School for the Deaf Reports Dozens of Decades-Old Sexual Abuse Cases
By Neil Vigdor New York Times February 25, 2020
The oldest school for the deaf in the United States has reported dozens of cases of sexual and physical abuse by nine former staff members that it said took place over more than three decades — including instances in which some students were forced to eat until they vomited or were confined in closets as a form of corporal punishment.
The learning institution, the American School for the Deaf, which was founded in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut, detailed the pattern of abuse in a report after a yearlong investigation by an outside lawyer hired by the school.
The report, which was released Friday and based on interviews with 81 alumni, former faculty and staff members and other witnesses, said the abuse occurred from the 1950s through the 1980s at the main campus, now in West Hartford, and at the school’s Camp Isola Bella summer facility in Salisbury, Connecticut.
The school said that the findings were reported to the appropriate authorities, and that it had contacted the West Hartford Police Department, the Connecticut Department of Education, and the state’s Department of Children and Families when it started its investigation.
“The results of this investigation reveal startling and appalling truths,” the school said in a statement on its website that accompanied the report’s findings. “As a school community, we offer a sincere and heartfelt apology to the survivors of the inexcusable actions identified in this report, and for the fact that the school did not prevent or stop them.”
It was not immediately clear if the decades-old cases, which the report characterized as credible, would be referred for prosecution.
The West Hartford police chief, Vernon Riddick Jr., and Gail P. Hardy, the state’s attorney for the Hartford judicial district, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday evening.
In Connecticut, there is no statute of limitations for sex crimes that are Class A felonies, which include first-degree sexual assault, first-degree aggravated sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault of minors under 16.
Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Children and Families, said that “in this situation, due to the passage of time, we found that the alleged perpetrators no longer posed a risk to children.”
“Under circumstances when we receive reports that date back decades, we assess whether the alleged perpetrators continue to have access to children,” he said.
The school said that it began its investigation last February after an unspecified number of alumni made allegations of inappropriate physical conduct by former faculty and staff members. It did not say whether it had received any complaints about any inappropriate activity that had occurred after the 1980s.
The disclosure by the school, which serves students ages 3 to 21 who are deaf, hard of hearing or hearing nonverbal on the autism spectrum, is the latest sexual abuse scandal to ensnare a boarding-type school in Connecticut; Choate, Hotchkiss, the Gunnery and the Westover School have all grappled with sexual misconduct.
“As a community, we are devastated,” the American School for the Deaf’s statement said. “The revelations exposed during this investigation are heartbreaking, and we are stunned by the realization that former trusted members of the ASD family abused their power to take advantage of innocent, vulnerable children in their care.”
The former staff members named by the school were Dr. Edmund Boatner, the school’s executive director from 1935 to 1970; Albert Couthen, a former assistant dean of students and a former summer camp director; Richard Powers, Bernard Boucher, Thomas Vintinner and Mary Messener, all of whom were dormitory supervisors; and Umberto DeStefano, Patricia Potwine and Kenneth Bland, for whom positions were not listed.
Boatner, Powers, Messener, Potwine and Bland have all since died.
Couthen, Boucher, DeStefano and Vintinner could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
The school said that all four declined to be interviewed as part of the investigation or did not respond to the inquiry, which was conducted by Edward J. Heath, a partner in the Hartford office of the law firm Robinson & Cole.
The report said that DeStefano was terminated in 1983 after he was confronted about an allegation that he had sexually abused an 18-year-old male student.
Jeffrey S. Bravin, the school’s executive director, declined to comment beyond the report and the statement on the school’s website. Heath did not respond to an email request for comment Monday.
Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut serves as an ex officio member of the school’s board of directors.
“Gov. Lamont’s administration is aware of the serious allegations and with the American School for the Deaf’s response,” Max Reiss, a Lamont spokesman, said in a statement. “It is important that alumni of the school are heard and action to be taken to ensure all of the facts are gathered, and the school has an environment that ensures this conduct never happens in the future at the ASD.”
At least 37 alumni reported persistent corporal punishment and physical abuse overwhelmingly in the 1960s and 1970s, but occurring at least through the 1980s, according to the report.
The punishment included being “forced to kneel on broomsticks, kneeling for extended periods of time, being forced to walk on their knees, being slapped and punched, being struck with sticks, belts, paddles and/or rulers, and being restrained with belts, sheets and/or straitjackets,” the report said.
“Students also reported being forced to eat until vomiting and being confined in a clothes hamper and closets or isolated in dark rooms as punishment,” the report continued.
The state’s Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.
The American School for the Deaf was founded by Mason Fitch Cogswell, a Hartford physician whose daughter, Alice, became deaf from an illness. He worked with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, who were respectively the school’s first principal and teacher, to get the school off the ground. Gallaudet’s son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, helped establish Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.