One survivor of years of sexual abuse in a southeastern Massachusetts public school said her harrowing experience has proved particularly distressing to process – in large part, because of how preventable it all was.
She recounted how a school administrator would take her out of classes to abuse her – with the unknowing acquiescence of teachers who allowed her removal without questioning it.
She said the abuse only ended three years later, when a new physical education teacher asked her: “‘Are you okay?’”
“I’d come back and I’d be all upset and just spaced out,” the survivor said. “My abuser was smart enough to know which teachers were going to notice less and pull me from those classes more often. I think the teachers – they didn’t have the training. They were in a culture that allowed this administrator to do whatever he wanted. There was no culture that supported them in speaking up against this person.”
Then, the physical education teacher took a step that no others did.
The next time the administrator tried to pull her from class, the teacher refused.
The survivor says she only told that teacher of that abuse well into adulthood.
She said as an adult, she began to receive treatment for years of anxiety, depression and trauma.
“If you create policies that make it easier for people to report suspicious behavior, kids don’t have to get abused,” she said. “It’s that simple.”
But 25 Investigates finds that Massachusetts has fallen behind dozens of other states that have passed stricter laws that child sex abuse experts say are key to strengthening policies and protecting kids.
“Massachusetts has a black eye,” Jetta Bernier, executive director of child sexual abuse prevention organization MassKids, said. “And we need to catch up.”
25 Investigates has uncovered scores of cases of sexual abuse by Massachusetts public school staff over the past decades – and spoken with survivors who say that abuse has left them with lasting emotional scars and years of trauma.
“As we have seen, far too many children suffer sexual abuse at the hands of those who are there to protect them,” Sen. Joan Lovely told 25 Investigates.
25 Investigates also found that for years, the Massachusetts Legislature has failed to pass legislation that would:
- Boost screening requirements for school personnel, beyond background checks.
- Require developmentally appropriate sexual abuse prevention training and education in schools
- Prohibit school employees from helping getting jobs for staffers suspected of sexual misconduct
- Lift statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse in criminal and civil cases.
- Make it easier for prosecutors to charge educators who sexually abuse students once they turn 16.
Lawmakers – including Assistant Senate Majority Leader Joan Lovely, a Democrat – have pushed such bills since at least 2015.
But none have passed the House and Senate.
Lovely says its past time for the Legislature to finally act.
“Children are entrusted into the care of our schools and teachers to learn and grow,” Lovely said. “Too many are instead now facing a lifetime of trauma because they were sexually abused in a place where they should have been safe. By enacting a series of reforms, we can protect more of our children and ensure perpetrators are held accountable and cannot go on to victimize more children.”
In December 2021, a panel of child sex abuse survivors testified in support of the legislation.
One Boston man – who said an athletic coach sexually abused him as a child – said Massachusetts law fails to protect young teenagers from grooming.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, a Democrat and chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, thanked survivors for their harrowing testimony: “Thank you for your testimony, it was very powerful. And I assure you it has had an impact on the committee.”
Nearly two years later, survivors and advocates are still waiting for their lawmakers to act.
“We are always hopeful because we’re fighting for kids,” Bernier said.
GAPS IN AGE OF CONSENT LAW
Currently, a sixteen-year-old in Massachusetts can legally consent to sexual intercourse.
It is also legal to touch a child who is 14 years or older in a sexual, non-penetrative way.
In contrast to Massachusetts – the age of consent for sexual activity is 18 in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
Jacquelyn Lamont, forensic interview team supervisor for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, said Massachusetts state law fails to protect children who are groomed by their teachers into their teenage years and who do not resist during sexual abuse.
Lamont said if prosecutors cannot prove that a victim did not consent, offenders can use the age of consent as a defense to avoid justice.
Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden agreed: “Any case where we’re prosecuting a child, sexual assault becomes difficult because these cases are insidious and often secretive. And so, there’s always a challenge when you add on top of that the issue of consent. It’s an additional layer, because when you have a situation where a child may have consented where they were 14 or 16 years old, depending on the act, it gets even harder.”
“Most often, it’s as a result of someone that’s in a position of trust, whether it be a member of the clergy, whether it be a coach, whether it be a teacher,” he said. “Grooming them and preying upon them.”
25 Investigates finds that prosecutors have at times found themselves unable to charge school employees for abusing children once they turn 16.
