Exposing a Sexual Abuse Scandal at a Private School

by Katherine Leehane, author, freelance writer, and victim advocate

After the sexual abuse I endured in high school and how it was mishandled by school administrators, I wrote an OpEd for the Washington Post in October, 2017. Though I didn’t disclose any names or locations, dozens of people figured out what teacher I was talking about and came forward with their own stories of mishandled abuse.

The reports of sexual abuse and misconduct span decades and involve over a dozen abusers and over a dozen mandated reporters who violated the law by not contacting police when presented with the abuse complaints. The statute of limitations for civil and criminal action had expired in many of the cases, so most of the survivors have few legal options. Additionally, Presentation High School has not received any federal funding that would have allowed a family to sue them for violating Title IX.

The standard protocol when a school is accused of sexual misconduct/cover-up is for the school’s leaders to call for an independent investigation, as recommended by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). It’s important for a neutral third party to be able to question the appropriate individuals to determine if anyone broke the law, but also to demonstrate to the school’s alumni, parent, and student communities that it takes the allegations seriously.

Sadly, Presentation’s current President, Mary Miller, has refused to conduct an independent investigation, and instead has accused the victims of “trying to revise history.” While I had written a piece about closure, I could not turn my back on the survivors and the current and future students at the school. I teamed with another alum, Cheryl Hodgin Marshall, and a child abuse advocate/lawyer to advocate for the victims and enact change at the school.

Based on our experiences, here is a list of actions to take when working for justice:

  • Facebook Group: Start a private (or secret) Facebook group to facilitate communication between alums and concerned parties. Appoint an administrator/moderator who will screen potential members and who will moderate discussions to keep discussions civil.
  • Online Petition: Create an online petition to request an independent investigation, which is “industry standard” under these circumstances.
  • Meeting with the Board of Directors: Request a meeting with the Board of Directors to present allegations and work to make changes. (We were unsuccessful at doing this.)
  • Press Conferences: Hold a press conference and invite local media to share survivor and witness experiences and respond to any public statements made by the school. Our press conferences were scheduled just prior to school breaks to minimize the disruption to the students.
  • Postcard Campaign: Write letters and/or postcards to the Board of Directors members and the Sisters of the Presentation (who own the school), pleading for change.
  • Website: Create a website to outline the problem and creating a timeline of allegations, which is critical in maintaining transparency. Provide resources for survivors, and suggest ways for people to help.
  • Social Media Campaign: Create accounts on social media to increase public awareness. Use the same graphics/design as the website to create a recognizable “brand.”
    • Facebook: Good for long text and graphics. Tag the school, the church, the local police department, the district attorney, and/or any relevant parties.
    • Twitter: Good for short text. Use hashtags relevant to the school and to the movement (e.g., #MeTooK12, #CatholicMeToo, #ChurchToo). Tag the school, the church, the local police department, the district attorney, and/or any relevant parties.
    • Instagram: Good for pictures and shareable images. Use hashtags relevant to the school and to the movement to gain momentum (e.g., #MeTooK12, #CatholicMeToo, #ChurchToo).
  • Letters to Donors: Write a letter to donors to ask them to temporarily withhold donations until appropriate changes are made at the school.
  • Vigils/Demonstration: Conduct peaceful vigils/demonstrations during board meetings to increase public awareness: Our demonstrations were all conducted outside of school hours—in the evenings during various Board meetings.
  • Town Hall: Conduct a Town Hall-style meeting at a local community center. Use social media to invite community members.

NOTE: Survivors of childhood sexual abuse and victim advocates often face harsh criticism and attempts to discredit and/or shame them. It’s essential to maintain a professional tone—especially when dealing with detractors. Focus on facts, not emotions. It is not always easy, but it is critical. It may be necessary to take break to regain composure before responding to comments.

Many current teachers, parents, and students fear backlash when trying to ensure schools are adhering to mandatory reporting laws. Several of the tasks above can be done anonymously. There are also whistle-blower laws to protect teachers from losing their jobs.

We have been advocating for permanent changes in leadership and policy at Presentation High School for nearly a year. In most other organizations/institutions, the accused enablers of sexual abuse would have been put on leave by now. But we will not give up; we must protect the children at the school and advocate for the survivors. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it’s always the right thing to do.