Blurred lines and a tolerance of sex abuse at Georgia boarding school

8:42 a.m. Thursday, June 29, 2017 Local
Timothy Lee, a psychotherapist in New York, says a teacher sexually abused him at the Darlington School in Rome, Georgia, in the 1980s. Lee prodded the private boarding school for years to confront its darkest secrets. KEVIN HAGEN/FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

One summer day in 1988, as he prepared to return to boarding school, Timothy Lee broke down crying. He refused to go back. Then he begged his mother not to tell anyone why.

Lee’s mother called the Darlington School in Rome, Georgia, anyway, and repeated what her son had told her: A teacher named Roger Stifflemire had sexually abused him for the previous two years.

This was at least the third time Darlington had been told that Stifflemire preyed on students. But school officials handled the report from Lee’s mother the way they did the others. They did nothing.

Years later, Darlington even honored Stifflemire at a ceremony for influential teachers.

Darlington’s school motto invokes “honor above everything.” But the school tolerated years of sexual misconduct by Stifflemire and possibly other teachers, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found. The school apparently never shared allegations about Stifflemire with law enforcement. It didn’t tell the state agency that licenses teachers. It has no record of notifying its own board of trustees or of taking disciplinary action against the teacher.

As a result, Stifflemire remained on Darlington’s faculty at least 15 years after the first allegations emerged. Then he worked 11 more years in an Alabama public school.

Seven former Darlington students, men now in their 40s and 50s, told the Journal-Constitution that Stifflemire molested or propositioned them between the mid-1970s and the late 1980s. These episodes, the former students said, occurred in Stifflemire’s on-campus apartment, during overnight trips out of state, in his car, and even in the hallway outside his classroom.

The alleged abuse began when some students were as young as 13.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A candid photo in an old edition of The Jabberwokk, the Darlington School’s yearbook, shows teacher Roger Stifflemire. One student wrote to another beneath the photo, “He was so sweet to you.”

These and other former students made similar allegations in a lawsuit filed Friday in Floyd Superior Court.

In recent interviews, the former students recalled vivid details: Stifflemire’s green Volvo, in which an ever-changing manifest of young boys filled the passenger seats while cruising through town. The antiques and collectibles that decorated Stifflemire’s apartment. The alcohol and marijuana he provided some of them. The smell of coffee on his breath as he persuaded one boy to let him perform oral sex.

“He had a blank canvas – a 14-year-old innocent boy from Hartsville, South Carolina,” Mark Eubanks, a 1983 graduate, said in an interview. “He began shaping me and molding me into what he wanted me to be.”

Most of the former students told no one, not even their closest family members. The secrecy took a toll. Despite achieving professional success, they trace myriad personal problems – drug and alcohol addiction, depression, intimacy issues with spouses – to the abuse they experienced at Darlington. At least one spent months in a psychiatric hospital. Another tried to kill himself.

They came forward after Darlington sent a letter to alumni in late May seeking information about possible sexual misconduct at the school. The letter followed a years-long effort by Tim Lee, the former student, to obtain a public accounting of the abuse he said he experienced.

The letter sparked Facebook posts in which other former students alluded to being abused at Darlington. Several women who attended Darlington in the 1980s wrote about teachers who sexually harassed them. Others recounted purportedly romantic relationships between male faculty members and female students.

For many alumni, this public airing of the school’s darkest secrets has resurrected long-suppressed memories.

“This has been like ripping a Band-Aid off,” said Christopher Gaba, a 1981 graduate. “I had to tell my 80-year-old mother this happened to me.”

Darlington, Georgia’s largest and second-oldest boarding school, hired an Atlanta law firm to investigate abuse allegations. Already, the school has forwarded information about Stifflemire to law-enforcement officials, said Brent Bell, the current headmaster.

Bell declined to say how many former students have reported past abuses. Nor would he predict when the inquiry will be completed.

“We feel like this is very much a work in progress,” Bell said, “and we want to get it right.”

