What Kind of School Abuses Its Students?

Depressing news: No matter how hard you try to insulate and protect your kids, you can’t rely on schools to help. From the fanciest prep schools to the firmest fundamentalist redoubts, no school is safe.

You may have seen the news. Recent self-investigations at elite prep schools have turned up sordid but depressingly unsurprising news. Institutions such as Andover and Choate looked the other way at sexual abuse of students by faculty members, even writing strong letters of recommendation so that abusers could move on to fertile new fields.

frederic lyman

Preying on the elite…

The New York Times reported recently, for example, that Frederic Lyman serially abused students at a string of fancy prep schools. When he was found out, he was asked to leave and given a glowing letter of recommendation.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sadly aware, evangelical schools have similar ugly histories. Institutions such as Bob Jones University have engaged in their own processes of self-examination and come up with some alarming results. Time after time, victims were blamed, abusers were enabled.

It forces us to ask the tough question: Why can’t schools protect students? After all, institutions such as Bob Jones University and Choate rely on their reputations as peculiarly protective places. BJU promises to keep students safe from any hint of liberalism. Choate promises to insulate students from any hint of the hoi polloi. Yet neither of them protect their students in this most basic way.

I’ve argued earlier in these pages that this is more than just a weird irony. Rather, it is precisely because of their peculiar status that these sorts of unusual schools cover up sexual abuse. After all, the pattern holds for other types of schools as well. It was not in spite of, but because of, their unique status as football powerhouses such as Penn State and Florida State covered up shocking sex-abuse revelations.

Perhaps it is due to the fact that niche schools have the most to lose—in terms of their all-important reputations—that they have such terrible records when it comes to sexual abuse.

Why Do Schools Cover Up Rape?

Is it the “private” part? Or is it the “fundamentalist” part?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, we’ve gone back and forth in these pages about the troubled history of evangelical colleges and sexual assault. Leading fundamentalist institutions such as Bob Jones University have finally admitted to their own shocking denialism. At BJU and other fundamentalist schools, a cocktail of “purity-culture”-fueled attitudes and diehard loyalism fostered a legacy of abusive cover-ups.

As we see again today, though, fundamentalist schools are depressingly similar to non-fundamentalist schools when it comes to institutional cover-ups. Plenty of closed-mouth schools relegate the suffering of sexually abused students to secondary status.

In the New York Times, Alan Feuer relates the charges against Choate. Choate Rosemary Hall is an uber-elite boarding school in Connecticut. As Feuer reports, decades of student complaints about abusive teachers were hushed up. Predatory teachers were transferred or disciplined, but never reported or arrested.

choate

Idyllic? …or menacing?

It’s not that students didn’t complain. One student contracted herpes from her teacher. The school allowed the teacher to finish out the school year, then the teacher transferred to a different private school in Colorado. Another student was coerced into having sex with a teacher by threats of bad grades and bad college recommendation letters.

In one case, according to the outside report released last week, a student who accused his former faculty advisor was told that the situation was complicated. After all, grateful alumni had just donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to honor the teacher. Had the teacher been sexually aggressive with students? Maybe, the school’s alumni director wrote, but “his teaching did reach a lot of kids since 1944, and I’d rather let it go at that.”

The problem, it seems, ranges far beyond the insular world of fundamentalist schools. As Yvonne Abraham noted in the Boston Globe, “you have to wonder how parents could ever again entrust their children to this school — or any boarding school.” She repeats the central question from attorney Roderick MacLeish: “Do these schools have the moral authority to continue to exist?”

Of course, the details of every nauseating case are different. Catholic schools suffer from their antiquated celibacy rules for clergy and their ingrained institutional denialism. Football schools suffer from their anything-for-the-win tradition of hero worship. Private academies like Choate suffer from their addiction to alumni loyalty. And fundamentalist schools suffer from their slanted gender assumptions and us-against-them mindset.

The depressing truth, though, is that when it comes to sexual abuse, fundamentalist schools are more similar to than different from the rest of the school universe. Institutional loyalty trumps care of students. Complainers are hushed up. Abusers are talked to, not punished.

The problem is more deeply ingrained than any of us want to acknowledge. It lies at the heart of the way schools work. In addition to teaching and caring for students, schools have to control them in a variety of ways. Once students are in that kind of situation, the possibilities for abuse will always surface. From fundamentalism to football to financial contributions, schools have always had plenty of reasons to hush up allegations of sexual abuse.

Why do schools cover up rape? Two reasons. First, schools rely on taking power and authority away from students. If every student were allowed to accuse every teacher, the authority structure of schools would collapse. And second, schools are at heart self-perpetuating institutions. Like most institutions, they will tend to protect themselves first and their students later.