Woman’s highway billboard campaign calls attention to sexual abuse

  • Bill Boards on the Mass Pike paid for by Kat Sullivan. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bill Boards on the Mass Pike paid for by Kat Sullivan. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • This billboard located on Interstate 90 in Chicopee is one of three paid for by Katherine Sullivan. The Manhattan woman wants to draw attention to a South Hadley man she claims sexually abused her while she was a student at a boarding school years ago in New York. The other billboards are located in Troy, New York, and Fairfield, Connecticut. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bill Boards on the Mass Pike paid for by Kat Sullivan. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bill Boards on the Mass Pike paid for by Kat Sullivan. —CAROL LOLLIS

@BeraDunau
Published: 4/6/2018 7:25:37 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — In a move inspired by an Oscar-winning film, a Manhattan woman has paid for messages on three billboards — including one in Chicopee off the Massachusetts Turnpike — to draw attention to a South Hadley man she claims sexually abused her while she was a student at a boarding school years ago in New York.

On the billboards, Katherine “Kat” Sullivan, 38, a pediatric nurse, also calls for changes in New York state’s child sexual abuse laws.

As a condition of her contract with the billboard company, the digital messages do not name or depict the man, and his name is not mentioned on the website it directs people to visit.

In an interview, however, Sullivan identified the man as Scott Sargent, who taught at the all-girls Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, while she was a student there in the late 1990s. Until recently, Sargent served on the South Hadley Historical Commission.

Sargent also is named in a 127-page report commissioned by the school in 2017, following an investigation by the Boston Globe of sexual abuse at Emma Willard and other preparatory schools. The report states that Sargent was asked to leave the school due to an “inappropriate” relationship he had with a student. Though Sullivan is not named, she said that she is the “complainant” referred to in a lengthy section of the document that concerns Sargent.

In addition, in April 2016, the school, in a joint statement with Sullivan’s lawyer, acknowledged that it had reached a confidential settlement with a former student “over her claims of past sexual abuse by a former faculty member.”

No criminal charges were filed against Sargent, who subsequently moved to South Hadley, and until last month served as a member of the town’s Historical Commission. He resigned from that board last week after The New York Times contacted town officials in an attempt to reach him for a story about Sullivan’s billboards.

Sargent could not be reached for comment for this story. Attempts to contact him included a visit to his South Hadley residence where nobody answered the door and where a reporter left a business card. A phone number and email address listed for Sargent were not working.

Action, reaction 

The Emma Willard School commissioned the report on sexual abuse in 2017 after Sullivan told her story to the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team as well as to the New York Daily News in 2016. The media coverage led to an outcry by Emma Willard alumnae and, at that time, the school also reached a mediated settlement with Sullivan. Because the statute of limitations in New York was up, she could not bring a civil case against Sargent. Also, a criminal case could not be filed against him because of the statute of limitations.

Sargent served on the South Hadley Historical Commission from 2012 until March 22, when he tendered his resignation and asked that his name be removed from all relevant town websites. South Hadley Town Administrator Michael Sullivan said that Sargent resigned after The New York Times tried to contact him through the town, which published a story about the billboards March 23.

The subject line of the email Sargent sent to Historical Commission Chairwoman Desiree Smelcer is “NYT story.” His one-sentence email states: “Desiree, please accept this email as my resignation from the committee and remove my name from any relevant town websites etc.”

Michael Sullivan said that Sargent had not attended a commission meeting for more than eight months. The Select Board accepted his resignation at its meeting Tuesday night.

“I can’t remember ever seeing him or meeting him,” Michael Sullivan said, noting that the town has been aware of the sexual assault allegations against Sargent for three to four years.

“These allegations have been made before,” he said. “There’s never been any charges brought against him.”

“Where do you draw the line?” he continued.

Sullivan also said that he was not aware of the settlement the Emma Willard School had reached with Katherine Sullivan.

The school’s report

According to a 1998 memo quoted in the school’s commissioned report that examined sexual abuse throughout the history of the Emma Willard School, Sargent was given the option of resigning for having an intimate relationship with a student, who was 18 at the time. He accepted that option, although a public statement released by school administrators to the Emma Willard community in 1998 said his employment was terminated.​​​​​​

The Emma Willard School issued the following statement this week after a Gazette reporter informed school administrators that the newspaper was preparing a story on Katherine Sullivan’s billboard campaign.