Stifflemire, 76 and retired, lives near Prattville, Alabama, about 20 miles north of Montgomery. He did not respond to repeated telephone calls or emails or to a letter hand-delivered to his home. On a recent day, three cars were parked in the driveway and garage of his single-story brick home, set back from a narrow country road. A neighbor acknowledged that Stifflemire lives in the house, and the sound of a radio or television could be heard from inside. But no one answered a knock at the door.

Darlington lacks the renown of New England’s most esteemed boarding schools. Still, it draws students from across the country and beyond to its 400-acre campus 70 miles northwest of Atlanta. Boarding students, who account for about 180 of Darlington’s 750 students, pay about $50,000 a year.

Stifflemire joined the faculty in 1974, a year after Darlington first accepted girls. He had been a halfback on his high school’s football team in Montgomery, then earned a degree at the University of Alabama. He later told students he started his teaching career at what was then an all-boys military academy.

Credit: darlingtonschool.org
Aerial view of the Darlington School’s sprawling campus in Rome, Georgia, captured from the school’s website.

At Darlington, Stifflemire and many other teachers lived among students in dorms, ate with students in the dining hall, and socialized with students at nights and on weekends.

“There was a blurred line between the students and teachers,” said Lisa Neal Allen of Atlanta, president of the class of 1981. “It wasn’t considered odd to be friends with the teachers. It was a different culture.”

Some friendships developed into something more. Students from the 1970s and 1980s recall young male teachers who dated girls in their senior year and older teachers who harassed girls with comments about their bodies or with uninvited touches. One teacher in particular, Allen said, was “known for the side-boob hug.”

It was an era when many boarding schools, known for rigorous conduct codes, adapted to the times by cultivating an informal atmosphere, said Paul Mones, a Los Angeles lawyer who has represented victims of sexual abuse in several elite schools.

“The whole idea was to bring down the traditional barriers,” Mones said, by creating “a more collegial, friendly relationship.”

But this environment often fostered sexual misconduct involving teachers and students. Prominent schools such as Horace Mann in New York, the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, where the alumni rolls include President John F. Kennedy, have confronted evidence of widespread abuse.

At Darlington, Stifflemire was hardly the only teacher to cross a line with students, Johan Fremlin, a 1982 graduate, said in an interview.

“It was a lot more endemic,” Fremlin said, “than just that one teacher.”

Tim Lee enrolled at Darlington in 1986, after a miserable freshman year in Paulding County. He didn’t want to leave home, but his mother decided he needed the structure a boarding school could provide. To win him over, she plied him with new clothes, money for a school ski trip to Switzerland and, when he got his driver’s license, a car.

But Lee felt isolated and self-conscious. Some students, especially those from overseas, mocked his Southern accent. He had trouble making friends.

One night, another boy invited him to Stifflemire’s apartment, on the second floor of Wilcox Hall, a boys’ dorm and administrative building.

“It seemed like something to do,” Lee said in an interview. “I felt like such an outsider.”

Four or five other boys already had crowded into Stifflemire’s small living room. Stifflemire let them smoke cigarettes, and he put out cornbread for a snack. At the end of the evening, Stifflemire invited Lee to come again.

The next time, one other boy was present, Lee said. After that, it was always just Lee and Stifflemire, always alone.

“Looking back,” Lee wrote to Stifflemire years later, “I can see that I was a clueless, desperate and needy 15-year-old boy. I believe you saw those things in me as well.”

Lee visited Stifflemire’s apartment most Tuesday and Thursday evenings, watching television, smoking and listening to relentless sexual innuendo. Stifflemire, Lee said, told him he wanted a “special relationship.”

Stifflemire seemed to delight in showing pornographic videos, Lee said, and he often cited provocative magazine articles. One suggested the penis is the cleanest part of the male body. Another told the story of a mother who supposedly sneaked into her teenage son’s bedroom every night to perform oral sex as the boy slept. Lee remembers Stifflemire saying, “I bet he wasn’t asleep and he enjoyed it.”

“It was sexual abuse,” Lee said recently, “all the sexual innuendo, showing me pornography, taking advantage of my naivete in a sexual way. He was trying to groom me to have sex with him. He was looking at me as a sexual object.”

