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Some say private secondary schools are being too private about allegations of sexual misconduct. A recent Boston Globe report found hundreds of former students who said that they were abused by teachers and staff at New England prep schools. The cases dated back as far as the 1950s. Many of the alleged perpetrators were quietly let go. Some moved on to other schools and did the same thing. NPR's Tovia Smith reports on new efforts to break the cycle.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: To many who've been through private boarding schools, the stories of sexual abuse come as little surprise. It's kind of a perfect storm where there's not only more opportunities for misconduct with kids at school day and night but also more motive for elite institutions to try to keep their private problems private.
MAGGIE FITZGERALD: That's just how it is. I mean, every boarding school has come out that they've had one of these scandals.
SMITH: Maggie Fitzgerald started at the Williston Northhampton School in Massachusetts five years ago right as it was being sued for trying to cover up a teacher's sexual misconduct with a student. That case eventually settled. More recently, another faculty member resigned after it came out that he had a relationship with a student in the '70s. Former administrators knew about it but kept promoting him anyway.
FITZGERALD: It reminds me of the Catholic Church - like, an air of, like, let's keep this quiet, you know, protect our brand.
SMITH: Current administrators there have apologized, noting schools have since changed their ways, but some say not enough.
PAUL REVEL: If you're asking me if I believe there are instances where people duck under the table here and push things to the side, I'm quite sure things like that happen regularly still.
SMITH: Paul Revel was Massachusetts' secretary of education and is a professor at Harvard. He says private boarding schools may be more reluctant to report allegations as required because they want to protect their storied names.
REVEL: Private schools who depend on the tuition of paying customers would rather not raise concerns, so that becomes the rationale for, well, let's just get it off stage with as little fanfare as possible.
SMITH: Indeed Boston attorney Carmen Durso says he's seen many schools let an employee go under deals that require both sides to keep quiet.
CARMEN DURSO: Schools that have a problem teacher fairly frequently say, look; if you resign quietly and go somewhere else, we'll give you a reference saying that you were a teacher here, and we won't say anything beyond that.
JETTA BERNIER: That is exactly the practice of passing the trash that we are trying to prevent.
SMITH: Jetta Bernier of Massachsuetts Citizens for Children is pushing a so-called passing-the-trash bill that would mandate better vetting of teachers in private and public schools. Modeled on laws that have passed in other states, the bill would require a school who's hiring to specifically ask former schools if an applicant was ever investigated for sexual misconduct, and the applicant would have to sign a waiver so the old schools could answer without worrying they'd be sued for defamation.
BERNIER: We need not be playing games around child protection. We need to make sure that our schools put the protection of children first.
SMITH: But some teachers have objected.
MATT O'CONNOR: I think that putting children's safety first shouldn't mean that due process rights for teachers shouldn't also be considered.
SMITH: Matt O'Connor is with the American Federation of Teachers in Connecticut where a similar bill recently passed. The union has protested that even unproven allegations would remain on a teacher's record, leaving teachers, O'Connor says, presumed guilty.
O'CONNOR: Simply having the claims made against them is then used against them. So it is a very unfair burden being placed on innocent teachers.
SMITH: Many private schools declined to comment for this report, but Peter Upham, head of the Associate of Boarding Schools, concedes administrators are in a though spot when suspicions can't be substantiated.
PETER UPHAM: It gets a little murkier in terms of how a school properly fulfills its ethical obligation, you know, because believe me. There's defamation lawsuits coming.
SMITH: Private schools can also get in a jam since they don't require teachers to have state certifications. That means private schools can't access the national database that public schools use to track teachers who've lost certification due to misconduct.
PHILLIP ROGERS: If they don't require certification, then they are in a no-man's land.
SMITH: Phillip Rogers heads the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, the nonprofit that runs the database. He says the group may let private schools join next year. It's hardly a perfect system, Rogers says, but it would help prospective employers.
ROGERS: It's really meant to be a trigger so then they would know, you know, who they needed to call.
SMITH: The Association of Boarding Schools said it would welcome that, but Peter Upham says what's really needed is a database that covers not only certified teachers but also everyone who works with kids, including in camps and scouting and church groups. Otherwise, Upham says, you're always going to have bad apples moving around undetected. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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