By Andrew Marra – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
May 28, 2016
BOCA RATON — St. Andrew’s School, a private Episcopal school in Boca Raton, has been rocked by the abrupt departure of its headmaster and the hiring of two law firms to investigate whether any students have been sexually abused there.
Whether the two events are related is unknown, but the timing of the announcements less than a month apart has rattled parents and fueled rampant speculation in school circles.
Parents learned of both events via emails from the school’s board of trustees, whose members include Bishop Peter Eaton of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida. But parents say the school has refused to provide key details or respond to questions.
The lack of information has jarred them, particularly after the school’s May 17 announcement that it had retained the prominent law firm Holland & Knight to “investigate any reports of sexual abuse of Saint Andrew’s students.”
The message from trustees did not say whether the school had any evidence of sexual abuse or whether it was investigating any allegations. A Boca Raton police spokeswoman said the department was not investigating any sex abuse complaints at the school.
Instead, the emailed bulletin cited as its inspiration an investigative article published this month by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team about sexual abuse in private New England boarding schools.
School administrators and the school’s board declined repeated requests for comment for this story, as did the New Hampshire attorney hired by the school to field any sex abuse complaints. The campus, which includes a boarding school, sits behind walls and gates in a suburban stretch of west Boca, where a guard turns away unannounced visitors.
The unrest at the school has been growing since the school emailed parents April 22 to announce that its board and the school’s headmaster, Peter B. Benedict Jr., had “mutually agreed to end his employment.” He came to the school in 2013. He did not respond to comment.
It was less than a month later that the school’s board announced to parents that it had retained Holland & Knight lawyers to investigate any sexual abuse complaints.
In that announcement, the school disclosed that it had also hired New Hampshire attorney Beth Deragon, who specializes in defending private schools, to field any reports of “possible sexual abuse.”
The email, copies of which were obtained by The Palm Beach Post, encourages parents to contact Deragon but makes no mention of alerting local police.
The school’s board of trustees cited the Globe’s article as prompting “an opportunity for us to consider our own past.” The trustees said they were creating “a dedicated process to address promptly and thoroughly any reports of possible sexual abuse of Saint Andrew’s students.”
The article, “Private schools, painful secrets,” revealed that at least eight New England private schools have launched or disclosed sexual misconduct investigations this year, resulting from allegations of abuse dating as far back as the 1950s. At least five of those probes led to employees being placed on leave or fired.
But several St. Andrew’s parents say they doubt that the Globe’s article could be the primary motive for the school’s actions. A national expert on school sex abuse told The Post it is unusual for a school to undertake an investigation without a specific incident.
“Usually they are precipitated by something that is local to the school,” said Boz Tchividjian, executive director of GRACE, a nonprofit that educates Christian schools on how to handle sex abuse allegations. “I would be surprised if anybody at any school would open an inquiry exclusively based on a Boston Globe article.”
The uncertainty has led parents to criticize the school’s trustees for withholding information and stoking tensions among parents and staff.
“The timing and communication of Peter Benedict’s termination, the division meetings that followed, the disruption caused by many rumors, and most troubling, the extremely unwelcome email referencing the Boston Globe article on sexual abuse, all demonstrate a school whose board leadership is painfully incapable of managing a community through difficult circumstances,” parent Liz Tymorek wrote in a May 20 email to the school’s trustees, a copy of which was obtained by The Post.
Tymorek did not respond to a request for comment. But three other parents, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Post that they had been unable to get any further explanation of the motives for the email inquiring about sex abuse.
The school’s trustees have scheduled a parent forum for Wednesday, calling it part of their efforts to “ensure we are accessible, transparent and accountable.”
Much of the criticism has centered on Mary Jo Finocchiaro, chairwoman of the board, who signed the message announcing Benedict’s departure from the school. In her email, Tymorek said that “it is a result of the board chair’s actions that we find our great school at risk of a damaged reputation and uncertain leadership moving forward.” Finocchiaro has not responded to calls for comment.
The decision to hire private attorneys was criticized by Tchividjian, whose organization led an investigation of the handling of sex abuse allegations at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. Using lawyers paid by the school itself, he said, raises questions about the school’s commitment to transparency.
“Whenever I hear law firms are being hired to do these, I’m always a little suspect because I think ‘Who is the law firm’s duty to at the end of the day?’” he said.
He added that it was not surprising that parents were angered by the school’s announcement, which failed to say whether school administrators had any knowledge of sex abuse complaints.
“Regardless of what prompted any of this,” Tchividjian added, “I do think that they have fallen short in communicating appropriately to their customer base. When you say that, and that’s all you say, it is absolutely a reasonable response of parents to say, ‘What in the world are you talking about? Is my child safe there?’”
St. Andrew’s has struggled with sexual misconduct in past decades. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the school grappled with at least two sexual incidents involving its employees or students on campus, including a history teacher and lacrosse coach who was removed from the school in 1993 and ultimately fired amid allegations of “sexual improprieties against past or present students.” He denied the allegation and was vigorously defended by parents. Police investigated, but he was never charged.
In a 1987 incident, the son of a school dean was charged with raping a female student living in the dean’s on-campus house. A court later found the son — also a St. Andrew’s student — guilty of having sex with a minor but not guilty of the rape charge.