Protecting Students from Sexual Abuse

Summer 2019

By Myra McGovern, Steve Mandell, and Kathleen Buckstaff

Note: The following feature package consists of articles by multiple authors that examine abuse through the lens of where schools are now, the long-term consequences of abuse, survivor voices, and the signs of abuse.



Into the Light

By Myra McGovern
For too long, schools and other youth-serving institutions underestimated the prevalence of child sex abuse, viewing it as something to be addressed episodically, typically only after abuse was disclosed. Some institutions handled suspicions and disclosures forthrightly, but scores of stories have filled the news in recent years: ones in which abusexual harassment.jpgsers were allowed unfettered access to vulnerable children, survivors’ disclosures of abuse were met with inaction from people in positions of authority, or suspected offenders were passed on to new institutions.
We cannot let these missteps continue. We must shift our approach away from simply remediating our organizational failures and work to proactively prevent the damage of child sex abuse with unmitigated urgency. All institutions that serve children—schools, camps, religious institutions, sporting organizations, and more—must diligently safeguard children from abuse. We must shift the cultures of our schools so that protecting children from harm is not just a baseline expectation but also an organizational focus.
Shifting the culture of organizations is not simple. In 2016, NAIS and The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) convened the Independent School Task Force on Educator Sexual Misconduct. The task force produced a report called "Prevention and Response," that includes a series of recommendations. The report states that “A school’s culture is the product of attitudes, perspectives, values, mission, priorities, and practices. Shaping such factors into a positive culture requires leadership, alignment around common goals and beliefs, and agreement about appropriate behaviors. Also requisite are a commitment to building a positive culture and diligence in pursuing that goal.”
Many independent schools across the country are now making student safety, health, and well-being—including protecting students from abuse—priorities at their schools. Leaders are quick to point out that they do not have all the answers, but they are committed to doing the tough work necessary to effect change. For many of these school leaders, this change feels necessary. But many also see it as an opportunity to do what’s right, for the children and alumni of the school, and for society.

Building a Culture of Safety
Phillips Academy Andover (MA) has declared the safety and well-being of students its highest priority. “Empathy and Balance” is a pillar of the school’s 2014 strategic plan, and health and wellness initiatives are woven throughout academic and residential experiences. In a May 2016 letter to alumni and parents, Head of School John Palfrey made school families aware of The Boston Globe Spotlight Team’s investigation into educator sexual abuse at New England private schools. He wrote: “I also want to emphasize that our door is always open to anyone who has experienced sexual misconduct while at Andover.” The school listed ways for people to report past abuse. When several alumni came forward, the school hired a law firm not affiliated with its regular counsel to investigate. Over the summer of that year, the firm finished its investigation, and the school reported to parents about five cases from the 1970s and 1980s in which the investigators found that former faculty members engaged in sexual misconduct involving students. Then, more survivors came forward. The firm continued its investigation through May 30, 2017, and the school issued a report citing three more cases of educator abuse and one case of student misconduct.

The school continually reinforced expectations for community members in letters and programming, educating employees and students about appropriate behavior and encouraging students’ families to discuss the expectations too. They developed programs for students about consent, violence prevention, and healthy relationships, among other topics, and communicated frequently about ways to report inappropriate behavior. 
Over the course of several years, the school was explicit in its focus, noting in one letter to the community that it wanted “to learn as much as possible about those times when Andover did not uphold its commitment to student safety and well-being, to support those who have been harmed, and to ensure that today we are doing everything possible to nurture a healthy, safe, and supportive learning environment for every student in our care.”
Defining Appropriate Behavior
A healthy school culture asserts that sexual abuse will not be tolerated and promotes positive behavior. These expectations, however, must be widely understood and communicated, with policies designed to reinforce the expectations.

