Concord family accuses boarding school of failing to protect daughter from Leung sexual abuse

  • A sign marks the Fessenden School entrance in Newton, Mass. A Concord family has filed a lawsuit accusing the boarding school of failing to protect their daughter from sexual abuse. AP file

  • The Hart House stands at the center of the Fessenden School campus in Newton, Mass. A Concord family has filed a lawsuit accusing the boarding school of failing to protect their teenage daughter from sexual abuse. Charles Krupa / AP file

Monitor staff
Published: 5/17/2021 11:23:03 AM

A Concord family is accusing a private boarding school in Massachusetts of failing to protect their daughter, who they say was taken across state lines and sexually assaulted by former summer program director Howie Leung in 2015 and 2016.

A lawsuit filed by Fabiana McLeod and her parents Monday morning asks for compensation for alleged abuse that occurred when she was 13 and 14 years old and working as an unpaid staffer for a summer program at the Fessenden School, an all-boys boarding school in Newton, Massachusetts.

As part of filing the lawsuit, McLeod, now 19, wanted to come forward because she wants to help protect others, her New Hampshire lawyer Mark Rufo said.

“She’s been living with this thing and she’s still living with it. She doesn’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Rufo said. “She thinks that by coming forward, she will encourage other people to come forward also, although they do not have to be named.”

The suit accused the school and its administrators of negligence for failing to protect the girl, who was a Rundlett Middle School student where Leung was a full-time teacher, from sexual harassment, exploitation and sex trafficking.

“The Fessenden School had a legal duty to protect Fabiana McLeod when she was a minor child on its campus or was engaging in off-campus activities of the Fessenden School,” the civil lawsuit filed in federal court reads. “The Fessenden School breached its duty when it failed to develop, implement, and enforce policies and procedures specific to educator and/or employee conduct.”

The 152-page complaint contains 62 accusations against several parties including the Fessenden School itself, its insurer United Educators, Leung, former headmaster David Stettler, former Board of Trustees President Donald Bramley and Vice President Ian Loring, eight current and former teachers and 32 current and former trustees.

The McLeod family seeks compensation for gross negligence and willful and wanton misconduct on the part of the school employees, and for negligence, sexual exploitation of a child and sexual harassment on the part of the Fessenden School, as well as for sex trafficking, which the family says happened when their daughter was taken across state lines to New York City for a field trip, where Leung sexually assaulted her at a hotel.

The family is also seeking damages from Leung himself as a result of assault and battery, rape, sexual harassment, false imprisonment, negligence and providing alcohol and marijuana to a minor.

Leung, who was a teacher at Rundlett Middle School at the time, is currently awaiting trial in Massachusetts where he faces two charges of aggravated rape of a child with a 10-year age difference, two charges of aggravated indecent assault and battery on a child under age 14, and two counts of aggravated indecent assault and battery on a person age 14 or older. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Fessenden officials said they were notified by Newton Police on April 3, 2019 that Leung had been arrested on charges related to incidents at the school during the summers of 2015 and 2016.

“Fessenden remains committed to the well-being of students and children in our care,” said a statement from the school released Monday by a public relations firm.

“Fessenden had previously conducted background checks of Mr. Leung, including one in June 2018, that had not revealed issues of concern,” the statement said. “Fessenden terminated Mr. Leung’s employment immediately upon learning of the allegations, has cooperated with the authorities, and promptly addressed the allegations with its community.”

‘Summer of hell’

The family’s complaint shows that the casual behavior and favoritism toward certain female students, which a 2019 investigator’s report says Leung often displayed in the Concord School District, continued in his role as co-director of Fessenden School’s English Language Learners (“ELL”) summer program. Court documents say the young girls Leung would recruit from Rundlett Middle School to be his unpaid “helpers” were known as “Howie’s Concord Girls.”

The court documents reveal that when he was a child in the 1990s, Leung himself attended the Fessenden School as a 7-day boarding student from Hong Kong, China. He maintained his ties with the school even after graduation, working for and eventually becoming co-director of the summer ELL program, a 5-week English immersion program for students between the ages of 10 and 15, that the Fessenden School described as a “close-knit, family-like community,” according to court documents.

The family’s complaint claims that employees of the Fessenden School were aware of Leung’s “open and notorious closeness and favoritism” of their daughter, and did not report it, despite being mandated reporters under Massachusetts law. Their action says the Fessenden School failed to protect the girl by not implementing and enforcing mandated reporting requirements and providing trainings in identifying and reporting misconduct.

It also says the Fessenden School used a photo of McLeod posing with Leung and some students on its website to promote the summer program, without the family’s consent.

