as “Employee Perpetrator #3”.

For these incidents and the dozens of others like them, Leslie Heaney, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, said in a letter to school affiliates, “we are deeply and profoundly sorry.”

But it’s not just St. George’s. Revelations of sexual abuse of students by faculty members, and the subsequent cover-ups, have shaken other New England prep schools.

At Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire, according to a Globe investigation, a minister urged Michaella Henry, who was allegedly groped by a fellow student, to resolve the incident with a minor punishment: the alleged abuser would have to bake and deliver bread to her throughout the semester. Henry agreed, but later changed her mind and went to the police, when having to face her him on a regular basis became emotionally unbearable.

St.Paul’s, also in New Hampshire, gained national fame last year when as part of “Senior Salute,” where seniors compete to have sex with as many people as possible before graduation, Owen Labrie sexually assaulted a freshman girl. He was later convicted. A lawsuit has since been filed against the school, saying the school took inadequate steps to keep its students safe from the “known risk” of Senior Salute.

At Deerfield Academy, multiple students were allegedly abused by former teachers Peter Hindle and Bryce Lambert. According to a statement from the school, Hindle admitted to the abuse. Lambert died before allegations were made so he never responded to them, but the school said in a statement, “There is sufficient evidence to name him.”

Two students, Christopher Obetz and one unnamed, sued the school and received $500,000 and $350,000 settlements, respectively. “It is clear that Deerfield Academy had few, if any, safeguards for protecting youth from its most trusted adults,” the district attorney, David Sullivan, said in a statement.

The list goes on.

But Wednesday’s settlement with St. George’s is a step forward. MacLeish, the victims’ lawyer, said in a statement, “Today’s settlement says to survivors: ‘This was not your fault. It affected your life in profound ways, it happened at our school, and we are truly sorry for what you have lost.’”