St. Mark’s Response to Ploegstra Story: We’re Not Ignoring It

Please note: this editorial was written in response to two D Magazine pieces, primarily one entitled, “St. Mark’s Response to Ploegstra Story: Ignore It.”

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In the weeks since the release of information regarding claims of sexual misconduct at Phillips Exeter Academy, St. Mark’s has received pointed criticism from a local media outlet for its response to the Exeter report. A former St. Mark’s instructor was accused of making sexual advances toward two former students at the New Hampshire school when he was a teacher there from 1966-1980 (see page 7 for more coverage).

The coverage suggested administrators at St. Mark’s had specific information about the details of the accusation in 2013. That is not the case. In 2013, the then Exeter principal had informed St. Mark’s that a single allegation dating back to the 1960s had been received. Details of the accusation were not given with Exeter’s initial communication, only stating there “had been an allegation, that the allegation had been denied and that it had not been pursued any further,” according to Headmaster David Dini.

This communication came to school officials one year after the instructor had retired from St. Mark’s. Because of the very limited scope of information that was received, St. Mark’s officials chose not to inform the community, but rather told Exeter officials that if any allegations against this former teacher were to arise, they would be immediately reported.

When concrete information was released to the public by Exeter last month, administrators here took a deliberate course of action, informing the community in a letter Dini sent out Aug. 31.

On Aug. 24, the school received its second communication on this topic. Exeter officials once again contacted St. Mark’s to inform the school that a report was being released later that day, and that included specific information related to allegations against this teacher, including allegations that had been intentionally covered up.

Coverage in a local publication challenged the school, saying we were ignoring the issue and should have responded more quickly. However, the school chose not to immediately publicize the issue but instead take all precautions to ensure a proper response would be given to the community.

As soon as he got the call from Exeter last month, Dini had a conference with the leadership of the Board of Trustees and the school’s legal counsel. The same day, he also met with the entire administrative team, and shortly thereafter called the president of the National Association of Independent Schools and their general counsel, seeking input, guidance and perspective. Several days later, there was an Executive Committee meeting of the Board of Trustees to review the matter in detail. In the days and weeks that have followed, there has been extensive focus and attention on making sure the school is doing everything it should to remain focused on the safety and well-being of those in our community.

Certainly, the school’s first priority is to its own community: students, parents, faculty and alumni — not the media. Yes, the letter Dini sent out took some time; it had to be thoughtful, factual and deliberate. By taking the time to research and respond appropriately, Dini’s letter did just that.

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Through the years, St. Mark’s has been known for the highest standards in its hiring practices, going well beyond what is expected to bring only the best and most talented instructors and staff members into its community. Here, faculty members are trusted to exercise strong judgment, be professional in all dealings with students and to know and embrace the school’s policies on relationships between adults and students.

Quite simply, we trust our teachers. We trust them to model good behavior, to help build a community atmosphere — where it is safe to leave backpacks on campus, laptops unmonitored — and where students feel comfortable sharing their problems and concerns with caring instructors.

We also trust our administrators to put into place policies and procedures which provide us with stellar instructors — instructors who not only are masters of their subject matter, but who also subscribe to the values and mission of the school.

We are confident the school acted appropriately in taking its time to respond to the community. To suggest otherwise is to not know the principles by which this school operates.