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'Disgusted' DA says Nichols incidents occurred 'too long ago' for charges

'Disgusted' DA says Nichols incidents occurred 'too long ago' for charges

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Nichols School in Buffalo. (News file photo)

An investigator's report that details allegations of improper conduct against 10 former teachers at Nichols School has landed on the desk of the Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn,  who says he was "disgusted" by what he read on the 85 pages.

But Flynn said he does not think he can bring criminal charges because the alleged sexual misconduct occurred too long ago and one of the alleged perpetrators is dead.

"My reaction is total disgust over what happened at Nichols in the past, but it appears that the current people in charge of Nichols are taking the right approach to address it," he said. "And all of the incidents I am aware of happened too long ago to be prosecuted under the state's statute of limitations. If this report causes other people to come forward about more recent events, we would absolutely take a close look at it."

Nichols made its report public Friday, hours after The Buffalo News published an interview with former Nichols student Elizabeth Russ Mohr, who revealed that she had a romantic and sexual affair with her physics teacher at Nichols in the early 1990s.

While Mohr, who was 17 at the time of the affair, said it was consensual, she said she felt the teacher manipulated and took advantage of her. Mohr's complained last year to Nichols officials, who then  hired the Washington law firm of Crowell & Moring to investigate the school's handling of such incidents in years past.

Among the information and allegations in the report:

  • Investigators said they found credible evidence that 10 former teachers -both men and women - engaged "either in sexual misconduct or other improper relationships with students." Four of those former teachers were named in the report. They are Arthur Budington, the physics teacher who was involved with Mohr;  E. Webster Dann, a former teacher and administrator who died last year; Julie Jones, a former science teacher who left Nichols in 1997; and Donna Armstead, a dance teacher who worked at Nichols in the 1980s.
  • Budington admitted to investigators his involvement with Mohr and another student. Dann, who died last March, was not interviewed. Armstead denied an allegation that she had inappropriate relations with one student. Jones did not respond to "repeated telephone messages and letters" from investigators.
  • There were indications that six other unnamed former teachers – three men and three women – had inappropriate relationships with students. The report said those former teachers were not named because investigators did not find enough "extrinsic evidence" to fully support the claims.
  • No teachers "currently working at Nichols" were involved in the misconduct.
  • Investigators determined that three past administrators either knew or should have known about inappropriate relationships between some teachers and students. They were identified in the report as former headmasters Richard Bryan and Peter Cobb, and former senior dean Mary Rockwell. Officials at Nichols revealed Friday that Rockwell, who told The News that the allegations against her were untrue, has retired from Nichols.

“I am lucky to have had such an incredible and lasting career at Nichols. I am tremendously grateful to have assisted in the growth of so many terrific students and contributed to what is a vibrant, amazing and truly special community," Rockwell told The News late Friday in an email.

[PDF: Nichols School's report (reader discretion advised)]

Flynn said two attorneys for Nichols – Dennis C. Vacco and Amy Habib Rittling – called him on Wednesday and came to his office Friday with a copy of the Nichols report.

"As we walked out of the DA's office, we told him the school will cooperate fully if that is ever needed," Vacco said. "As despicable as some of these past acts were, I agree with Mr. Flynn that they appear to have happened beyond the five-year statute of limitations for prosecutions in this state."

Based on the findings of the report, Nichols officials said the problem of teachers engaging in inappropriate relations with students was "not systemic," but was widespread enough to require genuine concern and reform.

“From the outset of this investigation, motivated by two women with the courage to come forward with their stories, we aimed to do what was right through full disclosure of past misconduct. We achieved those goals through national best practices, and we are confident this was the proper course to take,”  Board of Trustees Chairman Jeff Meyer said. “Only through a transparent, independent process such as this can we come to terms with past misconduct at the school and move Nichols forward into the future."

Former teacher, coach

The report included many allegations about Dann, the deceased long-time employee. Dann worked at the school from 1977 to 2001, as a teacher, a dean, a hockey coach and soccer coach. Investigators said Dann "groomed" a number of male students for improper relationships.

"We received what we determined to be a credible report  of sexual misconduct by Dann with three students.  We also received multiple reports of emotional manipulation and 'grooming' by him," investigators wrote.

One student began a friendship with Dann that began when the student was 12. The relationship soon became sexual and lasted until the student was about "16 or 17," the report said.

The first sexual encounter took place at Dann's home, where the teacher gave the student liquor, took him to his bed and performed a sexual act on him, the report stated.

The report said later sexual contact occurred at "Dann’s house, at a shed on Nichols campus, to which Dann had a key, and at a 'boathouse-type place' at a nearby lake." Eventually, according to the report, Dann turned his attentions to another boy, telling the first boy, "You shouldn't be mad at me. You just aged out. Guys turn 16 every day."

Another of Dann's alleged victims was an eighth-grade boy who was given pornography materials, alcohol and pizza by the teacher, according to the report.

Investigators found there were "persistent rumors" at the school about Dann's involvement with boys, but the investigation found no evidence that administrators or teachers ever had "specific knowledge" of any sexual misconduct by him.

The report suggested that teachers and administrators at Nichols "appeared to lack an awareness, or understanding, of the dynamics of 'grooming.' Thus, they did not recognize these warning signs and take steps to protect students from Dann’s predatory conduct."

Permissive attitude

The report said administrators should have taken more steps to investigate the conduct of Budington, who raised suspicions by spending much of his time with female students in his office, including Mohr. His office was decorated by a large number of photographs of present and former female students. One teacher said he once saw Budington and a student "putting their shirts back on" and wondered about it, but took no action.

There was a permissive attitude at Nichols toward such things, said several alumni, including Christen Clifford, who is now a professor who teaches a class about rape culture in New York City.

"This is systemic and harmful behavior. I am livid," Clifford said after the release of the report on Friday. "These teachers had the implicit support of the institution."

The report was compiled by Laurel Pyke Malson and Rebecca L. Springer, Washington attorneys who have an expertise in investigating incidents at schools. They said they conducted hundreds of interviews and examined the personnel files of 29 former Nichols teachers.

"We note that our investigation turned up no reports of faculty misconduct with students after the mid-2000s.  We attribute much  of this to the School’s ongoing efforts to educate Nichols students, faculty, and administrators regarding appropriate teacher-student boundaries and an enhanced awareness," they wrote.

Nichols officials said changes have been made and more changes will be made in the future.

Liza Mohr said she read most of the report on Friday but needs to "take a closer look at a calmer moment of my life." She said her husband and other family members have supported her for going public with her complaint.

Nichols grad describes 'lasting damage' from sexual relationship with teacher in 1990s

"From everything I have seen so far, it is a well-done report, and Nichols seems to be transparent and doing the right things," Mohr said. "I'm going to be watching."

Mohr said she hopes her actions inspire more women to come forward about similar situations.

"What I know is that, statistically, things like this are underreported," said Mohr. "I know there are many other people out there who have not come forward."


Nichols grad describes 'lasting damage' from sexual relationship with teacher in 1990s

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