UPDATE: The results of the investigation spurred by Elizabeth Russ Mohr's story showed that 10 former Nichols School teachers engaged "either in sexual misconduct or other improper relationships with students."
In her senior year at Nichols School, Elizabeth Russ Mohr had a romantic and sexual relationship with her physics teacher, Arthur Budington. She was 17; he was 48.
Both describe the relationship as consensual but totally inappropriate. It began around October 1993 and continued for about four years after Mohr graduated from Nichols. Their encounters took place in Budington’s office at the North Buffalo school, and at Budington’s rural home in southern Erie County.
It was a secret that Mohr – known in her high school days as Liza Russ – mostly kept to herself.
“The most shameful time of your life is painful to look at,” Mohr explained. “It affected the way I looked at myself. It affected the way I looked at authority figures. There was lasting damage. There were things I had to work on. It took me 10 years of therapy to get past it.”
But last year, Mohr decided she could not keep the secret any longer. In May, she wrote a complaint to Nichols School officials, asking them to investigate why a teacher was allowed to have sexual relations with a student and asking what is being done to prevent such things from happening again.
Her complaint stirred up a hornets’ nest at Nichols. The 126-year-old school hired a Washington law firm to investigate Mohr’s situation and how administrators handled it. Investigators also looked into allegations that, over the years, other Nichols teachers have had inappropriate relations with students.
Now 41 and happily married, Mohr is an assistant professor of finance at the University at Buffalo. She has three children. While she does not minimize her own involvement in the consensual affair with Budington, Mohr said she owed it to her children and others to force Nichols to take a hard look at how it deals with teachers who engage in inappropriate relations with students.
She said she hopes the Nichols investigation prompts the school to make significant changes. She also hopes it will prompt other local schools and districts to take a close look at their procedures for dealing with such incidents. She said she believes these incidents occur much more often than the few that are made public.
“This isn’t just about one wayward 17-year-old having an affair with her teacher,” Mohr said in an interview. “It’s not just about me. It is about power, and institutions, and the behavior of teachers and the behavior of administrators. What makes me the most angry about this whole thing is that I believe administrators were aware of what was happening, and they did nothing. They didn’t want the problem or the scandal to become public. Nichols has to do better. You cannot live in today’s world and choose not to talk about these things.”
As of Thursday evening, Nichols School officials had declined to comment on a series of questions raised by The News about Mohr's situation.
The school announced last June that it had begun an investigation, based on "a letter from a Nichols alumna that detailed a sexual relationship between her and a Nichols teacher in the early 1990s." The teacher involved left Nichols about 10 years ago, the school said in its announcement.
Several alumni, including Mohr, told The News that they received an email from Nichols several weeks ago, telling them that the investigation would be concluded shortly after the first of this year.
Budington, now 72 and retired, also spoke to The News for this story. He said he thoroughly regrets his actions and added that guilt over his relationship with “Liza” has bothered him for years.
“I was the adult. Liza was 17. What I did was wrong for all the obvious reasons … but I have never been a predator,” an emotional Budington told The News. “I was a divorced teacher, very shy with women, who fell in love with a beautiful young student. Liza was the most brilliant, amazing person I have ever known, and I will always love her. I consider her a friend to this day.”
Budington said he never pressured Mohr into having an affair with him.
Mohr agreed that the attraction was mutual, and they became close friends. But she added that she feels she was taken advantage of by a man who was much older than she, and supposedly a role model.
“It was inappropriate, but using that word to describe it falls short for me,” Mohr said. “We’re talking about an immature teenage girl having a crush and an affair with her 48-year-old teacher, an educator who is supposed to set a good example for his students at a school that says it places character on a very high level. Ask yourself, if you had a daughter, would you want her in a class run by a teacher like that?”
If Mohr had been 16 or younger at the time of the affair, Budington’s actions would have been considered a felony crime – statutory rape – under New York State laws, regardless of whether or not the sex was consensual.
