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Editorial: Hold private schools accountable for misconduct

Private school administrators should be held to the same standard as their public school counterparts when it comes to reporting allegations of sexual misconducted or inappropriate relationships with their students.

But they are not.

This, in itself, is astounding, as is its consequence: the revelation that 10 teachers at Nichols High School had improper relations with students over more than four decades, according to an investigation by a Washington law firm hired by the institution. Three former administrators were criticized in the investigation for failing to take action against those teachers.

New York state laws would have held public school administrators accountable but, because of a loophole that is both unconscionable and egregious, private schools are not held to the same standard. The consequences are on full display in the Nichols case.

These violations came to light because Elizabeth Russ Mohr, a 1994 Nichols graduate, stepped forward.

In an interview with The News’ Dan Herbeck, Mohr outlined an affair with then-Nichols teacher, Arthur Budington, when she was 17. He was 48. Mohr said the affair was consensual and by New York State law she was old enough to make this decision. Still, she said “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,” as Herbeck reported.

That Mohr, now 41, with three children, spent decades haunted by an unequal relationship speaks volumes.

The investigation into that and other inappropriate relationships by the Washington law firm hired by Nichols determined that three former administrators either knew or should have known about sexual misconduct or other inappropriate relations between teachers and students. Yet, they “failed to take appropriate action.”

The result: No Nichols teachers were fired for misdeeds with students between 1960 and 2005.

There was, according to some alumni and former employees interviewed for the law firm report, a “systemic culture within Nichols…” that essentially kept the problem from “coming to light” and inflicting damage to the school’s reputation.

Other teachers were named in the report, among them the late E. Webster Dann, whose time at the school included roles as teacher, administrator, hockey and soccer coach. Dann retired from Nichols in 2001 and died last year. The report detailed repeated molestation of a boy who attended the school over a period of at least four years and when the student was only 12. Evidence pointed to inappropriate relationships between Dann and two other male students.

What of the New York state Education Law, passed in 2000, that holds public and charter school administrators accountable?

Beyond the federal “mandated reporter” law which addresses abuse by parents or guardians, the state’s article 23-B speaks to abuse that takes place in a school setting either by a teacher or staff member. Victims are coming forward decades later. Those reports demand a response, including changes in Article 23-B. Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn and Stephen P. Forrester, director of government relations for the not-for-profit New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, both strongly supports closing loopholes in the law. Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, D-Queens, and Sen. John E. Brooks, D-Massapequa, last year proposed such changes. Yet both bills have languished in committee.

The only positive news out of this episode is that the current board at Nichols High School took steps to investigate the matter. They deserve credit for that. But students should not have to worry about being preyed upon by adults charged with looking out for their best interests. State legislators need to act on this disgraceful omission immediately.

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