“We commend and support the survivors of sexual abuse who are committed to affecting change around this important issue. We feel grief and compassion for anyone who experienced harm in the past and we are committed to the continued work that is necessary to keep our students safe. Our students’ safety is our first priority and our entire community continues to work diligently to be leaders in the prevention of sexual violence.”

The report on sexual abuse at Emma Willard was done by the law firm Cozen O’Connor, based in Philadelphia. It includes a detailed account of Sullivan’s allegations against Sargent. However, it also includes accounts from Emma Willard administrators, who asserted that while they learned of a sexual relationship between Sargent and Sullivan, Sullivan did not report a sexual assault to them at the time.

According to the 1998 memo quoted in the report, Sargent was subsequently given two letters of recommendation from the school and was hired at the King School in Fairfield, Connecticut, according to the Boston Globe article and Sullivan. The letters of recommendation are also referenced in the Cozen O’Connor report.

Sargent was fired from the King School in 2005, following the discovery that he had a relationship with a recently graduated student, according to Sullivan and the Globe.

Inspired to act

Sullivan said she saw the movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” recently while she was on a plane from New York to Florida. In the movie, a woman whose daughter has been raped and murdered pays for three billboards to draw attention to the case.

She said that inspired her to use $14,000 of her settlement money to pay for space on three digital billboards for 28 days, beginning March 23. The  billboards are along the Massachusetts Turnpike in Chicopee, near the Emma Willard School in Troy and one outside Fairfield, Connecticut. She also spent about $2,500 on a website which further details her allegations.

Sullivan said that she paid for the billboards and website out of concern for public safety. “It’s really my only means of warning the public,” she said.

The digital billboards aren’t just about highlighting her own case, she said. Two of the five cycling messages urge New York to pass the Child Victims Act that would extend the period in which civil cases and criminal charges could be filed in child sexual abuse cases in that state. It would also create a window for previous cases that expired under the current statute to be brought in civil court, something that Sullivan said is important, noting that the mediation she went through with the boarding school did not have power of legal discovery that a court case would.

Sullivan moved to Manhattan from Orlando, Florida, to lobby for the act, and she said she plans to donate about 90 percent of her settlement to combating sexual abuse. Sullivan said she could not specify the amount of her settlement because of confidentiality, but did note that she has already given about $75,000 to survivor-founded groups.

Sullivan’s case

In an interview, Sullivan said she met Sargent after she transferred to the Emma Willard School in the middle of her junior year of high school from the private Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Georgia. Her mother was undergoing treatment for cancer, Sullivan said, and the fact that she had to share a hallway phone with other Emma Willard students was difficult for her. Sullivan said Sargent, who taught history and coached soccer at the school, offered to let her use his office phone and computer.

Sullivan said that Sargent, then 28, began inviting her to his on-campus home, first with groups of other students and then alone, buying her alcohol, complimenting her clothing and instructing her about what he’d like to see her wear. She also said that he showed her sexual images on his computer. Most of these details are also included in the report commissioned by the Emma Willard School.

Sullivan was 17 when the relationship started, the age of consent in New York, she said, adding that she believes Sargent was conscious of this, recalling him asking her who in her class was 17 or 18.

Sullivan said that she had sexual contact with Sargent in her junior year, which continued when she returned for her senior year. It was then, she said, that the relationship changed and the sexual contact turned abusive.

Sullivan subsequently withdrew from the Emma Willard School, a decision she says she was pressured to make once Emma Willard administrators found out about the contact between Sullivan and Sargent, a charge that administrators in the Cozen O’Connor report deny.

A 1998 memo from then head of school Dr. Robin Robertson quoted in the report on the incident states that Sullivan asked to withdraw from Emma Willard, and, it does not mention her allegations of abuse.

Sullivan says that while she was prepared for a negative response from the billboards, a number of sexual assault victims and others have come forward to talk to her about their experiences.

She also expressed concern about Sargent coaching soccer again, noting that there’s nothing that could legally prevent him from doing so. It is another reason why she paid for the digital billboards.

Additionally, Sullivan said she is convinced he will move to start over again. “He’s going to move on somewhere else,” she said. “He might be moving to your community.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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