Lee knocked on Stifflemire’s door one day during his junior year and walked in. Stifflemire sat on the sofa, nude. He invited Lee to join him, but Lee backed out of the apartment and said he wasn’t coming back.

A few weeks later, in a dorm bathroom, Stifflemire caught Lee and another boy smoking marijuana. The offense carried a mandatory penalty: expulsion. Stifflemire merely wagged his finger and walked on.

But Lee soon received a summons to meet with Stifflemire and school administrators, who confronted him about his drug use. Lee denied smoking marijuana – “I knew they knew I was lying,” he said recently – and the administrators sent him out of the meeting. As he stepped into a stairwell, Lee said, Stifflemire cornered him. He remembers a sharpness in Stifflemire’s words: “See what happens when you stop coming to my apartment?”

Lee resumed his regular visits. They continued until he refused to return to school for his senior year and his mother called Darlington to report Stifflemire had abused him.

It wasn’t the first time school officials had heard such a story.

As a 13-year-old freshman in 1978, Kyle Knight could barely get through English class without enduring catcalls or outright sexual propositions.

“Looking good today,” Stifflemire would say, eyeing the boy’s body up and down, Knight said recently. Stifflemire often invited him on overnight trips – water skiing or camping – and got upset when he wouldn’t go, Knight said.

One day, Knight said, Stifflemire walked with him to a dead-end hallway outside his classroom.

“Do you like blowjobs?” he remembers Stifflemire asking.

Knight grasped for an answer.

“Come camping with me,” he said Stifflemire added, “and you’ll find out.”

Former students described Stifflemire as persistent in his overtures. A student from the early 1980s, who asked that his name be withheld to preserve his privacy, said Stifflemire repeatedly lured him with offers of marijuana. Finally in the apartment, the man said, Stifflemire reached between his legs and told him: “Lay back on the bed. Close your eyes. You don’t have to do a thing.”

The man said Stifflemire performed sex acts on him on about 10 occasions.

Another graduate from the mid-1980s, who also cited privacy concerns in asking not to be identified, said he first visited Stifflemire’s apartment in middle school. Then, Stifflemire just patted his shoulders or rubbed his back. In later years, the man said, Stifflemire talked him into removing his pants, in a ritual that took place as many as 30 times during his high school years.

“I know you like girls,” he said Stifflemire told him. “All you have to do is think about a girl you like.”

Stifflemire sponsored a student organization called the Explorers Club, and former students said Stifflemire often took boys on overnight trips. They usually rode in Stifflemire’s familiar green Volvo.

A favorite destination was Lake Jordan in central Alabama, home of the Heart of Dixie Ski Club.

Stifflemire was friends with the club’s owner, Fred Marquette, and the groups stayed in Marquette’s house by the lake. Stifflemire always introduced Marquette as “Mr. Fred,” one of the former students said, and the two adults bantered over which boys they would sleep with.

When groups of boys arrived with Stifflemire, the former student said, Marquette “looked like he’d just won the lottery.”

In 2003, at age 82, Marquette pleaded guilty to three counts of sodomy involving boys he molested in Montgomery in the 1980s, according to court records. Marquette, a former Boy Scout leader, left prison in 2009.

Marquette is 97 now, and he still lives at Lake Jordan. He answered the telephone on a recent afternoon and spoke in a clear, firm voice while telling a reporter about his friend Stifflemire and the Darlington boys.

“He brought them from his school up in Rome,” Marquette said. “He came pretty often. They’d spend a weekend.”

But “when I realized what was going on, I asked him not to come back,” Marquette said. “He was having an affair with some of the boys.”

Marquette’s memory about his own behavior is cloudier.

Asked whether he had sex with Darlington students, he said: “I don’t remember. I don’t think so.”

Stifflemire’s harassment drove Kyle Knight away from Darlington after his freshman year. He never told his parents why he left.

But on the last day of school in May 1979, Knight said, he reported Stifflemire’s behavior to Worth Moser, an assistant headmaster. Moser, Knight said, merely responded, “I’m sure you have other issues.”