One PK–8 day school in California conducted a comprehensive review of both policies and procedures and found that some of the language about appropriate boundaries in its employee handbook was a bit vague. Administrators worked hard to clarify the language, including adding examples of boundary-crossing behaviors. The school then conducted a training for all employees about the new policies using interactive techniques, discussion, and quizzes to help staff ensure they were grasping the material. School leaders also encouraged faculty to discuss gray areas and confusing situations during the training.
As a result, faculty now have the vocabulary to discuss boundaries and are empowered to discuss situations that could raise concerns when they happen. For instance, a teacher might say to another, “You know when you do [behavior], I don’t want people to think badly about you.” Faculty members have told administrators they appreciate the clearer guidelines and the culture that encourages positive professional growth. The school also trains faculty, staff, parents, and students on how they can report any concerning conduct without fear of retaliation. According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, educating children about sex abuse has been shown to reduce the incidence of abuse and increase the rate of reporting.  
Screening New Hires Rigorously 
It’s also critical to screen potential employees for evidence of problematic behavior and awareness of positive behavior. Schools should interview all candidates, conduct criminal background checks, and check references thoroughly, even when the candidate is familiar in the community. 
At Punahou School (HI), hiring managers are provided with training and consultation from the school’s human resources department. They conduct behavior-based assessments of applicants who are invited to interview. They focus on competencies and ask questions like, “Tell me about a time when you built rapport quickly with a student who was experiencing social, emotional, or academic difficulties.”
Senior Director of Human Resources Pauline Lo Bailey suggests digging deeper than the initial response, perhaps asking, “Did you do that with consultation with anybody?” Asking candidates to answer scenario-based questions can also help to identify thought processes and how the candidate approaches decision-making. The school also conducts extensive reference checks. Bailey recommends asking questions like, “If you were giving this person advice about professional development opportunities at the end of the year, what would it be?” Reference-providers often mention things that can warn the hiring school, such as indicating that a teacher seems to want students to see her as a friend, or that a coach shares too much personal information with his team members.
Bailey points out that, “References listed by candidates are almost always those who will give positive references. Note who is listed. If no supervisors are listed, this could be a red flag. Let the candidate know you may be calling their previous supervisor.” Some references, Bailey says, “want to be collegial. But collegial doesn’t only mean nice. It means having a shared responsibility.”  
Helping Survivors Heal 
Shifting the culture of independent schools to focus on student safety also affects how schools respond to reports of abuse. A culture of safety means focusing on the well-being of the school’s students—and former students—first.
Helping survivors heal is an important part of any response to disclosures of abuse. It’s important to ask survivors what help they want, rather than assuming one approach is the right way; healing happens differently for different people and there is no set timetable.
After several alumni disclosed abuse to Chris Mazzola, head of The Branson School (CA), in the spring of 2018, the school started a survivors’ therapy fund through the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). If someone needs to access therapy as a result of misconduct experienced at Branson, they call RAINN. The organization confirms their alumni status (without contacting Branson) and therapy plan, then calls an independent plan administrator. The plan administrator reimburses the survivor or the therapist each month for the cost of the therapy. The account was funded from Branson’s operating budget. The school can see the balance in the account, but information about who has accessed the fund is not released. “We wanted everyone to know that survivors are our first priority,” Mazzola says.
The school also hired a firm to conduct an investigation, which concluded in the spring of 2019. Mazzola felt it was important to have an independent investigation to build trust within the community. She wanted to avoid the perception that the school was trying to protect itself over getting to the truth and supporting survivors. Before the independent investigator’s report was made public, she planned to share the findings with the victims who first came forward.
Using Core Values as a Guide 
Few school leaders have extensive experience managing abuse cases or leading a school through a major crisis. Many leaders who have done so report that they were frightened and overwhelmed when they initially learned of abuse. Treating anyone who discloses abuse compassionately is key, as is focusing on the needs of survivors. Carolina Friends School (NC) did this in 2012 when alumni disclosed on a school listserv that they had been abused decades earlier.
Anthony L. Clay, the director of advancement at the time, says, “Putting the alums at the center shaped our institutional response.” He credits the focus of Mike Hanas, principal at the time, on values—in the daily life of the school and after the disclosure—with influencing how everyone at the school responded.
The school’s mission emphasizes the “pursuit of truth, respect for all, peaceful resolution of conflict, simplicity, the call to service.” The head emphasized truth and respect while working with survivors and in the approach to communications. The school invited local media to campus to ask questions. The head agreed to answer any question to the best of his ability (respecting the wishes of survivors) and to stay as long as it took. The school’s authentic values were evident in the media stories, which focused on protecting children, nurturing development, and the bravery of survivors who were helping uncover the truth.
Years later, Clay reflects that “the chance to help others, a chance to do right for others” during the investigation and when communicating about the abuse was among the most meaningful work he has ever done.
––Myra McGovern is vice president of media at NAIS.

The Long-Term Health Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse

By Steve Mandell
Children who are sexually abused are at significantly greater risk for later post-traumatic stress and other anxiety symptoms, depression, and suicide attempts. These psychological problems can lead to significant disruptions in normal development and often have a lasting impact, leading to dysfunction and distress well into adulthood.

For instance:
  • Females who are sexually abused are three times more likely to develop psychiatric disorders than females who are not sexually abused.
  • Among male survivors, more than 70 percent seek psychological treatment for issues such as substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and attempted suicide.
  • Adults with a history of child sexual abuse are more than twice as likely to report a suicide attempt.
Substance abuse problems beginning in childhood or adolescence are some of the most common consequences of child sexual abuse. A number of studies have found that adolescents with a history of child sexual abuse demonstrate a three- to four-fold increase in rates of substance abuse/dependence.

