For months, administrators at St. Andrew’s School looked the other way as a teacher engaged in secret sleepovers, private embraces and late-night excursions with boarding students, a pattern that exposed the students repeatedly to “potential abuse,” an investigation commissioned by the school concluded.
The scathing report, released to parents Friday after months of rumors and turmoil, lambastes the school for failing repeatedly last year to investigate “significant evidence” of misconduct by the teacher with three teenage students.
The former teacher has not been charged with any crime, and the report says that the school’s flawed investigation found no evidence of sexual misconduct. But it concludes that the Boca Raton Episcopal school failed to comply with a state law requiring that it report its concerns immediately to child-welfare investigators.
Rather than contact legal authorities, school administrators with no relevant training undertook their own investigation, the report says. They then ended it after one student, who admitted to spending four nights sleeping in the teacher’s on-campus apartment, denied he and the teacher had sexual contact.
The report, authored by New Hampshire attorney David Wolowitz at the school’s request, comes three months after the school’s explosive admission in May that it had hired a law firm to investigate possible sexual abuse.
Failure ‘to protect’
In an email to parents Friday accompanying the report, the school accepted fault for a failure to “protect students.”
“In addition to the fact that a faculty member violated student-faculty boundaries, it is evident that the school had inadequate policies and procedures to protect students,” Jim Byer, the school’s interim headmaster, wrote.
“It is also painfully clear that, regardless of the fact that there have been no reports of sexual abuse, senior school administrators did not take sufficient action to protect students from potential abuse,” he continued.
But Wolowitz’s report warns that the school has not yet put its problems behind. Students there continue to be at risk from “a school culture which does not recognize, or overlooks, behavior by adults which is harmful to students,” the report stated.
Until further reforms are made, Wolowitz wrote, “I have significant concern about the safety and well-being of students at the school.”
The investigation has divided staff and parents at the upscale private school ever since the abrupt departure in April of the school’s former headmaster, Peter Benedict Jr. The school has since said that his departure was precipitated by “differences in philosophy, especially in areas of risk management and safety.” Benedict didn’t return calls for comment.
Report one-sided, staff says
The report’s release has done nothing to heal that rupture, as many parents and staff members called the report a one-sided document released publicly in an attempt by the school’s board to justify Benedict’s ouster and taint the reputations of other administrators.
Several members of the school’s board of trustees have resigned in recent months, and its former vice chairman is suing its chairwoman for defamation.
An attorney representing four school administrators named or implicated in the report called it an “attempt to justify what was done to the headmaster.”
“My clients don’t wish to harm the school in any way and don’t want to have this controversy aired publicly,” said the attorney, William Cornwell, “but they have been left no choice but to defend themselves.”
The report was created without interviewing any of the administrators named in it — an intentional omission, Cornwell alleged, because “that would not have served the agenda.”
Instead, Cornwell said, Wolowitz relied on “draft notes” from an initial investigation conducted by a school administrator who is now one of Cornwell’s clients.
In his report, Wolowitz, who specializes in assisting private schools on crisis management, admitted that he did not interview any administrators, explaining that he did not want to interfere with a separate investigation being handled by the law firm Holland & Knight.
Relying heavily on the school’s own findings, Wolowitz’s report lays out a long sequence of what appeared to be intimate interactions between the teacher, who lived on campus before being removed last year, and boarding students who lived nearby.
As early as 2014, administrators had cautioned the teacher about inappropriate relationships with students.
But the teacher ignored them, engaging in increasingly audacious behavior with teenage boys who lived on campus.
In early 2015, an administrator spotted the teacher taking a student on a midnight beach excursion, the report says. But the administrator, after asking where they were going, made no attempt to stop them.
Not long after, a faculty member spotted the teacher and a different student standing outside the boys’ dorm after 10 p.m., engaged in a long embrace. It was so intimate, evidently, that the faculty member said she thought at first that the teacher was embracing a girlfriend. Yet she said nothing to supervisors until months later.