Moser died in 1986.

Knight apparently was at least the second student who complained about Stifflemire. A year earlier, Johan Fremlin had told an administrator named Joe Campbell that boys stayed behind closed doors in Stifflemire’s apartment until late at night, long after lights-out. In a recent letter to the school, Fremlin said he told Campbell that Stifflemire seemed to give those boys special treatment when they broke dorm rules. Fremlin wrote that Campbell told him Stifflemire tutored boys in the apartment and he should not “ask too many questions.”

Campbell, who died in 2002, also fielded the 1988 call from Tim Lee’s mother. What he did afterward is not clear.

Brad Gioia was Darlington’s headmaster at the time. In an interview, he said Campbell never notified him about the complaint.

“You would think I would know, but I was not told anything,” said Gioia, now the headmaster at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. “I’d be one of several people he would have told. Or he could have decided to do nothing.”

Lee’s family soon dropped the matter. Lee spent several months in a psychiatric hospital and later moved to New York, where he joined a 12-step recovery program. By 1999, he had been sober for several years. It was time, he decided, to atone for not doing more to stop Stifflemire.

“Finally,” he said, “I needed to tell Darlington my story.”

Over Thanksgiving weekend that year, Lee returned to Rome and met with Mark Tayloe, a long-time Darlington teacher and administrator. Lee said that when he finished detailing the abuse, Tayloe seemed “defensive and unbelieving.” He said Tayloe responded, “That’s hearsay.”

Tayloe now works at the Charlotte Latin School in North Carolina. He declined to be interviewed. In a letter to Lee in 2015, a lawyer for Charlotte Latin asserted that Tayloe had no legal obligation to act on the 1999 allegations because they involved events long past.

But in a recent email to the Journal-Constitution, Tayloe said: “What I learned from Mr. Lee in 1999, I passed along to the leadership of Darlington School at that time. My recollection of details of that discussion differs from Mr. Lee’s.”

Tayloe would not elaborate or say who he told. David Rhodes, who was headmaster in 1999, did not respond to emails or telephone messages requesting an interview. Rhodes is headmaster and chief executive of King’s Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta.

Since at least the mid-1970s, laws have required educators to notify child-welfare or law-enforcement authorities, or at least their supervisors, about alleged sexual abuse of minors.

But Bell, the current headmaster, said he has found no record of the complaints in Darlington’s files. Consequently, he said, “I have no reason to believe anybody was informed.”

The allegations by Lee and others apparently did nothing to diminish Stifflemire’s status at Darlington.

In May 2002, nearly 25 years after the first allegations surfaced, the school honored Stifflemire as one of seven “memorable” and “influential” teachers from the previous seven decades. After a public ceremony, Stifflemire’s name was added to a bronze plaque in the English department.

Just recently, after the abuse allegations resurfaced, the school took his name off the plaque.

The men who say Stifflemire abused them when they were boys are remarkably successful. They own thriving businesses. One became a telecommunications executive. Another works in the entertainment industry. Tim Lee became a psychotherapist and operates a practice in midtown Manhattan that employs four other counselors.

But their experiences at Darlington left scars they have struggled to conceal.

When Christopher Gaba encountered Stifflemire, he was a 14-year-old from a strict Catholic family who had not yet reconciled his own sexual identity.

“I didn’t know I was gay, but he did,” Gaba said. “He knew the guilt and shame someone like me would have, who couldn’t bear anybody finding out this secret, that I was a gay person.”

Mark Eubanks had been an honor student at Darlington. At the University of Georgia, haunted by his experiences with Stifflemire, he drank heavily and didn’t last a year.

“I was lost,” Eubanks said. “I buried all this way, way, way, way deep down in my psyche.”

As a therapist, Tim Lee works with people who have sex addictions. Many experienced sexual abuse in their youth and have been unable to put the trauma behind them.

Lee tells new clients their stories can end one of two ways: in tragedy, or in redemption.

For men who call themselves the Darlington Survivors, he’s hoping for the latter.

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