Five former students said they were sexually abused at Carolina Friends School by a former principal during a six-year period from 1969 to 1975, the school disclosed Wednesday in a letter emailed to alumni, parents and the school community.
In addition, one of the five former students said he was sexually abused by a former middle school teacher in 1976. The teacher and principal actions were separate, the school said.
The students reported being inappropriately touched and fondled in the principal’s office following an “extensive pattern” of the administrator building trust with the children in an atmosphere of secrecy, the school said.
“It’s heartbreaking, especially for those of us who are educators and who are committed in so many different settings and so many different ways to the care and well-being and learning and growing of the children in our care,” the current principal, Mike Hanas, said in an interview Wednesday.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The allegations came to light in the fall of 2012, when the former students communicated about the abuse on a list serv, Hanas said.
The school reported the information to the Orange County District Attorney, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the Orange County Department of Social Services. (The school has a Durham address but is in Orange County.)
An investigation has been under way since, and the school also notified two other Quaker schools where the two men worked after they left Carolina Friends.
“We were concerned about the pervasive nature of the abuse, the long-term impacts on our former students, and whether there were others who may have been harmed,” said a Q&A about the issue on the school’s website. “We decided to bring in outside experts to lead an independent investigation and to consult with law enforcement agencies regarding potential criminal prosecution.”
The school hired child and sexual misconduct experts Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez, Philadelphia-area attorneys with the firm Pepper Hamilton. They have also worked with UNC-Chapel Hill on its handling of sexual assault cases.
No criminal charges
The school named the men in its letter. But because no criminal charges have been filed against them, The News & Observer is not publishing their names.
Investigators told the school that because the actions would be classified as misdemeanors in the early 1970s, the statute of limitations has run out on prosecuting perpetrators four decades later.
The N&O could not reach either man.
Orange County Sheriff’s officials could not be reached for comment, either. However, school officials said the case remains open and it’s possible that other victims will come forward with information that could be pursued in a criminal prosecution.
“We have been confronting the fact that there are limits on what we can do,” Hanas said. “We have focused more of our attention on what we might be able to do for people who were hurt.”
Smith said the five former students described consistent and corroborated details and a pattern of the principal “grooming” his victims with manipulative behavior designed to “facilitate access, build trust, break down emotional and psychological barriers to allow abuse to occur and minimize the risk of disclosure.”
Hanas said it is important to be transparent about what happened because a “pernicious” culture of silence can only hurt victims of abuse.
“We’ve been committed from the outset about being transparent about what we learned,” he said, “ideally contributing in any way we can to the healing of the people who were hurt.”
He said the victims had been “courageous beyond measure” and had made the school a safer place. The school has reviewed its policies and instituted tougher background checks for staff and volunteers. Staff have also been trained in how to respond to abuse and neglect, and the school gives students age-appropriate safety instruction.
“We have personally expressed our deepest apologies to each of these individuals on behalf of the school community,” said the letter on the school’s website. “It is our hope that our public acknowledgement of the harm each has suffered may provide some small measure of healing. It is also our hope that the message of this letter reaches other members of our community who may have been affected so that all know that we care, that we are here, and that we will listen.”