Boarding schools for young under scrutiny amid abuse cases

Victims, their advocates say cases underscore vulnerability of younger children

By Michelle R. Smith and Denise Lavoie
Associated Press

Adrian Hooper Jr.'s parents hoped to secure a bright future for their son when they sent him away to boarding school at age 11. It was the early 1960s, and the Fessenden School in Massachusetts had an impeccable reputation, having educated Roosevelts and Kennedys.

Hooper spent the next three years begging to come home for reasons he didn't disclose until much later: He and at least 16 other former students say they were sexually abused by teachers when they were middle schoolers in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

At Indian Mountain School in Connecticut, lawyers estimate 50 to 100 middle schoolers were violated by staff members at the prestigious boarding school in the 1970s and '80s.

Sexual abuse scandals have erupted in recent years at a number of elite boarding schools, including St. George's in Rhode Island and Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire. But what sets Fessenden and Indian Mountain apart is the age of the students. These "junior boarding schools" accept children before ninth grade, some as young as 10 and 11.

Victims and their advocates say the abuse cases underscore how vulnerable younger children are at boarding schools, where they are often far from home, away from their parents, for the first time in their lives. Several say boarding programs for students so young should be reconsidered.

At that age, Hooper said in a recent interview, "I was still trying to figure out what was right and what was wrong." He said that in the often stern environment at the school, kids who felt alone and away from their families were drawn to "any teacher that showed any kind of niceness or affection or caring."

As far as anyone can remember, no one at either institution was ever charged with offenses committed there, and the statute of limitations ran out a long time ago. But investigations by plaintiffs' attorneys and police substantiated many of the allegations, and the schools have settled with more than a dozen victims.

Similar cases have been reported among the several dozen boarding schools in the U.S. that accept children before ninth grade: A dormitory director in Texas was convicted after five pupils accused him of showing them porn and abusing them. A houseparent at an Ohio school pleaded guilty to sexual battery against a 13-year-old boy. In Minnesota, one teacher was convicted and three others have been accused of abuse at Shattuck-St. Mary's, a school known for supplying hockey players to the NHL.

In Britain, where it has been common practice for generations for upper-class parents to send children as young as 8 to boarding school, advocates are pushing to ban boarding before age 16, in part because of abuse allegations.

The schools say they offer an unparalleled education. On its website, the Junior Boarding School Association, which represents 10 schools in the Northeast, including Fessenden and Indian Mountain, highlights the opportunity for children to learn independence and explore a wide variety of fields.

Many of these institutions serve as feeder schools to prestigious prep schools, which are in turn a pipeline to elite colleges. For some youngsters, boarding school can offer stability - for example, if their parents hold jobs overseas or there is upheaval in the family.

At Indian Mountain, many of the cases involve now-dead English teacher Christopher Simonds.

According to victims' lawyers and a police investigation from the 1990s, Simonds would supply alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana to boys ages 10 to 15 and show them porn. Victims said he gathered groups of boys and encouraged them to masturbate or have sex with each other, and took photos he would use to keep children silent.

He also sexually assaulted them, admitting during depositions to abusing at least a dozen children, according to lawyer Antonio Ponvert, who represents three former students.

One of Ponvert's clients says he buried a coffee can of pornographic images in the 1980s as potential evidence against Simonds. A dig authorized by a judge last fall failed to turn up anything.

Attorney Rick Kenny, who has represented four victims, said Simonds made the molestation into something like a game for the children. "As far as these kids were concerned, it was like going to supper," he said.

One man who settled with Indian Mountain over Simonds' abuse said molesters are "masters at identifying those who are vulnerable," adding: "I think the vulnerability factor is far greater the younger you go." The Associated Press does not identify victims of sexual assaults without their permission.

Police found other staffers also molested children, and many adults knew of the abuse and did little to stop it. Staffers and parents were reluctant to press the issue when they learned of it, Ponvert said.

Parents "want their kids to go on to Hotchkiss, and then on to Harvard and then on to Wall Street," he said. "A public announcement that their child has been victimized in this really awful and scandalous way ... is really likely to interfere with that climbing of the social ladder."

Indian Mountain hired a law firm in 2014 to investigate and expects the results in the coming months, Jody Soja, head of school, said in a statement. "Our first and greatest priority is the safety and welfare of the students in our care," she said.

Hooper said one of his abusers was assistant headmaster Arthur Clarridge, who took photos of him and several other boys during what Clarridge and another teacher called the "Mayan Ceremony," when students were told to take their clothes off and fondle each other.

Hooper eventually ran away and was expelled, then was expelled from two other boarding schools for drug use.

"I felt betrayed by my parents," he said. "I'd been begging them to come home since I went there. I couldn't tell them about the abuse. I thought maybe they wouldn't believe me."

Hooper, now 64, struggled with drug addiction for years. He now runs a foundation that works with addiction treatment centers.

John Parker, who attended Fessenden in the 1970s, wasn't molested but said he once walked in on a 13-year-old friend naked in bed with Clarridge.

"I was in the eighth grade and trying to figure out, 'What the hell did I just see?'" said Parker, now 55, of Hyde Park, New York. "As a kid, you turn to someone for security and advice and safety, and they are the ones hurting you? You've got nowhere to turn."

Clarridge, now 88, worked at Fessenden for 26 years and resigned in 1977 shortly before he was charged with paying for sex with boys at a house just outside Boston. He told The Boston Globe the charges were dismissed after he testified against a child psychiatrist arrested in the case. Clarridge said he never sexually abused any Fessenden students but acknowledged molesting children elsewhere.

Fessenden and Indian Mountain said they now take several steps to ensure children's safety, such as training adults and students about proper boundaries and conducting thorough background checks on new employees.

Fessenden now has "zero tolerance for sexual misconduct or abuse," the school said. "Fessenden is a very different place today."

Published: Tue, Jun 14, 2016