In 2021, a former Roxbury teacher pleaded guilty to four counts of rape of a child and was sentenced to four years in state prison.
The abuse started when the student was 12 and continued for years -- but prosecutors said they could not charge him for abusing the student once she turned 16.
A 2011 federal lawsuit filed against the town of Palmer and a school guidance counselor claimed the counselor “monitored the ages of female students to ensure that his sexual conquests would not result in statutory rape charges.”
That lawsuit ended in a 2013 settlement.
Prosecutors can file charge for forcible rape of teenagers – but Lamont and Hayden said current law is just insufficient to protect children from those who groom them.
“It is a very high bar, and it’s not one that makes any sense because consenting in the moment is not the point,” Hayden said. “It is irrelevant. Someone in a position of trust is engaging in an inherently coercive situation. An inherently coercive relationship with that child usually happens over a long period of time where this child is being groomed and primed in a nature that’s quite frankly, predatory. And so, to focus on consent in the moment is frankly irrelevant.”
Advocates say Massachusetts has left high school students particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse by school employees.
In 25 Investigates’ review of more than a dozen ongoing sexual abuse cases involving school staff, just one open case involves abuse of a minor 16-years-old or older.
We found at least five current and former students have filed lawsuits over educator sexual abuse that happened once they reached the age of 16.
BILLS WOULD RAISE AGE OF CONSENT IN SCHOOL STAFF ABUSE
A child under the age of 18 would be considered incapable of legally consenting to any sexual relations with adults in positions of authority in criminal cases under a bill sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Joan Lovely.
Another bill sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Kenneth Gordon would apply to anyone under the age of 19 and individuals with special needs under the age of 22.
Lovely and Gordon also sponsored legislation allowing individuals who were sexually abuse under the age of 19 – or under age 22 for those with special needs – to sue people in a “position of authority” and their employers.
Lovely first sponsored such a bill in 2015.
“While these students are above the legal age of consent, there is no doubt that an imbalance of power exists between a student and teacher or other trusted adult in schools and youth-serving organizations,” Lovely said.
25 Investigates found that lawmakers have unsuccessfully pushed similar bills as far back as 2009.
“It’s shocking and appalling that we haven’t seen fit to pass this law yet,” Hayden said.
Nationwide, 39 states and D.C. have already passed laws that specifically prohibit child sexual abuse by school personnel.
That’s according to MassKids’ Enough Abuse campaign, which is tracking legislation nationwide.
Connecticut, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire all have laws on the books that allow prosecutors to specifically charge school employees for having sexual contact with minor students.
“If you have a cunning abuser who wants to wants to groom a child up until the age of 16, then become sexually involved with that student, if he can convince the student that they’re in a consensual relationship and the student doesn’t want to press charges, even though the parents might become aware of it or the school might become aware of it, the police cannot investigate, the D.A. cannot file charges, nothing happens,” Bernier said.
Why hasn’t the legislation passed? Supporters say it’s largely due to lack of continued interest from lawmakers.
“We are told that legislators have thousands of bills every year in Massachusetts they have to deal with,” Bernier said. “Other things come up that appear to be more important.”
“I don’t know,” Hayden said, when asked about the years of delay. “But prayerfully, it’s not going to take us much longer at all.”
25 Investigates reviewed lobbying reports but did not find any organizations who have reported lobbying against Lovely and Gordon’s bills in recent years.
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said his organization has not taken a stance on legislation to raise the age of consent in cases involving adults in positions of authority.
But he said he questions whether changing the age of consent would have much impact.
“This is Massachusetts, it’s a regulation and punishment state,” he said. “And I’ve never seen the enforcement end of state administration relinquishing the power to prosecute or to regulate. So, I think you might find some agencies eager to expand their authority over this. Whether it’s workable or not is a very interesting question.”
He added: “The biggest question we always have in Massachusetts is whether you can legislate behavior and how you want to deal with it appropriately. I’m sure few people would argue with raising age of consent.”
Koocher said better education may be a better approach.
“In Massachusetts, whenever there’s some type of a crisis, or malfeasance, someone always writes a law,” Koocher said. “The regulation is invoked. Sometimes that works. And sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not sure raising the age of consent is going to affect those people who behave inappropriately or illegally as much as public education will do that as part of the health care curriculum.”