Substance abuse problems are also common consequences for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Female adult survivors of child sexual abuse are nearly three times more likely to report substance use problems (40.5 percent, compared to 14 percent in the general population). Male adult child sexual abuse victims are 2.6 times more likely to report substance use problems (65 percent, versus 25 percent in the general population).
Child sexual abuse is also associated with physical health problems in adulthood:
  • Adult survivors of child sexual abuse have higher rates of health care utilization and report significantly more health complaints compared to adults without a child sexual abuse history.
  • Adults with a history of child sexual abuse are 30 percent more likely than their nonabused peers to have a serious medical condition such as diabetes, cancer, heart problems, stroke, or hypertension.
It is important to note that not all survivors experience these problems, but when looked at as a group, survivors have a much higher likelihood of experiencing negative health issues. Child sexual abuse has lasting consequences for individuals, communities, and societies.
––Steve Mandell is the educational outreach specialist for Darkness to Light.

The Underworld: Survivor Voices

By Kathleen Buckstaff
This is an excerpt from her book 
Get Savvy: Letters to a Teenage Girl About Sex and Love 
When someone has experienced severe trauma, old memories and emotions can surface when their own child reaches the age of the original event. I read about one Vietnam veteran who collapsed with PTSD when his 18-year-old son registered for the draft.
The bell tolled for me when my own daughter was a sophomore in high school. I had been fine for years, and then I wasn’t.
I was looking for pieces that might help me put myself back together. Anything—letters, diaries, drawings. I was trying to remember who I was before I lost my mind. … I found a shoebox filled with letters that Mr. Jessup had written to me when I attended The Prep School. I reread his letters and was stunned. I didn’t recognize the man that his own words and handwriting were revealing him to be.
The letters were addressed to “My Sweetheart,” “My Dearest,” and “My Dearest Sweetheart.” They were filled with excessive praise, flirtatious comments, and a longing to be reunited with me. They were love letters written from a married man to a high school girl. It was painful to see my own naivetĂ© and the depth of his betrayal, deception, and sickness.
That summer I started reading about sexual predators, and I saw that Mr. Jessup’s behavior matched textbook descriptions of grooming a young girl: making her feel special with compliments and gifts, isolating her, touching her, excusing himself, blaming her, and making it a secret. And then I read that sexual predators’ behavior is usually serial—that a predator often has many victims—and I froze.
In my research, I saw that Mr. Lyon also fit the textbook description of a sexual predator. He had told me that he was waiting until I was 18 to kiss me, and he spent months prior to my birthday wooing me with love letters and wine.
I learned that sexual predators “are extremely adept at identifying ‘likely’ victims and testing prospective boundaries.” Was I a “likely” victim? Mr. Lyon had tested me with compliments, pushed alcohol on me, and ignored my “no.”
I read that sexual predators “plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack and to isolate them physically.” How many times had Mr. Lyon invited me to his apartment alone? Begged me to go to a hotel with him alone? Driven me off-campus and taken me into the back of his station wagon alone?
I read that sexual predators often “coerce their victims into submission” and “use psychological weapons—power, control, manipulation, and threats.” I can still hear Mr. Lyon telling me how much I was hurting him by refusing to make love to him, and how angry he was when I said I wouldn’t, and then how calm he was when he suggested other sexual things I could do that would feel good for him; he said they would make up for the pain I was causing him.
I read that sexual predators “use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable to attack.” There was always wine or beer out on Mr. Lyon’s kitchen table, and he’d pour me a drink when I sat down on the couch to help him grade papers—even when I said I didn’t want any.
That fall I started to wonder if there were other female students who had shoeboxes full of “love letters” from teachers at The Prep School. Mr. Lyon used a green felt-tip pen when he wrote to me. Did other students have letters written in green ink as well, telling them they were special and beautiful? Were these “gods of the school” serial child molesters?
Potentially there were decades’ worth of students who had attended The Prep School who had entered into secret, sexual exchanges with these teachers. Were there other students who had suffered from feelings of self-blame, shame, and despair? Were there other mothers who looked at their daughters and thought, “If someone did this to you, it would never, ever be OK?”
Then a new fear possessed me. I felt terrified for current students attending The Prep School. Taking apart my brain was no longer an exercise that involved uncovering what had happened 30 years ago, acknowledging it, bearing it, and hopefully making peace with the past and moving forward. There were moral and ethical issues that involved current high school students.
I went on the internet and searched The Prep School’s website. Although Mr. Jessup had retired, the school continued to parade him around at fundraising events and posted photographs of him on their website and in their alumni magazine. He was still one of their gods. And then I saw that two other teachers—Mr. Lyon and another teacher who had abused a friend of mine—were still teaching.
On December 10, I sat down, wrote one letter, and sent it to seven people at The Prep School: the headmaster, the assistant headmaster, and several teachers, including the three I named as abusers. I informed the headmaster and the others that two teachers had emotionally and sexually abused me and that a classmate of mine had been emotionally and sexually abused by a third teacher. I named names and gave details. I informed them that my friend had killed herself and that I felt it was important for the school to be notified in order to ensure the safety of their current students. Within a week, I received a letter back from the headmaster assuring me that he took my “allegations” seriously and that he would get back in touch with me immediately.
When I wrote my initial letter, I had no idea what would follow.
In July, I met with four lawyers. Two represented me, and two had been hired by the school. We had agreed to meet at my attorney’s office. It makes my heart race to recall the meeting.  I carried a suitcase on the plane with all of my documents. I felt as if my life depended on them.
I wasn’t suing the school. I wasn’t asking for money. I was asking for something different: I wanted the school to do the right thing. I wanted The Prep School to set the safety of its students as its highest priority and take every step possible to ensure it.
The session lasted almost four hours. I shared photographs, letters, and diary entries from my time at The Prep School and provided the lawyers with a list of witnesses. When we concluded, I was exhausted, but I believed that The Prep School would be a safer place for its students.
To my horror, when The Prep School began again in the fall, both teachers whom I had named [who had not yet retired] were still teaching full time.
––Kathleen Buckstaff is an award-winning author, columnist, artist, and speaker.

