Phillips Exeter Kicks Off School Year Under Cloud of Sexual Assault Scandals

Sep 20, 2016

Students at Phillips Exeter Academy are back on campus following a wave of criticism around how the elite boarding school handles complaints involving sexual assault.

But as the school year begins, the Exeter community will be watching to see how the school will address sexual misconduct moving forward.  

Two weeks ago when students settled into their dorms at Phillips Exeter Academy, it was your typical move-in day.

Parents lugging what seemed like endless boxes and suitcases from their cars, students rearranging their rooms and reuniting with friends after the summer break.

If you were on campus that day you never would’ve thought the school was recovering from a number of sexual misconduct scandals.

Including two uncovered earlier this year involving former faculty from decades ago and one reported by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team this summer involving a school minister who advised an alleged abuser to bake bread in penance for sexually assaulting a fellow student in 2015.

Aurelio D'Amico of Lynn Massachusetts was one of the many parents who woke up early to help his daughter move into her sophomore dorm. His older daughter graduated from the school in 2011.

D’Amico said when he arrived on campus these incidents didn’t seem to come up.

“So, big hugs and kisses and how are you doing and stuff like that and it doesn’t seem to be a topic of conversation,” D'Amico said after he wrapped up the big move.

Aurelio D'Amico of Lynn Massachusetts helped his daughter move into Phillips Exeter this year. D'Amico says he's hopeful the school will better address sexual assault moving forward.
Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR

But although people may not be talking about this summer’s news, D’Amico expects it to be on everyone’s mind throughout the school year.

“All eyes are on the school now, people know that even if they don’t want to talk about it, so the next time something happens and its current, in this era, and not 20 years ago, definitely the eyes will be on them and hopefully they handle it better, I think they will – I hope,” he said.

Exeter’s Principal Lisa MacFarlane said she and all the faculty are committed to doing just that.

“We at Exeter think of it as a challenge but also as a huge opportunity for us to really take this on as something that’s critically important for us, something we want to get right, something we know will take time, energy, focus and commitment,” MacFarlane said shortly before the school year started.

In the past year the school has consulted with outside experts to revise its policies around sexual misconduct and reporting measures, hired new staff to provide counseling as well as design the school’s new prevention programs. There’s also a new position on campus, a point person in any case of sexual misconduct. That position has yet to be filled.

"This has been an issue that has been brought to their attention several times and it's an issue they chose to ignore," said Tez Clark, Exeter graduate '13.

Phillips Exeter also teamed up with UNH's Prevention Innovations Research Center to conduct a study this fall on the social norms and culture on campus in order to pin-point areas for improvement.

Jane Stapleton of UNH will be compiling that research. She’s been working with Exeter since November and says the school was offering prevention but not in a comprehensive way.

“That means it is more than just a single program here and there, bringing in a speaker," Stapleton said. "It’s about looking at your entire system, looking for where is the prevention happening, where are the opportunities that it could be happening but it isn’t.”

And the school has tried to make it easy to check up on how it’s improving its prevention and response measures. Just go to their website and you’ll find a three-page chart laying out in detail what they have done, are planning to do and the status of each action.

To see the full three-page chart scroll down below.

Last month Principal Lisa MacFarlane along with the Board of Trustees President Nicie Panetta also hosted a teleconference on this issue.

“We want very much for you to know that we have heard you," Panetta said at the start of the video. "We want you to know that we are taking these matters with the upmost seriousness, and the trustees are completely committed to supporting Lisa, the faculty and the staff in taking whatever actions are appropriate and providing whatever resources might be needed.”

Board of Trustees President Nicie Panetta and Exeter Principal Lisa MacFarlane hosted a teleconference in August to address lingering concerns.
Credit Screenshot from Phillips Exeter's teleconference in August.

In the hour or so broadcast the pair addressed concerns from the community and laid out their remedies.

But many of these ramped up efforts come after last July when nearly 700 alumni signed a petition threatening to cut off donations to the school if it didn’t take action on the issue of sexual assault.

The school said it’s too early to tell how much of a financial impact this has had.

Tez Clark graduated from Exeter in 2013 and is now a junior at Harvard University. She signed the petition.

Clark said the recent scandals may have lit a fire under the administration but it was by no means news to them.

“You know they’ve had several years to really do something about this. I’ve spoken to deans in the summer of 2014 saying I thought there needed to be changes and nothing was done," Clark told NHPR in a phone interview. "So, it’s not as if this has suddenly been sprung upon them as a new issue. This has been an issue that has been brought to their attention several times and it’s an issue they chose to ignore.”

Clark said she was harassed and threatened by her boyfriend while a senior at Exeter. She said when she went to two different faculty members for help, they didn’t do much. To her knowledge, the boy was never spoken to.

But not addressing sexual assault on campus is not a Phillips Exeter problem. Just 45 minutes north in Concord, St. Paul’s School faces similar complaints.

Last summer St. Paul’s graduate Owen Labrie was convicted of sexually assaulting a then freshman girl on campus as part of a so-called senior hook-up tradition.

Throughout the trial the boarding school was blamed for allowing this culture to exist and it’s currently being sued by the victim’s family.

St. Paul’s denies such claims saying it’s systemically changed its programming around prevention, revised its student handbook and hired new staff to further a healthy culture on campus.

"When something does come to light there is an opportunity here to really make change and my hope is that that is happening," said Kathy Beebe, Executive Director at the rape crisis center HAVEN.

But it takes some work to find out what they’ve done. Most of the school’s statements especially during and right after the trial have been vague and no in-person interviews with the school’s rector were ever granted to NHPR.

Exeter’s Principal Lisa MacFarlane, who did sit down with us, says moving forward transparency is key.

“We know that when people take ownership of their own communities collectively - all together, that’s when you really make huge progress and I look forward to that,” MacFarlane said.

This fall there will be a new student led organization on campus called “Exeter Against Sexual Assault” to help the school identify areas for improvement.

But experts will tell you change will not happen overnight.

Kathy Beebe, who’s the Executive Director at HAVEN - the closest rape crisis center to the school, said as the culture begins to change on campus it’s likely the number of reported incidents will go up. Beebe said as more people feel comfortable about coming forward that is expected.

“You know what I think is important is that no one can change anything that may have already happened but again when something does come to light there is an opportunity here to really make change and my hope is that that is happening,” Beebe said.

And one can be assured there are many eyes watching this year to make sure that it does.

Exeter Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Plan