PUSH TO NIX STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS
Some bills would make it easier for survivors to make their case in civil court.
Massachusetts would eliminate the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse lawsuits under several bills.
Right now – that limit is 53 years.
That’s due to a compromise MA lawmakers struck in 2014 -- with buy-in from the Catholic Conference, as dioceses faced mounting lawsuits from survivors of clergy sex abuse.
MassKids’ Bernier said that some lawmakers agreed to never bring forward a bill to further extend the statute of limitations.
Sen. William Brownsberger, a Democrat, said he pledged to no longer work on the statute of limitations issue to get the harrowing deal over the finish line – at a time when the Catholic Church wielded immense power in state politics.
“That was the compromise we reached with them,” he said. “I fought that fight ten years ago. I took that issue as far as I could with them.”
“That was a long-fought battle, and everybody came to that signing and everybody was rapturously pleased at the time,” Brownsberger said. “And now there is a movement to go beyond that.”
Rep. John Lawn, a Democrat who also helped strike the compromise, did not agree to such a deal.
Lawn has since brought forward legislation to eliminate the statute of limitations altogether. Lovely has a similar bill.
“We need to send a clear message that in this instance of child sexual abuse, the statute of limitations law does not work,” Lawn said.
“It’s time for us to really look at what we have done, what other states have done, and make sure that we are doing all we can to make sure we send a message that people who harm children, there should never be a clock on,” Lawn said.
But for years, legislation to eliminate the statute of limitations has stalled amid opposition from critics including the Archdiocese, which argues it is impossible to weigh claims going so far back.
A spokesperson for the Catholic Church stressed its role in the 2014 compromise.
“After 9 years, the law has proven to be beneficial to the victims,” Catholic Conference spokesperson James Driscoll said in a statement. “The legislative changes currently proposed and under consideration would jeopardize our ability to continue to do so and would make it difficult to sustain the many works of mercy the Church is committed to through social justice and support for the neediest.”
25 Investigates reviewed years of state lobbying reports filed with the Massachusetts Secretary of State and found other opponents: including the insurance lobby and the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
Lauren Anderson, senior manager of corporate communications for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, said:
“Statutes of limitations prevent plaintiffs from being able to assert old claims where defendants may no longer have the evidence and witnesses necessary to assert a meaningful defense.”
Another critic: the American Tort Reform Association, which testified against the bill at a September legislative hearing.
The group’s spokesperson, Cary Silverman, said: “In the revived lawsuits that will result from this bill, there may be no doubt that the plaintiff has experienced horrific abuse. The question that will be difficult or impossible to fairly answer is whether decades ago an organization could have detected that abuse or have had additional practices in place that might have prevented or stopped the employee or the volunteer who committed it. In a revived action alleging that a school failed to prevent abuse in 1965, for example — the type of claim you’re going to see — a 35-year-old employee from that time, who would serve as a witness now, would be 93 years old. And any paper records from that time would be gone.”
The tax-exempt American Tort Reform Association, whose boards members include leaders of Fortune 500 giants like Pfizer, says it fights to limit alleged class-action abuse. Its tax filings claim that personal injury lawyers push for “multi-million-dollar punitive damage awards.”
Despite such opposition, Lawn said he’s hopeful the legislation will make it over the finish line next year.
Brownsberger is backing another bill that would remove a cap on damages for childhood sexual abuse.
Right now, Brownsberger said the cap is $20,000 for charities and $100,000 for governmental entities -- including public schools.
He said Massachusetts’ caps are an outlier compared to other states: “Most states, other states, don’t have it.”
“This just says everybody’s going to be all loving a level playing field,” Brownsberger said. “There will be no limit in cases of childhood sexual abuse.”
“Leave it to judges and juries to do the right thing as opposed to putting a number on it,” Brownsberger said.
He said he has not heard from opponents of the bill, including the Catholic Church.
“We haven’t sort of gotten to a negotiation or a direct conversation with them,” he said, referring to the Catholic Church. “I don’t see a lot of room to negotiate that bill. I think that’s something that I hope this institution, that we the legislature, will just do.”
Another bill – sponsored by Gordon – would also lift the criminal statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse.
