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Apr 20, 2016 6:26 PM

Steinhauser: Lawmakers request NH AG investigate Phillips Exeter Academy sex abuse scandal

NH1 News Political Director

CONCORD - Katherine Prudhomme O’Brien says she wants the Phillips Exeter Academy sexual abuse scandal “to be investigated as properly as humanly possible.”

The state representative from Derry Wednesday sent a letter to New Hampshire’s Department of Justice asking that the Attorney General’s office “immediately begin an investigation into the Phillips Exeter administration’s handling of these sexual assault cases.”

Speaking with NH1 News minutes after handing over the letter, Prudhomme O’Brien said “just walking through the state house today I got 18 state representatives who signed and supported this letter. There was just 15 a few minutes ago and walking out I got three more. So there’s a lot of interest in this. A lot of representatives that really want the Attorney General to investigate this.”

The controversy at the prestigious prep school ignited last month when the academy disclosed that a longtime history teacher admitted in 2011 to sexual misconduct with students from decades earlier. The teacher, Rick Schubart, was required to retire and remove himself from campus housing. Schubart’s admittance of sexual misconduct occurred after one victim came forward. But the history teacher was able to keep his emeritus status with the academy.

Schubart was eventually barred from campus and lost his title of teacher emeritus in 2015, after a second victim came forward. The academy only made the controversy public in recent weeks, after reporting by The Boston Globe.

Last week the academy announced in a letter to the school’s community that a second teacher, longtime photography instructor Steve Lewis, was fired and barred from all campus events after he admitted to sexual encounters with a student more than 20 years ago.

One day later NH1 News learned that the academy sent a letter to alumni in 2013 alerting them of a complaint against Thomas Wood, a teacher at the school in 1966 and 1967. Wood also served as headmaster of Friends’ Central School in Pennsylvania, where the allegations surfaced after his death in 2007. Those allegations were never confirmed.

Tom Hassan, the husband of Gov. Maggie Hassan, was principal of Phillips Exeter Academy at the time of the Schubart and Wood cases. He’s been criticized in recent weeks for failing to make public the allegations against Schubart.

In her letter to the state Attorney General’s office, Prudhomme O’Brien wrote “I am particularly concerned by the case involving former Professor Richard Schubart and the apparently deferential treatment he received from the school administration when his sexual misconduct came to light.”

“The actions taken by the school administration, led by then-Principal Tom Hassan, with respect to Professor Schubart contrast sharply with the case of another faculty member, Steve Lewis, who was immediately fired in April 2016 when his past sexual misconduct came to light,” she added.

Hassan retired as principal last year and was not involved with the Lewis case.

Prudhomme O’Brien told NH1 News that “I have a lot of questions about why he was allowed to be part of the community, yet he retired by nobody was told why he retired exactly, and that he remained part of the community. That doesn’t seem like an honest effort to deal with this as strongly as it demands.”

The Exeter Police Department has opened several sexual misconduct investigations at the school. The state Attorney General’s office told NH1 News that sexual misconduct cases are handled at the county level, and that Rockingham County is currently assisting the Exeter Police Department.

Separately, the academy hired an outside law firm to separately launch an investigation.

Politics at play?

The controversy has made national news, not only because Phillips Exeter Academy is one of the country’s top boarding schools, but also because of the link to Gov. Hassan, who’s launched a Democratic challenge against GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte in what’s become one of the nation’s most high profile, expensive and bitter Senate contests.

Two weeks ago Hassan apologized for keeping Schubart on a list of her supporters during her first run for the Corner Office in 2012.

Hassan named Schubart as a member of her 2012 gubernatorial campaign’s Rockingham County Steering Committee and also received small campaign contributions from Schubart and his wife in 2011. That occurred before the first of two of Schubart’s victims from sexual misconduct incidents decades earlier came forward to academy officials.

But asked by NH1 News why in March of 2012 Schubart was kept on the steering committee list when it was reissued, Hassan said “I did sense that something was wrong when Mr. Schubart abruptly left campus and I should have worked more actively to review my public supporter and steering committee lists and remove him from it and I apologize for that.”

