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Nichols probe: Loophole doesn't require private schools to report sexual misconduct

Three former administrators from Nichols School were criticized in an investigators' report for failing to take action against teachers involved in sexual misconduct or inappropriate relationships with their students.

If the administrators worked in public school systems, New York state laws would have required them to report such allegations immediately to law enforcement.

But because of a loophole in state law, there is no such requirement for administrators at private schools like Nichols.

"For a public school administrator, it's a crime not to report it. For a private school administrator, there's no law against failing to report it," said Stephen P. Forrester, director of government relations for the not-for-profit New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. "There is a huge loophole in state law, and it's long overdue to fix it."

Forrester and his organization are working with legislators on a proposed state law that would put the same requirements on private school administrators. One of the proposed law's big supporters is Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn.

Thousands of children who attend private schools throughout the state deserve the same protections as children in public schools, Flynn said.

"This is an issue that I have thought about since I first took office," Flynn said. "It's absolutely wrong, and I absolutely support changes in the law."

Flynn's comments came one day after Nichols released a report detailing its investigation into 10 teachers who had improper relationships with students over more than four decades. Nichols hired a Washington law firm to investigate last May after receiving a letter from Elizabeth Russ Mohr, a 1994 Nichols graduate who reported having a romantic and sexual relationship with her physics teacher at the school. Mohr was 17 at the time of the affair, and the teacher, Arthur Budington, was 48.

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Mohr said that although the affair with the teacher was consensual, she felt manipulated and taken advantage of by a much older man who was supposed to be a role model to her and other students. Mohr said she was even more upset by the fact that she believes two administrators at Nichols were told about the affair but did nothing to stop it.

"Administrators should be looking out for their students. This has to be addressed. That is the main reason why I wrote to them and told them about this," said Elizabeth Russ Mohr, a former Nichols School student who reported having a romantic and sexual relationship with her physics teacher at the school. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"Nichols is a school that says it places a high value on building character," Mohr said. "Administrators should be looking out for their students. This has to be addressed. That is the main reason why I wrote to them and told them about this."

Officials at Nichols sent an email about the investigation to alumni on Friday.

In the email, officials announced that investigators had determined that three former administrators either knew or should have known about sexual misconduct or other inappropriate relations between teachers and students and "failed to take appropriate action." They found that no Nichols teachers were ever fired for sexual misconduct, or improper relationships with students between 1960 and 2005.

The three administrators were identified as former headmasters Richard Bryan and Peter Cobb, and former senior dean Mary Rockwell. None of the three acknowledged knowing of such conduct and failing to take action, according to the report.

A former Nichols teacher, William Morris, said he told Bryan about the affair between Mohr and Budington, but was told by Bryan that the allegations of an affair were untrue. Former student Abigail Henrich, a friend of Mohr's, said she related the same concerns to both Bryan and Rockwell, and said neither administrator took any action. Henrich said Rockwell told her to "be quiet."

Bryan, who left Nichols in 2013 and now serves as headmaster of a private school in Ohio, denied those claims. So did Rockwell, who continued to work at Nichols until her very recent retirement.

Rockwell and Nichols officials declined to comment Saturday when asked if her retirement was linked to the investigation. It is against school policy to discuss "personnel matters," school spokeswoman Jesse Baier said.

Cobb, who left Nichols in 1994, was cited in the investigation report for allegedly failing to take action about a different unnamed teacher who "acted inappropriately" with a female student. He could not be reached for comment Saturday.

The report said some of the Nichols alumni and former employees they interviewed told them there was a “systemic culture within Nichols structured around keeping this problematic behavior from coming to light and damaging the [S]chool’s reputation.”

That attitude, according to the report, helped enable the wrongdoing of teachers like Budington and the late E. Webster Dann, who served the school as a teacher, administrator, hockey and soccer coach. Dann retired from Nichols in 2001 and died last year.

According to the report, Dann repeatedly molested a boy who attended Nichols over a period of at least four years, beginning when the student was 12. Investigators said they also found credible evidence of Dann's sexual misconduct with two other male students.

As a "powerful, well-liked" teacher who came from a prominent family with strong ties to Nichols, Dann was able to escape scrutiny for his "predatory behavior," the report said.

Forrester, of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said he was not shocked to hear about what happened at Nichols.

"In recent years, there has been scandal after scandal uncovered at private schools, and that is why this loophole in the state law cannot be closed soon enough," Forrester said. He said his organization has been working with legislators on this issue for years.

The federal "mandated reporter" law that requires school officials to report suspicions of child abuse applies to both public and private schools. But that law only requires the reporting of suspected acts of abuse committed by parents and guardians, not teachers or other educators, Forrester said.

In 2000, New York State sought to address that situation by passing a state Education Law that requires public and charter school administrators to report to law enforcement when they have suspicions that a teacher or other school employee has abused a child, Forrester said.

"But for whatever reason, the state chose not to include private schools in the law," Forrester said.

He noted that at least 83,000 students attend private schools in the state, according to the New York State Association of Independent Schools.

The current state law fails to adequately protect private school students, according to both Forrester and Flynn.

Forrester added that the lax reporting requirements for private schools also make it possible for private schools to allow teachers who have had improper conduct with students to leave employment with one  school and find jobs with other schools, with no mention of the bad conduct on their employment records.

"This loophole makes it easier for private school administrators to get rid of a problem teacher and deep six the wrongful conduct of an offender, letting him get hired somewhere else where the new school has no knowledge of what happened in the past," Forrester said.

He said two state legislators – Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, D-Queens, and Sen. John E. Brooks, D-Massapequa – last year proposed changes in the law that would close the loopholes.

"It's had very widespread support. I am not aware of a single school or school system, including the Catholic schools, that have opposed this proposal in any way," said Forrester, who watches the legislation closely. "It just hasn't made its way through the Legislature yet."

Baier, the Nichols spokeswoman, declined to comment on whether Nichols officials support the proposed changes in the law. She told a reporter that the school does provide staff training on how to recognize possible abuse, and when to report it.

Despite the past problems found by investigators, Nichols leaders said the school today "provides a safe, nurturing, and attentive environment where each student feels heard and protected. Since 2013, the school has had a full-time, on-campus counselor tasked with helping students with any challenges. The school also has a five-teacher Core Group that offers resources on wellness and mental health and reports to the full-time counselor with any concerns."

Mohr said she is closely watching to see what Nichols does to further address the problems.

"The reason I came forward is not for me," said Mohr, now 41 and a mother of three. "I did it for kids who are in schools like Nichols now and will go to those schools in the future."