His bill reads in part: “an indictment or complaint alleging an offense of indecent assault and battery, or an offense, may be found and filed at any time after the commission of such offense, provided that the victim was under the age of 18 when the offense was committed.”
Sex abuse lawyer Mitchell Garabedian said lifting the statute of limitations in criminal cases is needed – he pointed to the lack of a statute of limitations for murders, for example.
Defense attorneys have long argued that statute of limitations protects fundamental constitutional rights in the criminal justice system.
FIGHT TO STOP ‘PASSING THE TRASH’
Advocates also want MA lawmakers to pass legislation to ensure teachers suspected of sexual abuse cannot simply move to other schools.
School employees could no longer help staffers known to have committed sexual misconduct get another job in a school, under a bill sponsored by Lovely.
“Too often, individuals are able to move from one district to another to without facing consequences and victimize more children,” Lovely said. “By increasing screen requirements and indemnifying schools who make good-faith disclosures, we can stop this practice and ensure our children are safe at school.”
More than a dozen states – including Connecticut and Vermont – have already passed laws to end so-called “passing the trash,” according to MassKids.
“That’s another loophole that we have to focus on,” Bernier said. “We’re not among the ones that are passing screening. We’re not even prohibiting passing the trash.”
25 Investigates found a pattern of cases where public school staff were warned or investigated about sexual abuse of students – then found jobs in schools elsewhere.
After a former Hopkinton High school resource officer was charged with raping a student, he was placed on leave. He then continued working as head coach of a girls’ varsity soccer team in Upton.
A Westwood High School Spanish teacher went onto work at other Massachusetts schools after the school investigated her alleged sexual conduct with a student, according to a 2014 lawsuit filed in state court.
And a former Springfield substitute teacher received a written warning about inappropriately touching a female student – and then ended his employment and got a job at a high school as an assistant wrestling coach.
That’s according to a lawsuit filed this year in Hampden County Court by a student who says he abused her.
The lawsuit claims Springfield’s Duggan Academy failed to report the conduct to DCF and never provided them with updates about their own investigation.
In legal filings, a lawyer representing Springfield and its schools said they are “without sufficient knowledge or information to admit or deny” those allegations.
Bernier said right now, school officials may feel uncomfortable sharing information about a teacher that may not show up on a background check – like a school-level investigation of alleged sexual misconduct that does not rise to the criminal level.
“Right now, there’s a bit of a game going on,” Bernier said. “The person who’s being asked for the reference will be uncomfortable sharing that. Because you’re afraid that if it comes out, they don’t get the job, it might get back to them, that they didn’t give a good reference and that they shared this information. And there’s a lot of fear about being sued.”
Sen. Lovely’s SHIELD act would launch a standardized hiring application with questions about prior history and allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct.
Schools would explicitly have to ask former school employers if an applicant had any history of sexual abuse or misconduct.
Job seekers would authorize the sharing of that employment information, and employers would have protections from liability for providing it.
The bill would also prohibit confidentiality agreements intended to suppress information about an employee’s misconduct.
MA IS ONLY NEW ENGLAND STATE WITHOUT MANDATORY PREVENTION TRAINING
Another priority for advocates: legislation mandating sexual assault prevention education and training in all public schools for all employees and students.
Massachusetts is the only state in New England that does not mandate education on child sexual abuse awareness and prevention in schools, according to MassKids.
All Massachusetts schools and youth organizations would have to adopt comprehensive abuse prevention policies under the proposed legislation – including codes of conduct that set boundaries for appropriate adult and child interactions.
Lovely said numerous abuse-prevention resources already exist in Massachusetts – but school systems statewide are not yet universally using them.
Students would also receive age-tailored education about what kinds of behaviors violate appropriate boundaries, and what school and community resources are available if they need help.
“Instituting these policies and trainings across our education and youth-serving systems will ensure that the individuals who see our children each and every day have the knowledge necessary to identify and respond to instances of child sexual abuse,” Lovely said. “This is critical to both preventing and stopping child sexual abuse to protect our youth.”
25 Investigates asked hundreds of school districts if they had policies addressing school employe and student relationships.
Dozens of school districts who responded said they either lacked such a policy, or pointed to a more general policies concerning sexual harassment or online etiquette.
Palmer Public Schools has a policy that prohibits “consensual student-staff sexual and/or other relationships which exceed the scope of the professional student-staff relationship.”
