Exeter alumni demand more from school over sex abuse claims

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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A prominent New Hampshire prep school has failed to deliver promised reforms after a slew of complaints accusing staff members of sexual misconduct that dated back decades, an alumni group alleged.

The Phillips Exeter Alumni for Truth and Healing told The Associated Press this week that the school has not released details, as promised, on how mediations of claims of abuse would work or laid out a system for reporting new cases of sexual misconduct at the school.

Exeter is one of several prep schools in New England rocked by sexual misconduct claims going back decades, mostly involving staffers who are no longer at the schools. The claims have resulted in reports finding abuse going back decades, lawsuits by former students and criminal charges against faculty.

Robin Giampa, an Exeter spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the school was committed to examining its past and supporting anyone who was harmed. She said the school worked with the alumni group to create a process for mediation between the school and those who have alleged abuse, so administrators can hear the accusations and decide what, if any, compensation would be paid to victims.

She said that the school was working to "resolve claims fairly, recognizing that mediation involves compromise and either or both parties might leave unhappy or without all of their requests met."

But the alumni group says that talks with the administration to address historical cases of sexual misconduct have since broken down, and much remains to be addressed. The group said the current administration led by Principal Bill Rawson isn't interested in fully addressing the problem.

"I think he is serious about mending Exeter's image and doing the bare minimum it might take," Hannah Sessler, a 22-year-old member of the group who says a fellow student sexually assaulted her while she was at Exeter. "But when it comes to full accountability, when it comes to full restoration, actually putting your heart into it ... I don't feel that he's dedicated to righting those wrongs."

The problem came to light at Exeter in 2016, when it became public that a teacher had been forced to resign several years earlier after admitting to sexual misconduct with students as far back as the 1970s. Revelations of misconduct by other teachers followed in quick succession, and an investigation by a law firm last year examined 28 allegations — 26 in which students accused faculty of sexual misconduct and two that maintained staff failed to respond appropriately.

Two reports found credible evidence of sexual misconduct by 11 staffers, all whom have left the school or have died.

Another former student Ann Malabre, 56, who said she was sexually assaulted by a faculty member while attending the school and then a decade later by another faculty member at an alumni function, said the administration has raised the fact that the statute of limitations has expired on some claims or will expire soon during settlement talks in an apparent effort to reduce potential payouts to victims.

In sexual assault cases involving a minor in New Hampshire, prosecutors have 22 years from the victim's 18th birthday to bring charges in criminal cases, while civil proceedings must be filed by the victim's 30th birthday.

Malabre also said the school has reneged on a promise to be more transparent in its investigations of the sexual misconduct, including how it determined which employees would be named and how it was handling employees who failed to report or act on abuse allegations.

"I feel the climb we were on has gotten enormously steeper," Malabre said. "It's really hard to say from now forward we will do better if you can't deal with the people from the past with integrity."

Giampa acknowledged the talks with alumni group had been suspended, though she added that they had already made good progress. In response to criticism about the Rawson administration's commitment to addressing the problem, Giampa pointed to a February letter to the alumni group in which the principal vowed to foster an environment free of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment. She added that the school will consider paying compensation to victims regardless of when the offenses took place.

In that letter, Rawson detailed how the school had overhauled several policies, including how sexual misconduct is reported, and said the school was currently investigating cases in which employees allegedly mishandled abuse complaints. But he would not commit, as the group wants, to automatically removing anyone found to have mishandled complaints.

"We have said many times that we will not take any action that protects the reputation of the institution at the expense of survivors," Giampa said.

Exeter is not alone is facing these sorts of allegations.

St. Paul's School, also in New Hampshire, released a report last year detailing abuse by 20 former faculty members and administrators. Then in September, the state attorney general's office announced an agreement with the school related to its own investigation of the abuse claims. In lieu of child endangerment charges against the school, a monitor will be appointed to oversee St. Paul's handling of sexual abuse claims for the next five years.

In 2017, an investigation at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut, detailed abuse by at least a dozen former educators who sexually molested students over four decades. St. George's School in Middletown, Rhode Island, agreed the same year to a settlement that provided compensation for up to 30 former students who were assaulted.

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