The complaint says Leung, as co-director, would choose the Concord girls’ dorm room assignments, and that he assigned McLeod to a secluded corner room, and would often separate her from the others and have her work with him in his office at the school. It also states she was permitted to join the after-hours gatherings of adult employees that sometimes occurred in a Fessenden School room, and to “freely help herself” to alcohol and marijuana-laced brownies that were served, according to court documents.

The complaint states that throughout the summers of 2015 and 2016, Leung sexually assaulted her on the Fessenden School campus so many times they were “too numerous to count,” including during chasing games, which occurred in tunnels underneath the school. The complaint refers to the summer of 2016 as “Fabiana’s summer of hell.”

The family is also seeking compensation for sex trafficking they say occurred when Leung took their daughter across the border from her home in Concord to the school in Massachusetts, and again from Massachusetts to New York for a school field trip with other students, where he sexually assaulted her in his hotel room, according to the lawsuit.

Court documents said teachers in the program began complaining that Leung’s relationships with the “Concord Girls” were a distraction in the classroom, and that Leung “would extremely defend” his conduct. The documents say that one 20-year-old male counselor was particularly concerned about Leung’s behavior toward the girl, and approached Leung to talk about it, but ultimately did not make a report.

“We know you’re close to her, but it looks really strange and people would be really concerned,” the counselor told Leung, according to the complaint.

According to the court documents, McLeod was not the only young girl who claims to have been assaulted by Leung at the Fessenden School. At least one other Concord girl, who volunteered at the summer program, told an investigator Leung assaulted her in the underground tunnels.

A history of abuse

The Fessenden School has received past reports of sexual abuse involving at least 16 former students and one non-student, court documents reveal. Most of the reports have come from alumni who attended the school from the 1960s to the 1990s. The complaint says some victims have also described being chased through the tunnels under the school.

One 2011 report, alleging abuse that happened in the 1970s, was made public in the Boston Globe, leading former headmaster David Stettler to write a letter to the school community promising a “thorough historical review” of sexual abuse involving the school dating back to the 1960s, and telling parents that the administration has “reiterated our expectation of vigilance in identifying and recognizing signs of questionable behavior.”

Stettler sent a follow-up letter in May 2016, in advance of a Boston Globe article about sexual assault at New England schools.

“It is important to recognize that Fessenden today is a very different place than it was decades ago, and the school continues to change and grow,” Stettler wrote. “Our community regularly participates in personal safety, wellness and boundaries training, and a character education program is woven into the fabric of the school. We are resolute in our commitment to protect our students and have zero tolerance for sexual misconduct or abuse ... We are proud of today’s healthy relationships between faculty and students, and of our unwavering dedication to the safety and well-being of our boys.”

One month after the letter was sent, Leung brought McLeod back to the Fessenden School for a second summer of abuse, the lawsuit states.

Kenneth Howe was director of residential life at the school when the “Concord Girls” worked at the summer program. He was accused of sexual misconduct in 2017 that stemmed from the 1990s and is one of the former employees now being sued for negligence.

Seeking damages

The complaint says the school did not produce any documents to McLeod’s lawyers when they asked for documentation of the school’s efforts to prevent sexual abuse, including policies and guidelines, training and employee screening processes.

“The Trustees and Headmaster Stettler made assertions about how well the Fessenden School is protecting children, when they knew that the Fessenden School was actually doing very little or nothing to protect children is willful and wanton misconduct,” the complaint reads.

The family says they tried, throughout 2020 and early 2021, to obtain the school’s liability insurance policies that provides coverage for sexual assault claims, contacting first the school and later its insurance provider, United Educators, which ultimately provided the policy for the 2014-2015 school year, but not for the 2015-2016 period.

“United Educators’ response clearly indicated that it had not conducted a reasonable and prompt investigation of the McLeod family’s claims against The Fessenden School and/or its agents, directors, Trustees, chaperones, counselors, proctors, and/or teachers,” court documents claim.

The family says their daughter has suffered bodily harm, humiliation, emotional distress and permanent psychological damages from her time at the Fessenden School, and will continue to incur expenses for mental health treatment. The family claims the Fessenden School and its insurer, United Educators, made no settlement offers, and instead suggested a private mediation. Through the lawsuit, the family hopes to receive damages and reimbursement for attorney fees.

“We’ve tried to communicate with these people and get them to do the right thing and they have simply refused to do the right thing, so we have no choice but to take this thing to suit,” Rufo said. “They have a $25 million insurance policy, and our girl deserves every penny of it. We intend to get that for her.”

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