Decades of sexual abuse revealed at Emma Willard

Report ordered after 1998 graduate came forward with allegation
Emma Willard School has an enrollment of about 360 in grades 9-12.
Emma Willard School has an enrollment of about 360 in grades 9-12.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

TROY — An investigation by outside experts has confirmed dozens of cases of sexual abuse at the Emma Willard School — dating from decades ago to recent years — according to a report released by the school.

The incidents at the prestigious, private girls’ secondary school in Troy involved faculty, other school-affiliated adults and female students. Most of the incidents happened before 2000, according to the report, which was prepared by two child protection experts with Cozen O’Connor, of Philadelphia. The school hired that law firm in July to investigate allegations of sexual abuse.

“Throughout the 1960s and 1970s … we received information that suggested that administrators knew, or should have known, about widespread and pervasive conduct between male faculty members and students. And yet, we saw little to no administrative response to those reports beyond a stern talking to by the academic dean,” the report states.

“Personally, I’m deeply disturbed and outraged by this report,” said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, a 1984 graduate who has made sexual abuse on college campuses and in the military a signature issue. “My prayers go out to all the survivors who have suffered from past failures of the school’s faculty and administrators to protect students from such shocking, harmful and criminal conduct.”

Both male and female faculty members were involved in exploiting students, and in some cases, individual faculty members were accused of several instances of abuse. In many instances, the instructors were terminated, but there was no law enforcement action. The results of the investigation were provided to the Troy Police Department, where officials acknowledged the statute of limitations for prosecuting any crimes had passed.

The report was ordered after a 1998 graduate came forward with an allegation that she was raped by a faculty member and, in response to the incident, the school dismissed her.

The report comes a week after another internal report found a similar pattern of sexual relations between faculty and students at an exclusive preparatory school, Choate Rosemary Hall, in Wallingford, Connecticut. Both reports break with a longtime pattern, according to critics, of such schools handling sexual abuse incidents quietly.

In a statement, school board of trustees Chairwoman Elisabeth Allen LeFort, a 1972 graduate, and Susan R. Groesbeck, interim head of the school, offered an apology.

“We apologize profoundly to all who have been harmed,” they said in the prepared statement. “We offer our apology with humility, knowing that words are insufficient and long overdue. As each victim and others who were impacted heal, our community heals.”

[Sara Foss: Emma Willard report troubling, all-too familiar]

The 127-page report names perpetrators in instances where there were multiple first-hand accounts, an admission of guilt or corroboration by school documents and/or police reports. The oldest incidents dated from the late 1950s, and the most recent were from 2015-16.

LeFort and Groesbeck said they are committed to changing the school’s culture with regard to sexual abuse, adding that the report was released in the name of transparency.

“Emma Willard will continue to investigate any and all cases of abuse brought forward, partnering with Troy law enforcement,” they said.

Michael Macomber, an attorney with Tully Rinckey in Colonie who handles employer-employee matters, said Emma Willard is doing what it has to do to prevent more incidents in the future.

“The reasons why an employer or a school find themselves in trouble is that they don’t react,” he said. “I think they’re taking the steps they need to take to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the future.”

Macomber also noted that societal attitudes are much different than they were 50 or 60 years ago.

I think we know more than we did then, and I think, with increased awareness, more and more, this sort of thing is coming out, so we can address it,” he said.

In the report, child protection experts Leslie M. Gomez and Gina Maesto Smith, of Cozen O’Connor, said they collected all reports of misconduct available, including those that could not be substantiated. They accepted both first-person accounts and third-person accounts of suspected abuse.

Some claims of misconduct included in the report were determined by the school or police to be unfounded, and in other cases, the conduct was not criminal because both parties were of legal age to give consent, they said.

“The reported conduct included verbal remarks and harassment; physical touching; sexual harassment; grooming and boundary violations; consensual, albeit inappropriate, sexual relationships; and sexual assault and rape,” Gomez and Smith wrote in the report.

Between the 1950s and today, the report noted societal attitudes have evolved, as have legal standards. It wasn’t until 1969 that state law included school officials among those mandated to make a report when they suspect sexual abuse of a minor. Emma Willard School did not have a written policy on sexual harassment — prohibiting it and spelling out how faculty should react to allegations — until 1996.

Many cases ended with faculty members being terminated, though without police involvement, the report shows. Most of the reports investigated were from the 1960s through the 1990s, with only three incidents alleged between 2000 and 2010, and two between 2010 and 2016. The most recent incidents involved a student and a janitor who was terminated by the cleaning company in 2014, and a third-party allegation in early 2017 that was “vehemently denied” by the student involved.

But at one time, the investigation found inappropriate faculty-student relationships were more frequent. Other faculty members may have been aware of rumors but didn’t see it as their duty to act.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a group of faculty informally called the “Gatehouse Gang” who gathered with students off campus, in settings the report said would now be prohibited. At least some of them engaged in sexual relations with students, the report states.

But given modern understandings of social relations, the investigators concluded: “There are no circumstances under which a sexual relationship, consensual or not, is appropriate between an employee, administrator or faculty member and a student in a primary or secondary educational institution.”

School officials said they want to continue to address the issue.

“We are committed to the change in our culture, our policies and our curriculum that comes with our shared awareness of this issue,” the school’s statement said. “We bring resolve and purpose to build a better, safer school.”

Emma Willard School was founded by women’s rights advocate Emma Willard in 1821. It has enrollment of about 360 in grades 9-12, with both boarding and day students. Notable recent alumnae include the actress Jane Fonda and Gillibrand.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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