Sex abuse scandal hits Rhode Island school

Rhode Island prep school St. George's has been forced to launch an investigation as decades-old charges of sexual abuse loom. 

Steven Senne/AP Photo
This January, 2016, photo shows buildings at St. George's School in Middletown, R.I. More than 40 former students at the school alleged they were molested or raped there, mostly in the 1970s and '80s.

St. George’s School is placed high on a Middletown, Rhode Island, bluff. This is where Astors, Bushes, and Vanderbilts were educated, and it looks the part. But the natural beauty of the campus belies a darker history of the Episcopal school: Former students are alleging that the school was the site of several decades of sexual abuse that has just recently come to light.

After nearly 40 years, former St. George’s student Anne Scott broke her silence. Ms. Scott attended the school in the late 1970s, where she says she was molested and raped by the school’s athletic trainer, Al Gibbs. The assaults had an immediate impact on Scott, but she says that Mr. Gibbs threatened to “come after her” if she revealed what had happened. She remained silent for years.

Memories of the assaults tormented Scott for years, she says. She received therapy for several issues throughout her twenties, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Finally, Scott brought a $10-million anonymous lawsuit against the school. St. George’s tried to reveal her name during the proceedings. Its lawyers asserted in court that Scott could have consented to Gibbs’ advances. At 67, he was more than five decades older than the 15-year-old Scott. In the end, Scott dropped the case, but in recent years, other alumni have come forward with allegations against Gibbs, who died in 1996.

Recently, Scott decided to come forward once again. She is represented by Carmen Durso and Eric MacLeish, and has now been joined by over 40 others who also say that they were victims of sexual abuse.

Under pressure from alumni, the school released a report of its investigations in December. The report states the school has been conducting an investigation since 2012, though the administration did not request a full investigation until 2015.

The report identifies nine perpetrators. Six were teachers at the school, three were students. Only Gibbs is identified in the report by name, though Mr. Durso and Mr. MacLeish identified “Employee #3” as former choir director Franklin Coleman.

One former student, Hawk Cramer, who says he was abused by Mr. Coleman told The Boston Globe that he came forward after realizing that Coleman was still a teacher. Because the headmaster who fired Coleman did not report him to child protective services, the choir teacher was able to find another job working with children.

Mr. Cramer confronted the man himself, but Coleman was unrepentant. Cramer then called Coleman’s current headmaster. “At that point, I felt I had done what I needed to do,” Cramer told the Globe, “But I just found out that Coleman didn’t retire from Tampa until 2008. So how many other kids suffered?”

Another, a woman who was first molested by Gibbs at 13, was astonished to find that she had not been the only one after reading an inquiry letter sent by the school in 2012.

St. George’s is not the only prestigious prep school to face allegations of this nature.

At Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts, two former teachers have been accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with students. According to a report issued by the current administration, the school issued warnings to one of the teachers, but did not interview a student who came forward after the first warnings were given.

A 2008 letter issued by Buckingham, Browne, and Nichols, a private school in the Boston area, states that the school, “failed to respond … in an appropriate way” to accusations that one of its teachers had engaged in sexual misconduct with three students. Although the teacher was eventually fired, the letter acknowledges the school’s failure to report the teacher to the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. The teacher was later sentenced for raping his nephew.

Today, St. George’s is offering support to alumni. It has organized a victims’ support group and will reimburse victims for therapy costs. Nevertheless, alumni are now calling for major changes in the school's administration. With these recent scandals to put things in perspective, some abuse victims say they hope that schools will be forced to respond more readily and transparently in the future.

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