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May 5, 2016 12:03 PM

Pall of sex abuse investigations hangs over Phillips Exeter, other alumni weekends

The Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Between cocktails, campus tours and squash games, alumni visiting St. George's School for their annual reunion weekend will find something different this year: discussions about what has unfolded at the elite boarding school since December, when leaders acknowledged dozens of students were sexually abused in the past.

St. George's is the most extreme example of abuse scandals that have bubbled up recently at New England boarding schools, which are handling reunion weekends this month with different approaches.

But the one the hit closest to home in New Hampshire is Phillips Exeter Academy. Two teachers acknowledged sexual misconduct and police are investigating other accusations.

Leaders will hold sessions for alumni who would like to discuss past abuse and learn more about current training and education efforts, a spokeswoman for Phillips Exeter said.

But many St. George's alumni have struggled with whether to attend the reunion, which runs Friday through Sunday. They are upset by what happened to them or fellow alums, and by how the school handled it when told of abuse. Some say they will not attend. Others say they want to be among friends as they work to understand what has happened.

One woman, who was one of at least 17 people the school has said were abused by athletic trainer Al Gibbs, said she was relieved that the school has finally acknowledged the abuse, is investigating what happened and is paying for therapy.

"This is the first reunion I have been able to go back to where this has not been a secret," she said. "I'm looking forward to connecting with my classmates in a more authentic way because this is out in the open."

The Associated Press does not identify survivors of sexual abuse without their consent.

Anne Scott, another Gibbs victim, said she has never been back to campus and won't go this weekend.

"It's problematic for some survivors to go back to campus," she said. "I think it will be people making individual choices."

State police say they are winding down a criminal probe; the attorney general's office will decide whether to pursue charges. A report on the school's independent investigation is expected next month.

Headmaster Eric Peterson last month invited alumni to a "Hope for Healing" reunion gathering "to come together as a community to address this deeply troubling and painful chapter in our school's history."

But many survivors objected that it was planned without their input, that it was premature to hold a "healing" event and that Peterson should not be involved because he failed to report several instances of abuse since becoming headmaster in 2004.

Some alumni suggested picketing the reunion or wearing black armbands.

Two days after it was announced, the event was canceled. Instead, there will be a brief acknowledgment ceremony and an update on the independent investigation. Peterson and other faculty and staff "are not part of alumni weekend" and will not attend, spokesman Joe Baerlein said.

Representatives from a sexual assault trauma center will be there, and alumni have also been provided with a list of "self-care options" such as meditation and massage.

At the Pomfret School in Connecticut, Headmaster Tim Richards will speak during the reunion about what the school is doing to review student safety policies, a spokeswoman said. Richards, formerly a St. George's administrator, acknowledged not reporting some of the alleged abuse there to authorities when it came to light.

And at Connecticut's Taft School, which is investigating after it hired a St. George's teacher accused of abuse, officials have no plans to formally address the issue or its ongoing investigation at its reunion, a spokeswoman said.

Katie Wales Lovkay was among those who considered picketing St. George's. Lovkay reported to former Headmaster Tony Zane in 1979 that Gibbs abused her, but he sent her to the school therapist and did not report the abuse to authorities. A week before her 1980 graduation, she was expelled.

Over the years, she attended reunions from time to time and said Zane once told her she did not belong there, that he had kicked her out.

Last year, she decided to attend alumni weekend after Peterson sent a letter saying the school had launched an inquiry into sexual abuse by at least one former employee.

"I was like, 'You know what? I want to have this conversation with Peterson. I want to meet him. I want to know, why now?'" she said.

During the meeting, she said, she told Peterson that Gibbs, now dead, abused her. He never let on, she said, that others had told him Gibbs had abused them, she said. Later, she felt stonewalled.

Baerlein said the school "extends its sympathy and hopes for healing to all the survivors." Leslie Heaney, chair of the board of trustees, "has been working closely with SGS for Healing and anticipates that this alliance will continue its constructive progress," he said.

Lovkay said not enough progress has been made. A dormitory named after Zane still bears his name. And Peterson is still headmaster.

"They keep doing these things that are really hurtful to those of us who have been damaged by this," she said. "I am amazed by how deep this goes."

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