Sleepover after surgery
Around the same time, another faculty member spotted the teacher and the same student sitting in a golf cart together, the student’s head resting on the teacher’s shoulder. The faculty member reported the sighting to a school administrator.
As graduation approached, the teacher remarked to another administrator that he would miss both students, the report states. Another faculty member predicted that the teacher already had picked out a new student to take their place.
As the new school year began, that prediction appeared to prove true.
In September, the teacher admitted to a supervisor that a third student he had grown close to had spent two nights sleeping on a sofa in his on-campus apartment. He explained the student was recovering from outpatient surgery.
But the overnight stays were a surprise to student’s mother, who said later that she believed her son was staying at a relative’s house. Had she known at the time, she said, she would not have condoned the sleepover.
Later that month, an administrator warned the teacher to stop the overnight stays, following up with an email saying that faculty could no longer have students sleeping in their apartments.
“It’s unfortunate to even have these conversations,” the administrator wrote “but this is the day and age we live in.”
But a few weeks later, in October, the same administrator caught the student sneaking into the teacher’s apartment once more. The sleepovers had been officially prohibited by then, but the report says that “it appears that he did not intervene.”
The next morning, a Friday, the administrator checked the school’s security network and learned that the student had not returned to his room until 2:40 a.m. He wrote to his supervisor that he would speak with the teacher over the weekend.
That evening, the teacher took the student and a classmate off campus to see a play. When the administrator checked the student’s room at 1 a.m. the following morning, it was empty.
He checked against at 1:35. The student still wasn’t there.
Student returns in morning
Yet he did not check the teacher’s apartment or make any other effort to find the student, the report said. Not until 9:30 a.m. did the student return from the teacher’s apartment to his room.
It was then that administrators alerted Benedict, the school’s headmaster, who told them to interview the student.
The student denied that any sexual activity had occurred. He said that he had entered the teacher’s apartment to use his wireless Internet network.
An administrator decided that his story was “believable,” but the report chastised the administrator as unqualified to make such a decision.
In a meeting with the teen, administrators “discussed possible consequences” to the student – a move that the report called “flawed” because it “misplaced the focus on the student, rather than on (the teacher).”
Over email and in a face-to-face meeting, the teacher admitted that the student had been in his room but said the teen had gone in without his permission because his door was unlocked. He said he had told the student to leave and went upstairs to go to bed, but the student stayed downstairs.
The teacher was told not to leave the door to his apartment unlocked and to refrain from participating in functions at the student dorms.
Administrators moved to reassign the teacher to a different position but allowed him to continue living on campus. On Oct. 22 they reversed their decision and said he should be terminated instead.
The school decided that since the student denied any abuse, there was no need to contact the Department of Children and Families.
In November, the teacher was given a severance agreement, including two months of pay and money for moving expenses. The school agreed to mark its records to indicate that he resigned for personal reasons and promised to give him neutral job references in the future, according to the report.
Even though no evidence of sexual misconduct was ever found, the report says the affected students were nonetheless put at risk of psychological harm.
“In my experience, the behaviors of (the teacher) described… are consistent with the types of boundary violations that often result in students developing unhealthy, power-dependency relationships with an adult in a position of authority,” Wolowitz wrote.
Yet the school did not notify state investigators, despite a state law that requires any school official who has “reasonable cause to suspect” child sexual abuse to report it to the Department of Children and Families. Failing to notify can result in third-degree felony charges and fines to a school of up to $1 million for each offense.
“Considering that numerous incidents should have been reported, both externally to DCF and internally to the Headmaster, with notification to the Board, the inaction on each subsequent incident makes the various reporting failures all the more egregious,” the report says.
It was not until April that the school finally alerted DCF, five months after the teacher was removed from the school.
The report indicates that the Boca Raton Police Department was contacted and contacted the students. In May, the department told The Palm Beach Post that it was not investigating any sex abuse complaints at the school.
In Friday’s email, the school promised parents extensive reforms, including “a comprehensive overhaul of our policies and procedures as they stand today.”