While it is legal to have consensual sex with a 17-year-old in New York, Buffalo attorney Florina Altshiler said most, if not all, school districts have rules barring teachers from having sexual relations with any student, regardless of age. A teacher is an “authority figure” and a student may feel pressured to go along with a request for sex, said Altshiler, a former sex crimes prosecutor.
According to an official of the state Education Department, any teacher who has sex with a student of any age risks losing his or her state teaching certificate for failing to be of “good moral character.”
Mohr’s case touched off a storm of controversy among Nichols alumni, including more than 220 alumni who frequently discuss the investigation on a private Facebook page.
“There’s been a very strong reaction,” said William Morris, 74, who taught English and creative writing at Nichols but left not long after he said he told an administrator about the relationship Budington had with his student. “There’s a very strong expectation that this has to be handled properly by the school. If it’s not handled in a transparent fashion, I think there’s going to be a very big outcry.”
Similar comments came from eight other Nichols alumni who spoke to The News, including Mohr’s twin sister, Alexandra Meyerson; Christen Clifford, an actress and teacher in New York City; and Abigail “Abby” Henrich, pastor of a progressive Christian church in Boston, Mass. All three said they have talked at length about things they witnessed with the Washington-based lawyers who are conducting the Nichols investigation.
“I think the culture at Nichols when I went there in the late 1980s was very permissive toward this kind of thing. I know of about six teachers who had inappropriate, abusive relationships with students,” said Clifford, 46. “I think there are a lot of alumni who witnessed things that they really didn’t know how to feel about. I was not sexually abused at Nichols, but I was emotionally manipulated by a teacher who sent me about 100 letters. Most of the letters were related to the teacher’s feelings about another student.”
Clifford said she has spoken to many alumni who are watching closely to see if Nichols officials are open and honest about the findings of the probe.
“I got a great education at Nichols and had a number of really good teachers,” Clifford said. “But I think we are looking at an institution that has covered things up in the past. I guess I am optimistic and skeptical about this investigation, at the same time.”
One of the biggest issues of controversy in the Nichols case is the allegation that two top administrators knew about Mohr’s affair with her teacher but did nothing about it.
Morris, the former Nichols teacher, and Henrich, who was Mohr's friend and classmate, both told The News that they informed high-ranking administrators about the situation and were told to mind their own business.
“I had gone to school with Liza since the fifth grade,” recalled Henrich, 41. “In senior year, a group of girls in our class noticed that Liza was spending all her time with Mr. Budington. She was with him in his office, every free period. We heard that she was going out to his house on weekends … She was becoming isolated from everyone else. It just didn’t seem right.”
Henrich said she told Nichols investigators that she brought her concerns to two of the school’s top officials, Richard Bryan, who then headed the high school, and Mary Rockwell, dean of the senior class. Bryan later became headmaster of the school.
“I told Mr. Bryan that I thought there was something really wrong and inappropriate about Art and Liza’s relationship,” Henrich said.
She said Bryan told her he would look into it, and asked her to be patient.
When weeks passed with no action or response, Henrich said she told one of her teachers – Morris – about the situation. She said she also told Rockwell.
She said Rockwell reacted by telling her, “We know what you think, Abby. Be quiet.”
Henrich said she was devastated by the administrators’ response and stopped raising questions.
“I was silenced. I was made to feel like I was a bad kid for bringing this up,” Henrich said.
Morris said he went to Bryan and told him that a concerned student had told him about an inappropriate relationship between Budington and Mohr.
“I said you’ve got to do something about this, at least investigate this,” Morris said. “Rich Bryan looked at me and said, ‘You’re wrong, and I want you to tell Abby Henrich that she is wrong.’ ”
After that, Morris said he fell out of favor with Bryan and felt “vilified” by the headmaster. Morris left Nichols four years later.
The News reached out to both Bryan, who left Nichols in 2013 and is now headmaster of the University School in Ohio, and Rockwell, who still serves as the assistant head of school at Nichols. Both firmly denied that anyone ever told them about any affair between Budington and Mohr.
