In recent weeks, the account of former Emma Willard Student Kat Sullivan has gained national attention. As first reported in the New York Daily News, followed by the New York Times, Sullivan claims that while she was a student at the private school in 1998 she was bound, gagged, and raped by a soccer coach. The two had an intimate relationship at the time.
When Sullivan brought her case to school administrators, she was allegedly told that she could either leave or be expelled. She was sent to New Orleans on a bus the next day.
In a letter sent to alumni regarding the case, interim Head of School Susan Groesbeck says the school terminated the teacher after learning of the relationship. She writes, “The former School administration was unaware at the time of any allegation of sexual assault involving the teacher.”
Sullivan brought the case to Troy police in April and has retained Boston attorney Roderick MacLeish. MacLeish, best known for his defense of hundreds of young boys molested by Catholic priests, would not comment when reached by WAMC News.
Sullivan’s case quickly gained steam on social media. Class of ’84 grad Kimberly Jones stood in defense of Sullivan online.
“I was incensed as an alumna of Emma Willard. I instantly, kind of, activated my Emma Willard network and told them about this through Facebook,” said Jones.
More than 1,200 alumni joined together in a Facebook group. A petition was delivered to the school asking leadership to review its sexual misconduct policies. Emma Willard School says it is doing that and will appoint a task force of alumni and experts to carry out the task.
The school says “the mission of the task force will be to advise the School with respect to its policy development and educational programming for students, faculty and staff, to ensure that the School has in place and is compliant with best practices for prevention of child abuse and exploitation.:
The school said it has a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding sexual misconduct. Its sexual harassment policy states:
“Faculty and staff are in a position of authority and influence over the students and must always ensure that this authority and influence are not abused. . . . Sexual relationships or activities between any member of the Emma Willard School faculty or staff and any student are improper, prohibited, and a basis for immediate dismissal from the school. Such relationships or activities may also constitute a crime or child abuse or maltreatment under the New York State Social Services Law."
The school says current students can report to school administrators or Troy police, and that it is “happy to assist” those approaching authorities. The school also says it shares any new reports of sexual misconduct with police, in accordance with school policy and state law.
Jones hopes the task force, which begins this August, can be effective. As for right now, she says the school has not lost standing in her mind, but that could change.
“If the reasonable, realistic calls for change that are being made by alumni are ignored, then, yes, there’s the very real change that a place where I spent four years of adolescence will fall in my estimation,” said Jones.
The reputations of private schools throughout the Northeast have been shaken by sexual abuse scandals over the years. In May, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team published a lengthy front page story on scandals in a number of private schools.
Globe reporter Jonathan Saltzman told WAMC after its publication that many of the victims coming forward to report past abuse did so because of high-profile cases at other schools.
“We spoke to different people who said they felt emboldened as a result of the Penn State scandal, the other people coming forward, the other schools, even the Spotlight movie. A lot of people said that made a difference to them,” said Saltzman.
The concerned alumni from Emma Willard sought help from the Horace Mann Action Coalition. After a New York Times Magazine report in 2012 revealed decades of abuse at the elite New York City prep school, HMAC formed to investigate further.
The group published a report detailing a half-century of sexual abuse cases and also encourages those connected to other schools to review its findings and take its recommendations.
Peter Brooks is a Horace Mann alum and a leader of HMAC…
“Just as, I believe, alumni are seeing the invisible pattern in abuse accounts, I’m hoping that administrations will recognize this as well, because I think the people need to know institutions aren’t simply places where abuse may occur…when the school itself enables that abuse, that’s what has to change. And I think it can because there are unspoken victims who are watching what we do and what the school does.”
Brooks says schools making it safe for victims to come forward would help the most.