Prudhomme O’Brien’s a Republican. Asked if there’s any politics behind her move, she told NH1 News “I think there’s no way to get politics out of this. If I could I would. And I feel like a lot of people were quiet for a long time cause the concern would be that this was just about politicizing it and nobody wants the victims to feel that their politicized, that they’re pawns in anything. The fact that she is who she is and the office that she’s in simply makes it political whether I like it or not, whether anyone likes it or not, it just is.”

Prudhomme O’Brien’s also a rape victim.

“I just don’t want to put up with it anymore,” she told NH1 News. “People speaking out in support of victims, even if in the end it doesn’t end in a conviction, that can make a lot of difference, it can be huge in the healing process and I want them to know that they’re not alone and that we care.”

Read the entire letter:

Dear Attorney General Foster,

Over the last several weeks, multiple reports of sexual abuse and misconduct at Phillips Exeter Academy have raised several questions about transparency, accountability, and safety at the school. As a survivor of sexual assault, I respectfully request that your office immediately begin an investigation into the Phillips Exeter administration’s handling of these sexual assault cases.

Specifically, I am requesting that your office investigate to ensure that the school and its administration handled these cases properly and legally when accusers came forward. The school's actions thus far have certainly given us all reason to believe that this is not the case.

I am particularly concerned by the case involving former Professor Richard Schubart and the apparently deferential treatment he received from the school administration when his sexual misconduct came to light.

For example, when the school received the first accusation of sexual misconduct against Schubart in November 2011, the administration allowed him to resign rather than immediately terminating his employment. Schubart was still allowed access to campus and Exeter students and retained the title of "faculty member emeritus".

Further, in 2011 school officials falsely claimed that Schubart was retiring for "personal and medical reasons", rather than disclosing the true nature of his departure, thereby putting the school community and student body at risk.

It was only after another allegation came to light in February 2015 that Schubart was finally banned from campus and had his emeritus status revoked. We now know from police reports that the victim who came forward in 2015 alleged the abuse occurred inside of the dorm where Professor Schubart served as “dorm parent” and when the victim was only 17 years of age. It is unfathomable that the student body and campus community were still not informed.

The actions taken by the school administration, led by then-Principal Tom Hassan, with respect to Professor Schubart contrast sharply with the case of another faculty member, Steve Lewis, who was immediately fired in April 2016 when his past sexual misconduct came to light.

It is also troubling that although he didn't inform the PEA community of Schubart's sexual misconduct in either 2011 or 2015, the school’s website indicates that Principal Hassan did send a letter to the PEA community regarding allegations of misconduct by another teacher, even though that teacher had not been employed by the school since 1967, had been alleged to have committed misconduct at a different school, and had been dead for six years.

The aforementioned facts strongly suggest that Professor Schubart not only received special treatment from school administrators, but that his sexual misconduct may have been deliberately covered-up.

The administration at Phillips Exeter has a responsibility to its students and community to provide a safe space away from their home. This responsibility is especially important given that these students are not in college or legal adults, but teenagers. They are young people who deserve protection to grow and thrive, yet that most fundamental responsibility was not fulfilled.

I am disappointed and disturbed by the pain and suffering experienced by the victims, and this whole situation provides a clear example of why we must do more to protect young people and support survivors of sexual assault.

While Phillips Exeter has hired lawyers to review its handling of these cases, several additional claims have now been referred to the Exeter Police Department for investigation, indicating there may be a pervasive pattern of misconduct at PEA. I believe that the school’s actions and these additional cases merit an investigation by your office.

There are times when the very safety of individuals depends on actions taken by those in charge, and it is clear that in this case, there were significant failures by the PEA administration. I hope that you will consider conducting an investigation in order to help us get answers from those who were responsible with supporting and protecting this community of students.

Representative Katherine Prudhomme O’Brien

State Representative Rockingham District #6

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