“I cannot speak to what Ms. Henrich and Mr. Morris may now be saying after so many years, nor about the current status of the investigation, as my involvement is limited,” Bryan said. “However, I can tell you categorically that I had no knowledge of the inappropriate relationship between a student and a teacher, as they allege. I would have acted immediately on a report of any such conduct. I first heard of these allegations during the course of the investigation last summer, long after they had occurred, and years after I, myself, had left the school. To my experience, the faculty was always dedicated to the school’s mission and I was proud to serve 31 years with them.”
Rockwell said she only recently heard about the affair between Budington and Mohr. She said Henrich’s allegations that she ignored the problem are “not true.”
“I was deeply saddened to hear of the experiences of Liza Mohr. My heart breaks for her,” Rockwell said. “In my varied roles at Nichols, I have cared for, nurtured and fostered the growth of thousands of young women and men for three decades. I have been an activist for women’s rights throughout my career. These allegations are not true and are completely inconsistent with who I am and what I stand for. If a student came to me to inform me that a teacher was having a sexual relationship with a student, I would have acted immediately on that information.”
A teacher’s regrets
Budington said he has had many sleepless nights and lost 25 pounds due to anxiety since learning of the Nichols investigation several months ago. He said he has spoken openly and willingly with the investigators about his affair with Mohr.
“I’ve had people close to me tell me, ‘Get a lawyer, don’t talk to anyone about this.’ I didn’t get a lawyer. I did talk to the investigators,” Budington said. “I didn’t lie. I didn’t refuse to talk with them. I’m here talking to you today. I’m not here to defend myself. I know what I did was wrong.”
Morris, the former Nichols teacher, reacted with outrage when he heard Budington’s explanation that he fell in love with a beautiful student.
“That’s just ridiculous and totally unacceptable,” Morris said. “I’m no Puritan, but you don’t touch a student. You’re a teacher. You have to be a role model, somebody the students can trust.”
When asked if he ever had a relationship with any other Nichols student, Budington said, “There was one other, but it was after she graduated.”
Although he cannot be certain, Budington said he believes that many people – administrators, students and teachers – were aware of his romantic relationship with Mohr when they were at Nichols.
“They all knew that we hung out together, all the time,” Budington said. “As far as I know, only one person ever raised any questions about it – Abby Henrich.”
During the 35 years he spent teaching at Nichols, Budington said, he became aware of several other teachers who had affairs with students. He said one of those teachers was fired over it.
Partly because of the guilt he feels about his involvement with Mohr, Budington said he has devoted much of his time and money to helping poor families in Buffalo.
“I’m worried that these families aren’t going to want anything to do with me after this gets out,” Budington said of the Nichols investigation report. “I’ve done a lot of good for people. I don’t want to be remembered as this lecherous guy.”
Mohr said she isn’t seeking retribution against anyone involved in the Nichols situation. She said she is seeking policy changes to protect future Nichols students from what she went through.
She noted that she made her complaint to Nichols several months before the #MeToo movement among American women was jump-started by a New York Times story about movie producer Harvey Weinstein and his abusive treatment of women.
Mohr said two things led her to speak out – the controversial comments about women attributed to Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, and some newspaper stories she read about sexual misconduct investigations at other private schools.
“I spoke to Abby about these things, and I decided that I really needed to bring this to the attention of the people who run Nichols,” Mohr said. “I wrote a letter, and Abby wrote them a letter. I needed to do this for my children, and for other kids. It hurts me to talk about these things, but it hurts more to stay quiet.”
So far, Mohr said, she has been highly impressed by the actions taken by Nichols officials after they received her letter.
“I’ve spoken to the investigators several times, and am very impressed,” Mohr said. “I’m waiting to see what Nichols does with their report. I want the school to be open and transparent. If they aren’t, you’ll be hearing from me.”