Sex abuse inquiry delves into private school’s secret past

4:00 p.m Friday, June 2, 2017 Local
Aerial view of the Darlington School’s sprawling campus in Rome, Georgia, captured from the school’s website.

A private boarding school in northwest Georgia is investigating alleged sexual misconduct by at least one former faculty member – an inquiry that could expose decades-old secrets and abuses.

The Darlington School in Rome, about 70 miles northwest of Atlanta, is the latest elite institution to confront claims that their verdant campuses harbored sexual predators. Earlier this spring, for instance, Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, where the alumni rolls include President John F. Kennedy, acknowledged that at least 12 former teachers molested or raped students between 1963 and 2010.

Darlington last week released a letter announcing its investigation to about 10,000 alumni, former faculty and staff members, and others. The letter — signed by L. Brent Bell, Darlington’s head of school, and Linda G. Owens, chairwoman of the school’s trustees — invited anyone who had experienced or heard about abuse on campus to come forward.

“We do want to know the truth,” Tannika Wester, a school spokeswoman, said Friday. “We want to hear from anybody who knows anything that is relevant.”

Neither Bell nor Owens responded to requests for comment.

The investigation is the first of its type in Darlington’s 112-year history. The school has offered boarding to high school students since 1923 — although only for boys until 1973. Of the 750 students enrolled this year, 180 lived on campus. Tuition and boarding run about $50,000 a year.

The investigation initially centered on allegations by one former student — who says his mother first reported his abuse to Darlington 29 years ago, in 1988.

“Nothing was done,” the former student, Timothy Lee of New York, said in an interview.

Lee entered Darlington’s high school as a sophomore in the fall of 1986. He was insecure and self-conscious, he said, “a very lonely kid.”

Early in the semester, another boy in his dorm invited Lee to a gathering in the apartment of the dorm master, one of several faculty members who lived among the students. Several boys were present that evening, Lee said. But when the dorm master asked him back a couple of days later, no one else was there.

The dorm master let him smoke cigarettes in the apartment and offered to play pornographic videos, Lee said. The man continually talked about oral sex, Lee said, and brought up an idea he would return to again and again for the next two years: that they enter into a “special relationship.”

“I felt trapped,” Lee said. “That year, I didn’t know any better.”

Lee described the man’s efforts as “grooming,” although he said they never had sex.

Still, he considers the man’s conduct abusive, and he said it contributed to emotional problems that led to his hospitalization in two psychiatric facilities during what would have been his senior year at Darlington.

Shortly after Lee entered the hospital, he said, his mother called a school official to report the dorm master’s behavior. But the man remained on the faculty for several more years.

Lee said he told school officials about his experience twice more — first in 1999, then in 2014. The latter report led to a lengthy negotiation over how to notify other possible victims.

About a year ago, Darlington hired a law firm to investigate Lee’s allegations, said Wester, the school spokeswoman. Attorneys conducted numerous interviews, she said, although it isn’t clear whether they talked with the accused former faculty member.

“Our goal is to look into everything — anything that occurred then and in the time since,” Wester said.

Lee didn’t know what the letter would say until he received a copy in the mail. He thought it tried to diminish the trauma of his experience.

Apparently referring to Lee, it said a former student had reported “an uncomfortable and inappropriate experience.” It emphasized that the former faculty member had not been accused of “physical contact.”

The investigation continues, Wester said.

But the letter suggested an early conclusion: “Our historical review continues to reveal that Darlington is not a school that promotes a culture of misconduct and abuse, and that the school did its best to promptly address issues brought to its attention at the time.”

Wester could not say whether other former students or others have responded to the letter. “It’s still part of an ongoing process,” she said.

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