Sexual Misconduct and Power: Does a Saint Ann’s Issue Affect Us?
It should have been like any other day for Saint Ann’s students. But March 25th, a nominally uneventful Thursday, was disrupted by reports of alleged sexual misconduct at the school, after a yearlong investigation revealed that 19 former male faculty members might have participated in inappropriate behavior with students between the 1970s and 2017.
Following the investigation, the New York Times reported that parents, alumni, and employees received a letter focusing only on the six ex-faculty members for whom the evidence of misconduct met evidentiary standards. The actions included “having sexual contact with a high school senior and then sexual intercourse after graduation, engaging in sexual contact with a student at an off-campus party, unwanted kissing and inappropriate physical contact.” All six of the events corroborated by the letter occurred between the 1970s and the late 1990s. The examination, which included 47 witness interviews, was conducted by T&M Protection Resources, the same firm that Packer hired to develop its own sexual misconduct policies and investigate last year’s allegations of assault.
Recently, Saint Ann’s, much like Packer, has implemented consent trainings in an attempt to prevent instances of and increase awareness around assault. The findings of T&M’s investigation prompted the question of whether schools are currently taking adequate steps to address sexual misconduct, despite the fact that most of the alleged events, which occurred of a span of around 40 years, took place prior to the creation of these programs. Given Packer’s closeness to Saint Ann’s—both in location and character—that question was perhaps felt even more acutely here than it otherwise would have been.
Emma Weseley (‘20) was among those particularly struck by the allegations, saying, “I was aware that these types of things happen, because there have been countless cases, so in that sense it’s not surprising, but just because of Saint Ann’s proximity to Packer I think it was more of a shock.” The nature of the allegations at Saint Ann’s likely also contributed to that shock; many schools and universities, including Packer, have grappled with student-on-student assault, but few have ever had to confront such stark abuse of faculty members’ power. The concept of employees preying on students caused, for some, an additional layer of disappointment.
“Adults taking advantage of underage students is exploitation, pure and simple,” commented Head of School Dr. Bruce Dennis. “It is never at all right to go after someone who may feel he or she lacks the power to say no.” While deeply saddened by the findings, Dr. Dennis does not think that they automatically merit a reassessment of Packer’s policies or suggest anything less safe about our school’s environment.
“Schools have to be prepared to listen, they have to create a culture that encourages people to come forward if they feel they’ve been abused and others to come forward if they know of abuse,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re necessarily prompted to do anything differently because a story came out about Saint Ann’s in the New York Times at the end of March.”
Emma agreed that the reports of misconduct at Saint Ann’s do not signify a need for Packer to reconsider its policies surrounding faculty culpability or the reporting of events, but acknowledged that “just because this isn’t happening here doesn’t mean we can’t take measures to prevent it happening.”
One preventive policy at Packer requires any employee who is aware of misconduct to report it, risking their job if they fail to do so. In Dr. Dennis’ opinion, that rule is one of the most important we have in defending against breaches of faculty members’ power.
For some, the accusations at Saint Ann’s did not provoke reflections on policy, but rather considerations of our school’s culture.
“To me, it’s of course important to have the policies, but it’s really about creating the environment where people feel comfortable talking,” said Health Department Head Karen Brandt. Emma explained that she thinks of Packer as a space in which it is safe to report misconduct or assault, but that, up until recently, she had thought the same of Saint Ann’s.
Ms. Brandt believes that the pervasiveness of issues regarding sexual misuse of power means that events similar to what allegedly occurred at Saint Ann’s could happen anywhere, including at Packer, which she considers a healthy environment with comprehensive policies.
“In all candor, I think that the potential for this to occur exists almost everywhere,” revealed Dr. Dennis, reflecting a similar viewpoint. “I think the more ardent a school is in terms of disseminating its policies and enforcing those policies, the less likely it is to happen and the more likely the school is to find out.”
“Anybody could do this,” Emma said. “They don’t have to have a criminal record, they don’t have to seem ‘sketchy.’ You can put in as many protective forces as is possible, but it could still happen.” Three different people with three drastically different relationships to Packer—one a student, one an employee, and one the top level administrator—acknowledging the possibility of predatory behavior happening within the school they love indicates that relationships predicated on exploitation seem disturbingly commonplace.
Dr. Dennis, who has worked in education throughout his adult life and borne witness to the evolution of how schools think about sexual misconduct, embodied the sentiment shared by many when reflecting on the event, his words inflected with tacit sorrow. “It’s sad to me that it’s not as shocking as it ought to be.”