Editorial: Clarke School must be more transparent about student abuse

  • A report released this year concludes that former teacher-in-charge Mary Numbers, who worked at Clarke School for the Deaf from 1919 to 1963, used “constant and extreme corporal punishment.” She died in 1979. FILE PHOTO

Published: 8/24/2018 10:22:10 PM

A damning report issued this year by a New York City law firm describes a pattern of physical and sexual abuse of students primarily between the 1950s and 1970s at what was then the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton.

The investigation found that a former teacher-in-charge Mary E. Numbers, who worked at Clarke from 1919 to 1963, engaged in “constant and extreme corporal punishment” against students, and that her brother, Fred C. Numbers Jr., a middle school teacher from 1955 to 1957, sexually abused girls. Furthermore, investigators concluded that George T. Pratt, who was president of Clarke School when much of the misconduct occurred, was aware of the abuse but did nothing to stop it.

Mary Numbers died in 1979, Fred Numbers died in 1982 and Pratt died in 1998.

In a letter sent April 30 to Clarke alumni, three members of the board of trustees summarize the findings of the investigation conducted during the previous year by Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. “We are deeply upset by what the investigation found,” wrote Mary Ellen Nevins, Theodore Mason and Steven Raab. “While we understand that most of the reported behavior took place decades ago, predominantly during the 1950s to 1970s, we realize that it continues to cause great pain. Clarke’s teachers and staff were trusted to care for students and keep them safe and that trust was broken. Clarke’s core values were ignored and the school failed to adequately safeguard the safety and well-being of its students.”

Officials at what is now known as Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech this week declined to be interviewed and referred questions to a communications firm, Sard Verbinnen & Co., which issued a statement. “Although the abuse which the investigation substantiated took place decades ago in a different environment, we recognize it continues to cause great pain to those who were affected by it,” the statement reads. “Clarke has expressed its sincere regrets to these alumni.”

That is not enough, particularly because alumni interviewed by the Gazette this week say the abuse was more widespread and they are dissatisfied with Clarke School’s response. Clarke officials must be more transparent in discussing the report’s findings and specifying whether action will be taken against anyone still living who engaged in misconduct or failed to investigate allegation of abuses, and what remedies the school is offering to victims.

Clarke School was founded in 1867 and gained international acclaim for its emphasis on speech-based communication. About 1,200 children annually receive services on Clarke’s campuses in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Jacksonville, Florida, in addition to Northampton. The residential school on Round Hill Road where the abuse occurred closed in 2012.

Clarke is the latest of dozens of prestigious private schools that have acknowledged abuse of students years after the misconduct occurred, in many cases only after victims finally broke their silence. The Boston Globe reported in 2016 that since 1991 accusations of sexual abuse or harassment of students had been made against employees of at least 67 private schools in New England. According to the Globe, those cases resulted in at least 90 lawsuits or other legal action, and 37 employees at those schools had been fired or forced to resign.

Investigators of abuse at Clarke talked with former students, current and former faculty members and former administrators. The report “found uncontroverted evidence that Mary E. Numbers used extreme corporal punishment against many students and also emotionally abused students.”

Fifteen people who either experienced or witnessed abuse described “Numbers slapping students’ hands with a hairbrush repeatedly, slapping a student on the face, paddling students over their underwear in front of their classmates, squeezing a student’s nose so hard that it bled, and more … it was clear to investigators that Mary Numbers was a great source of suffering for many alumni.”

Investigators also received credible reports that Fred Numbers Jr. “engaged in inappropriate touching by kissing girls on the face and mouth … and was otherwise sexually inappropriate toward girls.”

The trustees’ letter to Clarke alumni concludes that “this investigation has made clear that there have been points in our history that we need to confront and come to terms with.”

We agree and call on Clarke officials for a public accounting of actions taken or planned to help the victims heal.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

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