Choate: Covering Up Criminals

Opinions  /  by Natalia Ibarra '20 and Shriya Annamaneni '20  /  April 21, 2017

Recently, Choate Rosemary Hall’s long history of sexual abuse and assault came to light despite the elite private school’s efforts to keep it under wraps for decades. The institution was not forced to face these allegations head-on until alumni spoke up. Some teachers who were investigated and caught were fired, yet left the school with recommendation letters in hand. Many were allowed to continue working in academia even though Connecticut state law requires suspected child abuse to be reported to the authorities. One became a teacher at the Kent School, a nearby private school. Another became the principal of a day school in New York. Almost all offenders were able to continue their lives without consequences.

While Choate has always been considered to share common interests with Lawrenceville, the recent scandal brings up an even more important question: How far will elite high schools go to keep their global reputation intact? Choate’s actions regarding these cases only serve to demonstrate how far many schools will go to keep up appearances.

All private schools need to attract students, and Choate is no exception. After 50 years of concealing the truth, the school only spoke up about the sexual abuse cases days after the deadline for incoming students to commit to the school had passed. While Choate Rosemary Hall’s new policy of “openness” seems sincere, the confession took place at the perfect time to create good publicity around Choate’s new understanding of the consequences of sexual misconduct without losing any of the paying students that chose to attend in the 2017-2018 school year. Board members of Choate now refuse to return calls from reporters, contrary to its newly-minted open book policy, possibly because of the effect such calls might have on incoming students.

Though we would like to believe that Choate’s admission of guilt was motivated by the administration’s finally understanding the effects that sexual abuse has on its victims, sexual abuse cases evidently have occurred far more frequently and recently than we know. Choate is not alone in this: Many elite high schools have also been deemed guilty of hiding sexual abuse cases for decades as well. St. George’s School of Rhode Island was reported to have at least 40 cases of sexual misconduct between 1974 and 2004, and the Horace Mann School of New York had similar cases dating back to the 1970s. Both schools offered the victims of the abuse settlement money instead of openly apologizing for and admitting to the events or going to the police.

In the end it boils down to a simple question: To what extent do elite high schools in America value its reputation over its students’ well-being? From Choate to St. George’s to Horace Mann, it is clear that these elite high schools have been dismissing too many cases of rape and sexual harassment for too long.

Some may argue that keeping such incidents in the dark is beneficial, considering that if a school's reputation is damaged, it could affect admission, donations, etc. However, in the end, it is the school's job is to provide for its students, especially as many schools act in loco parentis.Therefore, if a school does not address its sexual misconducts cases, it is not doing its job as a guardian for its students. Choate should have handled these cases more aggressively and should have taken action when the problems first occurred, not years later. Had the school done so, it could have saved its reputation from the damage it received when these cases came to light years later.

The tragic events that occurred at Choate also make one wonder: If a school that is so connected to Lawrenceville could hide such scandals, then could Lawrenceville do the same? Many students, blinded by their love for school, would like to think otherwise, but if push came to shove, would Lawrenceville consider taking a similar action?

Hopefully Choate has learned from its mistakes, and other elite high schools like Lawrenceville will keep in mind that taking action against sexual abuse and other issues of conduct is more important than maintaining school reputations: By protecting students’ well-being and standing up against the stigma of what an elite high school should look like, the world is one step closer to becoming a safer, more hopeful place.