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Saturday, February 18, 2017
Bucks County grand jury: No charges in Solebury School sexual assault allegations
Posted Feb. 1, 2017
Prosecutor Monica Furber and District Attorney Matt Weintraub
Student freedom was valued over safety for decades at the Solebury School, and threadbare boundaries existed between children and adults — cultivating an environment “replete with widespread sexual abuse of students in plain sight,” according to a scathing report from a Bucks County grand jury released Wednesday.
Allegations of sexual abuse made by students were brought to the attention of school administrators, the grand jury found, but school leaders repeatedly failed to report them to police or the county child welfare agency.
Only once in the five decades of allegations the grand jury examined was anyone from Solebury School prosecuted for sexual abuse. That occurred in 1996 after a student and her parents went to police.
No one will be charged as a result of Wednesday's report, however. The statute of limitations has expired in five cases. A sixth alleged victim, whose reported abuse occurred in 2005, has declined to pursue charges, the grand jury report said.
"Should that victim ever change his or her mind, we will keep an open mind and make a determination at that point as to whether or not a prosecution is viable," Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said Wednesday during a press conference.
The allegations came to light nearly three years ago, when current Head of School Tom Wilschutz sent a letter to alumni acknowledging past sexual abuse allegations and asking potential victims to come forward.
In a statement Wednesday, Wilschutz said he knew that by reporting the allegations "we were putting in motion a process that could and has led us to today’s (grand jury) report.
"We are deeply disturbed that any Solebury student would have been the victim of sexual abuse and we again apologize to those former students who became victims. The individuals who committed these acts violated Solebury’s principles and values; their actions are indefensible. We deeply regret these transgressions and the resulting difficulties that the affected students have endured."
The grand jury report includes 18 recommendations directed at the school's administration.
Among the suggestions:
Establish and fund a program for students and alumni who identify themselves as victims of sexual abuse while attending the Solebury School, and have those individuals receive appropriate professional third-party counseling services.
Immediately suspend without pay and fire any faculty or staff member who fails to report an allegation of sexual abuse or inappropriate sexual misconduct involving a student.
During two years, the grand jury heard testimony from six former students who attended the school from the 1950s through the 2000s, as well as nine adults, including former staff members accused of sexual abuse and administrators who allegedly covered it up.
"These children, now adults, now senior citizens, have been condemned to a life sentence," Weintraub said.
A former biology teacher, now 68, who worked at the school from 1971 through 1976 testified that he couldn’t recall if he had sex with a then 14-year-old student — identified as D.C. in the report — because he may have been under the influence of drugs. D.C. told the grand jury that a school nurse had arranged for her to take a bus to the teacher’s home, where they had sex. She also testified that it was “generally known” in the school that teachers had sexual relationships with students.
This news organization is not naming the accused because he has not been charged.
The private boarding school off Phillips Mill Road in Solebury has about 235 students. Tuition for high school students who live on the 90-acre campus is $55,570 ($38,830 for nonboarding high school students). Middle school student tuition is $30,800.
Before the grand jury, former students and faculty described a relaxed, informal learning environment in which students called teachers by first names, formed close friendships with them and socialized freely with faculty and administrators.
"There is just no place for the blurring of lines between teachers and students, because they are never on equal footing," Weintraub said.
A 51-year-old woman, identified as M.A., testified that while attending Solebury School between 1979 and 1982 she was grabbed and forcibly kissed by a board of trustee member. The woman testified she brought the incident to the attention of the head of school, who refused to call police and told the girl to “let it go.”
Some of the most graphic testimony came from a 62-year-old man identified as P.R., who claimed in the fall of 1968, when he was 17, he was raped at an off-campus home by a "friend of the Solebury School." P.R. testified a teacher took him to the home, where he drank several sips of wine and then passed out. He testified he woke up naked and in pain next to the teacher’s friend, who also was naked. He later needed surgery for his injuries.
“No one at the school ever spoke to P.R. to ascertain what happened and no school officials contacted with the police or child protective services,” according to the grand jury report. “To this day, P.R. testified that he is afraid of the dark. He cannot attend movies or any dimly lit places. He is fearful of leaving his house.”
The culture at the school began to change in 2012 after Wilschutz took over and instituted a formal written policy at the school regarding allegations of sexual misconduct, authorities said.
The policy notes allegations must be reported to ChildLine and Solebury police; the accused staff or faculty member is then placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation and the student's parents are contacted.
Wilschutz also implemented mandatory victim assistance training every three years for employees, authorities said.
The grand jury’s recommendations include drug and alcohol testing for faculty and staff, zero-tolerance campus drug policies, hiring added security for boarding students and immediate termination of a faculty member when there is a founded allegation.
"Our focus continues to be on ensuring that we have the most comprehensive policies, procedures and training to protect the students who are in our care, and we will review the recommendations the grand jury has made in those areas," Wilschutz said in his statement.
In grand jury testimony, Wilschutz said he first learned of the allegations of student sex abuse in 2013 after he was contacted by a former student — Carole Trickett, now 79, who alleged she was sexually abused by Robert Shaw, one of the school founders. Shaw died in 1982. Trickett is identified in the report at C.T., but she has publicly come out as an abuse victim.
Reached at her home in Maine on Wednesday, Trickett said she feels Wilschutz has taken a “path of integrity” and that she feels a “modicum of satisfaction and joy.”
“Mostly right now, I feel a bit numb. This will melt. I want the school to be accountable for all its history. As you know, the winners always write the history, in this case, the cover-up. No more cover-up,” she said. “I understand, unhappily, the dual nature of humankind and I do not see the elimination of the behavior, but we can see the calling from those folks who are in better touch with their better nature, for us to hold one another responsible.”
The only former Solebury teacher ever charged criminally is David Chadwick, who in 1997 pleaded guilty to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and related charges and was sentenced to one to three years in prison. Chadwick had a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old female student in 1993 and 1994, authorities said. He was 28 at the time.
The only case that is recent enough to be criminally prosecuted involves a 27-year-old former student who alleges she was involved in a sexual relationship with a teacher who pursued her starting in her junior year at Solebury School. The relationship continued after she graduated; he remained a teacher until 2008, when he was terminated for embezzling funds from the school, according to the grand jury.
Former school students who knew the girl and the teacher testified that administrators knew about it and other inappropriate relationships but refused to administer discipline.
The grand jury report confirms the need for statute of limitation reform, said Upper Makefield attorney Marci Hamilton, senior fellow for research on religion at the University of Pennsylvania and an academic chair of CHILD USA, a new think tank focused on child abuse and neglect. Hamilton also represents one of the Solebury School victims.
Currently, prosecutors can pursue criminal charges of sexual abuse until a victim's 50th birthday, but only if the victim is now under age 40. Pennsylvania's current criminal statute of limitations already has expired for victims over age 40, she said.
The release of the Solebury School grand jury report comes the day the Pennsylvania Senate revived legislation to life time limits on when some perpetrators of child sexual abuse can be sued by their victims and prosecuted by authorities. The Senate on Wednesday voted unanimously for legislation that was propelled by fresh Roman Catholic Church scandals in Pennsylvania. Identical legislation passed by the Senate died last year amid a disagreement with the House over restoring the ability of child victims to sue for damages if they are now older than the current legal age limit of 30.