Staff in violation can face “disciplinary action up and including termination from employment.”
Masconomet Regional School District’s policy says: “taking a sincere and appropriate professional interest in an individual student can be commendable in appropriate circumstances, provided partiality and the appearance of partiality are avoided.”
But, the policy says: “inappropriate and or excessive formal or informal social or other involvement with individuals students and “pal-like” relationships give rise to charges and concerns of excessive and inappropriate personal involvement and ethical conduct.”
“Such conduct is not compatible with professional teacher ethics and inappropriate teacher conduct and shall not be condoned,” the policy reads.
That conduct can result in disciplinary action including suspension, administrative leave, demotion and termination.
A handful of schools, including Nashoba Valley Technical High School, has policies for contact between employees and students.
“At no time should an NVTHS staff member be communicating with a student via personal cell phones/texting or other social media opportunities,” reads one policy.
Nashoba’s policy also prohibits: “touching students under clothing, in the genital areas, on the buttocks or other commonly termed “private parts,” except in an emergency situation by qualified personnel.”
Employees who observe inappropriate physical contact between students and staff must report to the principal and superintendent as soon as possible: “If the contact is perceived to be immediately harmful by the observer, prompt intervention to prevent further harm is required.”
Nashoba’s policy says “the appropriateness of physical contact” depend on the context: including issues such as intent, context, location, circumstances, age, and sex.
The policy lays out examples: “Having a first-grade child sit on one’s lap during a group picture taking session may be perfectly appropriate while regularly having fifth grade students of either sex sit on one’s lap during a movie is not appropriate. Holding and comforting a first grader who has fallen and is crying may be appropriate whereas placing a hand on a child’s head to redirect his attention to the front of the room is not.”
Some schools said they would consider passing a policy concerning student-staff relationships in response to 25 Investigates’ questions.
“Thank you for sharing it, however, as I plan to share with our policy subcommittee,” said Gill-Montague Regional School District Superintendent Brian Beck.
PROSPECTS OF PASSAGE
In 2017, a state task force on child sexual abuse urged lawmakers to pass legislation to prevent abuse.
The task force called for legislation to launch a personal safety and sexual abuse prevention curriculum, require stronger abuse prevention policies and require schools to make inquiries into an applicant’s past abuse or sexual misconduct investigations.
But six years later, MA has yet to pass such legislation.
Bernier said advocates are pushing for lawmakers to pass a package of bills, rather than passing one bill at a time.
Brownsberger, who also serves as president pro tempore of the Senate, said he feels there’s a chance for passage next year.
“You’ve got others who feel strongly about this and hopefully will be able to give this bill the momentum that it needs to get to the finish line,” he said.
Lawn said: “I think there is some acknowledgment that we need to do more to protect victims of child sexual abuse. I know we have to always in here balance many different aspects of the law and making sure we protect all.”
And Brownsberger and Lawn said compared to a decade ago, the Catholic Church no longer wields the political power it once held in Massachusetts.
25 Investigates asked the two most powerful people in the state Legislature about the hold-up.
Lawmakers return in January to begin their work in the second year of the ongoing two-year legislative session.
For weeks, 25 Investigates reached out to the offices of House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka to request sit-down interviews.
Spilka’s office never responded. Mariano’s spokesperson said the speaker did not have time for an interview.
So, 25 Investigates asked the Democratic leaders about the lack of action on the child abuse prevention bills at a November press conference.
Mariano, a Democrat, has a long history of working on childhood sexual abuse issues: he sponsored a 2012 statute of limitations law that made it easier to sue over childhood sexual abuse.
He’s also received an award for his commitment to child abuse prevention.
And he worked as a teacher for a dozen years.
Mariano told Boston 25 Investigative Reporter and Anchor Kerry Kavanaugh that he takes the issue “very, very seriously.”
But he said he was not familiar with the legislation – which is sponsored by long-time lawmakers in leadership including Sen. Lovely, who serves as Assistant Majority Leader of the Senate, and Sen. Brownsberger, who is President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
“I haven’t studied those bills,” Mariano said. “I haven’t spent a lot of time analyzing them, but that’s what the committee process is for.”
Senate President Karen Spilka said: “these are hard issues and really serious issues to consider.”
“We will discuss them in the Senate and take a hard look at them.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.
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