Report details abuse at Clarke School decades ago

  • This is the north end of Rogers Hall at 49 Round Hill Road, formerly of the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech campus. The former dormitory was demolished after it was heavily damaged in an August 2015 fire. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/21/2018 8:21:46 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A report released in April to alumni of what is now the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech found evidence that some former teachers and staff physically and sexually abused students at the school decades ago.

The law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP conducted the independent investigation, which was leaked to Northampton author and former city councilor Mike Kirby and published on his website. The report details behavior that took place “predominantly during the 1950s to 1970s” at Clarke’s residential school on Round Hill Road, which closed in 2012. The investigators drew on records and archives, and interviews with former students, current and former faculty and former administrators.

The Clarke Schools referred questions about the report to the communications firm Sard Verbinnen & Co., which released a statement saying the report was commissioned because the school takes allegations of abuse very seriously.

“Obviously, the reported behavior was wrong, and would be in clear violation of policies that we have had in place for many years,” the statement reads. “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. Clarke has expressed its sincere regrets to these alumni.”

The report found evidence that former teacher-in-charge Mary Numbers, who worked at what was then the Clarke School for the Deaf from 1919 to 1963, used “constant and extreme corporal punishment,” including “slapping students’ hands with a hairbrush repeatedly, slapping a student on the face, paddling students over their underwear in front of their classmates [and] squeezing a student’s nose so hard that it bled.”

The report notes that, “Given the young age of the students and their limitations to communicate effectively, these experiences were particularly terrifying.”

Numbers also emotionally abused students by actions such as reading their private letters, telling a girl that if she was late to church she wouldn’t see her parents again and demeaning less-advantaged children, the report says.

The law firm found evidence that Numbers’ brother, Fred Numbers Jr., physically and sexually abused young children during his time at the school from 1955 to 1957.

Fred Numbers was found to have kissed girls on the face and mouth, made sexual advances and molested students, as well as administering corporal punishment, including beating one student with a stick. Those students would have been 11 years old or younger, the report concludes.

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

Corporal punishment

The investigation looked into reports that other former teachers and staff abused children from the 1950s through the 1970s, concluding that teachers engaged “in what we would view today as extreme forms of corporal punishment.”

The firm also investigated reports that some houseparents and teachers who lived in dorms with students bathed with those students, touching and looking at them naked.

“While these reports may be credible, there were limitations that prevented investigators from making findings related to specific reports,” the report reads. “However, while only some houseparents and teachers were reported to have engaged in this behavior, based on the reports made, investigators found that there was a lack of boundaries set in the dorms regarding how adults were to interact with students resulting in fewer protections for students.”

Finally, the investigation found that in the early 1980s, Jeff Youens — an airport employee who escorted Clarke students on and off planes — was convicted of child rape, and police at the time believed that he had sexually abused two Clarke students.

School administrators confirmed with those students that the abuse took place, but took no further steps to investigate whether others had been victims of Youens’ sexual abuse, the report says.

“Indeed, senior leadership of the school who dealt with the police at the time indicated that they did not (take further steps) and left the matter to the police,” the report found.

‘Significant influence’

The school’s leadership and leaders’ knowledge of the abuse was also subject of the Debevoise & Plimpton investigation, which concluded that George Pratt, the school president from 1950 to 1981, was good friends with Mary Numbers, knew of her corporal punishment from several complaints and did little to curb the misconduct.

“Based on witness statements, investigators found evidence that Mary Numbers may have played a role in Pratt obtaining his position at Clarke,” the report says. “Furthermore, investigators also obtained evidence that Mary Numbers had significant influence over Pratt.”

The investigators could not determine that Pratt or any other Clarke administrators knew about Fred Numbers’ behavior at the time that it took place.

Pratt died on Dec. 31, 1998, according to the report.

Pratt’s successor, Dennis Gjerdingen, heard reports about both Mary and Fred Numbers during his time as president from 1981 to 2007, the report says.

“While Gjerdingen did not receive any reports from former students who stated that they experienced the abuse, he did not investigate the secondhand reports to substantiate them or to determine the extent of potential abuse,” the report reads. “In his conversation with investigators, Gjerdingen noted that he did not investigate because he believed all those with relevant knowledge, including Pratt, were deceased.”

Attempts to reach Gjerdingen via telephone and email on Tuesday afternoon were unsuccessful.

The next president of Clarke was William Corwin, who served in that role from 2007 to 2016.

The report found that Corwin learned about Mary Numbers’ abuse when former students, led by one alumnus, complained in an online group forum. Corwin met with that alumnus to discuss the abuse, apologized on behalf of the school and assured him that Clarke now has a zero-tolerance policy for misconduct, according to the investigation.

The report goes on to say that Corwin reported that conversation to the school’s board of trustees, and took action to remove items from the Northampton campus that may have been reminders of Numbers’ abuse: displayed copies of Numbers’ book and a plaque honoring her, which alumni had repeatedly removed in protest.

“At the time, there was not a discussion about conducting an independent investigation,” the report states. “While today’s best practices would call for such an independent investigation, investigators found Corwin’s response of meeting with the alumnus reasonable. Investigators did not find any evidence that Corwin ever learned of reports of sexual abuse against Fred Numbers.”

Corwin sent an email in response to a call for comment in which he praised the school for commissioning the investigation.

“I think that Clarke's current leadership acted responsibly and appropriately in having an independent, experienced investigator conduct a thorough investigation and in presenting the full findings to the Clarke alumni,” he wrote.

A letter attached to Debevoise & Plimpton’s report, dated April 30, is addressed to the school’s alumni, and it lays out some of the findings. It is unclear why the report was not released to the broader public, however. School officials declined to speak on the record about that subject.

“Today, Clarke has no tolerance for the neglect or abuse of any student, and our faculty and staff receive professional development that emphasizes student safety, maintaining appropriate student-teacher relationships, and reporting requirements,” the school’s statement reads.

In their letter to alumni, three trustees — Mary Ellen Nevins, Theodore Mason and Steve Raab — say that although the school has a rich history, the investigation makes clear that there are dark moments they need to confront and come to terms with.

“We cannot undo this suffering, but aim to learn from the past,” they wrote. “With this in mind, we will continue to do our utmost to protect the safety of our students.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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