‘Private hell’: Dozens of students sexually assaulted at RI boarding school – report

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A dense and disturbing report found widespread sexual abuse at St. George’s boarding school in Rhode Island in the 1970s and 1980s. Sixty-one witness accounts led investigators to conclude that both faculty and students had committed crimes.

“The picture that emerges from this investigation is profoundly disturbing,” attorney Martin F. Murphy wrote in the preface to the 390-page report documenting the abuse which was released on Thursday.

The report, the result of interviews with 150 witnesses and analysis of thousands of pages of documents, found faculty and staff members at the elite Rhode Island boarding school sexually abused at least 51 students during the 1970s and 1980s. Students sexually abused at least another 10 of their fellow students. Six of the faculty and staff were named in the report.

Murphy’s team found the school was a place “where their abusers created a kind of private hell for them, a place where they suffered emotional wounds and trauma that for many remain unhealed,” according to the report. Murphy wrote was what worse for many was the “betrayal at the hands of an adult entrusted with their care, at a school where they saw few, if any, places to turn for help.”

Murphy was hired by the school and the survivors’ group SGS for Healing to investigate reports of sexual abuse from 1960 to the present.

In the most egregious case of abuse, the report found at least one in five girls who attended school in the 1970s was sexually abused by the same athletic trainer, Alphonse ‘Al’ Gibbs. The school was originally an all-boys’ school but began accepting girl boarders in 1972.

“Gibbs began sexually abusing female St. George’s students nearly as soon as they arrived on campus,” stated the report. “He engaged in sexual misconduct with girls in every class from the Class of 1976 (who were freshmen when he started) to the Class of 1982… Thirty-one women have made first-hand reports of abuse of Gibbs.”

Gibbs was 62-years-old when he first started abusing girls. Twenty-four women reported rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, or some other form of sexual misconduct by Gibbs. Seven more who spoke to a previous investigator gave similar accounts about Gibbs. Many other students reported similar experiences but did not want to be included in the investigation.

The report said the student body at that time was only 70 girls, with 220 boys.

“These figures indicate just how prevalent Gibbs’ abuse was. Put even more starkly, between the 1972 and 1979 academic years, roughly 190 female students, in total, attended St. George’s: Some nineteen percent of those women – close to one in five – have come forward and reported abuse or sexual misconduct by Gibbs,” stated the report.

Gibbs was eventually fired in 1984 after being caught for taking photographs of a naked girl in his office, but the report found the school paid him $1,200 annual grant for “distinguished service” until he died in 1996.

The school acknowledged in December Gibbs had abused 17 students, but the report found it was at least 31.

The report acknowledged that many of the students, women and men in their forties, fifties and sixties would not come forward “for a host of complex reasons.”

“[Thus], we expect the number of women actually abused by Gibbs substantially exceeds the reported figure,” added the report.

Another staff member was William Lydgate, who taught English between 1968 and 1970. He sexually assaulted and orally raped at least one student, and likely at least one other.

Timothy Tefft, another English teacher, who joined in 1971, sexually abused a boy the year he joined. He was dismissed mid-year.

Rev. Howard 'Howdy' White Jr., joined the school in 1971 and served until 1974. He was terminated after the headmaster learned he had sexually abused a boy and had attempted to sexually abuse at least two and likely three others. White admitted the allegations.

Franklin Coleman, joined the faculty in 1980-1981 and was terminated for inappropriate sexual contact with a male student in 1988.

“Coleman, like Gibbs, sexually abused at least one student in each year of his tenure at the school. Ten St. George’s alumni made first-hand reports of abuse by Coleman,” according to the report.

The school’s part-time nurse, Susan Goddard, who worked at the school from 1976 to 1998, is said to have engaged in sexual misconduct with a male student when the boy was a junior and a senior. The report said when she broke it off at graduation, the boy attempted suicide by driving a moped into a wall, fracturing his skull in five places.

Some of St. George’s perpetrators went on to work at other schools and settings with children, according to the Boston Globe.

In February, the Globe reported that “White is being investigated in North Carolina on allegations that he abused two teenager while a rector there in 1980s. Tefft, who is serving a prison term for child pornography, was also was also accused at two other schools in Connecticut and New York. Lydgate resigned from the Island School in Kauai in 2003 after students told school officials that he had made sexual advances.”

Murphy acknowledged in the report that the school embraces a culture of respect and “state of the art” policies regarding sexual assault, misconduct, bullying and hazing.

“Still it required the persistent efforts of alumni…over the last 15 years to persuade the school to conduct a complete examination and accounting of its past.”

In August, the school agreed to a financial settlement for 29 alumni, according to the Globe. Back in June, the current headmaster, Eric Peterson, announced he would not seek to renew his contract, after criticism he had not been responsive to the burgeoning sex scandal.