The Signs: What is Grooming?

“Grooming” is a pattern of behavior in which a perpetrator lures a child into an abusive relationship and conceals that relationship so the abuse can continue. Offenders* groom victims for abuse, but they also manipulate the people around the child, such as parents or teachers. This is often referred to as “grooming the environment.” Grooming helps “overcome resistance, maintain access, and minimize disclosure,” notes Stephen C. Brake, a psychologist whose practice centers on the evaluation of sex offenders.
People who abuse children are often extraordinarily charismatic. They have to be. As one school leader explains, “No one is going to hand a child over to someone they think is creepy.” Offenders may use personal charm to gain access to children and to lure them closer. Personal charm provides an alibi because no one can believe that someone so likeable could harm children. Grooming typically involves the following stages: 
  • Targeting the victim: The abuser searches for children with vulnerabilities he can exploit, such as low self-confidence, unmet emotional needs, strained bonds with caregivers, and low supervision.
  • Building trust: The offender learns about the interests and needs of the child he’s targeted and gets closer without raising suspicions. 
  • Establishing a bond: The offender works to fill a need in the child’s life. He may offer gifts or extra attention, often lavishing praise on the child. He may treat the child like an adult, making the child feel special or chosen.
  • Encouraging reliance: The offender works to make the child rely on him in numerous ways. The child may feel like the offender is the only person who cares for or truly understands him or her. This makes it harder for the child to stop the abuse when it happens because the loss would be so great.
  • Isolating the victim: The offender creates situations where he is alone with the child, such as taking the child for a ride in his car or meeting the child in a place away from peers or known adults. The offender also isolates the child psychologically, making the offender the only person the child can turn to for support. This reduces the likelihood of disclosure and it also makes people less likely to believe the child when he or she discloses the abuse because the child may be viewed as distant or weird.
  • Sexualizing the relationship: Offenders typically try to desensitize children by touching them in nonsexual ways first and then gradually advancing to sexual touch. The offender may also violate boundaries by talking about inappropriate or overly personal matters or exposing the child to pornography.
  • Maintaining control: Offenders manipulate victims emotionally to continue the abuse. An offender might treat the child as a co-conspirator, making the child believe that he or she is to blame and might get in trouble if the “relationship” is discovered. The child may conceal the abuse because the potential loss of the emotional connection and gifts or special privileges would be too great. The child may also worry that he or she will not be believed because the abuser is well-liked and trusted within the community.
In the school setting, abusers may exhibit many of the positive traits of great teachers: warm personality, a deep understanding of children, and willingness to work long hours to help students out. Someone who is grooming children for abuse, however, will exhibit boundary-violating behavior. It’s important to train teachers to recognize grooming behavior as well as signs of potential abuse in children. It is also critical to empower every member of the community to report suspicions of abuse in order to protect children.

*Note: Male pronouns are used throughout this piece to refer to abusers. A synthesis of research into educator sexual abuse found that adult males were 4.5 times more likely to abuse than adult females. It should be noted, however, that women make up 75 percent of teachers and other personnel in schools, so even though they abuse at a lower rate, they still account for a considerable proportion of the sexual abuse in schools.
Myra McGovern

Myra McGovern is vice president of media at NAIS.

Steve Mandell

Steve Mandell, formerly head of school at Pinewood Preparatory School (SC), is the educational outreach specialist for Darkness to Light, a nonprofit committed to empowering adults to prevent child sexual abuse. He is also founder of Big Back Pack LLC, a consulting services provider to independent schools.

Kathleen Buckstaff

Kathleen Buckstaff is an award-winning author, columnist, artist, and speaker. Get Savvy: Letters to a Teenage Girl About Sex and Love is her third book.