Private Schools, Painful Secrets
The Boston Globe started a firestorm with its investigation of sex abuse at private schools last year, taking on some of the most elite institutions in New England. But the Globe also entered an ethical minefield, forcing reporters and editors to confront challenging questions of when to name survivors and people accused of heinous misdeeds.
In a year-long investigation, the Globe’s Spotlight Team ultimately found 110 private schools in New England have faced allegations of sex abuse by employees over the past 25 years, affecting more than 300 hundred of students.
Even more troubling, the Spotlight Team discovered that many of these schools systematically covered up the abuse — failing to report it to authorities, signing confidential settlements with survivors, retaliating against victims or teachers who complained, and writing recommendation letters to help teachers quietly move on to new schools. Reporters also examined the laws in all six New England states, finding gaping holes in oversight. And in the course of our reporting, we found egregious cases where schools mishandled complaints of students assaulting other students.
But the project also posed unique challenges of when and how to name people, including:
- A teenager who committed suicide after she was sexually assaulted and harassed.
- An alleged victim employed by the Boston Globe who was working on the story.
- A high school Spanish teacher who was fired for engaging in a sexual relationship with one of his students, but broke no laws and was still living with the student.
- An abuser who threatened suicide if the Globe identified the individual.
None of the situations had easy, clear-cut answers. Instead, the reporters and editors had to deal with each unique situation, carefully weighing the pros and cons about naming people.
An alleged sexual assault victim at Phillips Exeter Academy who committed suicide posed a particular challenge since the Globe does not normally name victims of sex abuse without their permission. But what should reporters do when victims are dead and can’t speak for themselves?
Several classmates, including one who kept detailed notes, recalled a 16-year-old student named Kaur was sexually assaulted in a boy’s dorm room in 2014. Afterward, a number of students began taunting her on an anonymous social networking app called Yik Yak.
Kaur went sobbing to a student she dated, “mumbling how she must be a ‘whore’ and a ‘feminist bitch’ because they were all saying it.” Shortly afterward, she committed suicide. Friends criticized the school’s lack of response to the bullying. “There was a death of a student who was severely bullied on campus and there seemed to be no acknowledgment of anything,” one friend said.
But the Globe faced a dilemma: Should it name the student who killed herself? Some friends felt strongly that she would want her story told. She led the Exeter Feminist
Union and penned a column on feminism, where she talked about issues like sexual assault. But some family members balked, hiring an attorney who repeatedly called and emailed the Globe to urge the paper not to publish her name. It was not an easy decision. But ultimately, with the cooperation of the family, the Globe struck a compromise. Reporters used the student’s middle name. Close friends who already knew the situation would recognize her story. But omitting the student’s first and last name would help protect the family’s privacy, preserve their daughter’s legacy, and allow them to avoid uncomfortable questions from strangers.
The Globe confronted other ethical dilemmas in the early stages of reporting. Listening to stories of abuse stirred up old memories for a Globe employee who was helping put together a video of victims to accompany the series. He recalled that an administrator had groped him when he was a student at Concord Academy near Boston.
After much thought, the Globe employee contacted the school to make sure officials were aware of the situation. Concord Academy put the administrator on leave, launched an investigation, and the administrator ultimately decided not to return to campus.
But that also created a potential conflict. So the Globe immediately took the staffer off the story and only briefly mentioned the Concord Academy investigation in the piece. The Globe acknowledged the employee’s accusations and also attempted to protect his identity by omitting the exact year of the alleged misconduct.
naming the accused?
Another issue that came up repeatedly was whether to name alleged assailants. Many victims felt strongly that abusers should be named – holding them accountable and potentially preventing them from assaulting other students. But the Globe also had to be careful not to destroy someone’s reputation based on the word of a single person.
Some of the questions we considered: Had the person been charged with a crime? Have they been sued? Were they ever fired or forced to resign because of accusations of sexual misconduct? Had they been named in previous stories? Or would this be the first time their reputation had ever been sullied?
Ultimately, we came up with a loose set of guidelines to use. In general, we decided not to name educators who had been accused by a single student, unless they had already been named in a previous story, charged with a crime, fired, or if there was some other corroborating evidence to support the student’s story, such as letters or photos.
But some cases were particularly difficult. We mulled for weeks whether to name a high school Spanish teacher who was caught having sex with a 17-year-old student. The pair denied they were having a relationship. But the parents found graphic photos of the teacher on their daughter’s cell phone – along with other concrete evidence of the affair, including a hotel receipt. The school fired the teacher, but he wouldn’t stop pursuing the student, who moved in with him after she turned 18.
The parents named the teacher in written testimony to the state legislature. So, the Globe could legally name the teacher as well without fear of a lawsuit. But identifying the teacher could also expose the girl to difficult questions about her relationship with the teacher (who she was still living with). We tried many ways to reach the girl and the teacher – in person, via email, and sending certified letters. Nothing worked. So we have no idea what they would say. Ultimately, we decided we could still tell the story effectively using the parents’ names, but not naming the daughter or the teacher.
After all, the point of the anecdote was not that this specific teacher did something unique. It was to highlight a broader problem: Massachusetts law doesn’t bar high school teachers from having sex with students once they reach the age of consent (16).
the risk of causing harm
One of the most alarming situations the Globe confronted involved an abuser who threatened to commit suicide if the Spotlight Team published her name. The reporters received confirmation from the Forman School in Connecticut that teacher Susie Stiles had been fired for initiating a sexual relationship with a teenage boy. Interviews with school officials revealed that Susie threatened to hurt herself when they terminated her in 1994 so the school brought her to a local mental hospital her but never called the police.
When a reporter called Susie, who now goes by her maiden name Coston, the former teacher repeatedly threatened to kill herself. Susie never denied the abuse and alleged that she too had been abused as a child by a family member. She said the new career she had built under her maiden name would be destroyed if the Globe published her name and she would have no reason to live. After repeated threats of self-harm, the reporter contacted a licensed social worker to get advice on whether or not to call the police. Because Susie had previously been hospitalized for suicidal thoughts, the social worker advised calling the police. The Globe contacted authorities in Boston and the town where Susie worked and also reached out to her ex-husband and connected with her current employer.
Top editors decided to ease the immediate crisis, the Globe would identify Susie by her married name at the time of the abuse, and not the maiden name she uses today. In addition, the Globe provided Susie with the number of the company’s employee assistance program if she wanted to talk with a third-party.
The ethical issues the Globe confronted raised the stakes of the investigation at every turn. But the stories ultimately had a huge impact. More than two dozen schools launched investigations. A half dozen employees lost their jobs and another educator was arraigned on criminal charges. Advocates and lawmakers in all six New England states promised to pursue legislation. And more than a dozen news organizations cited the Globe’s coverage, including the New York Times, NPR, ABC, PBS, CBS, Esquire, and Vanity Fair.
The repercussions prompted hundreds of additional victims to come forward. Some called police, schools, or other authorities. Many more turned to the Globe. And both survivors and their families could not have been more grateful.
“You and your team truly do a remarkable job of reporting about very difficult situations in an even-handed way,” said the mom of the boy who was abused by Susie Stiles.
Reporting team: Jenn Abelson, Bella English, Jonathan Saltzman, and Todd Wallack.