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After ‘unusually painful time,’ St. Paul’s School rector Michael Hirschfeld to retire next month

  • Rector Michael Hirschfeld talks about an independent investigation into past sexual misconduct of staffers at St. Paul’s School in Concord on Monday, May 22, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

  • Rector Michael Hirschfeld talks about the independent investigation into past sexual misconduct of teachers at St. Paul’s School in Concord on Monday, May 22, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

Published: 5/21/2018 10:54:44 AM

The rector of St. Paul’s School will retire a year earlier than planned, citing family reasons, the school announced Monday morning.

Michael Hirschfeld, who was chosen in 2010 as the 13th head of the elite Concord boarding school, was due to retire in June 2019. However, he sent a letter dated May 20 to the school’s president of the board of trustees, Archibald Cox, requesting that his retirement be moved to next month.

“This has been an unusually painful time for the entire School community and also for my family. It is for this reason that I hope you will allow me to step down earlier than I had originally planned,” the letter reads.

His last day at St. Paul’s will be June 30, one year shy of his eight-year term.

“Eight years ago when I entered the search process to become the school’s thirteenth rector, I did so out of my heartfelt belief that I could help move the school forward by building on the best elements of its history while pushing it to look beyond itself for ideas and practices that would best serve our students,” Hirschfeld wrote. “I am extremely proud of the work my colleagues and I have done in advancing this vision. I am also extremely proud of our students and their commitment to being co-builders of a healthier and stronger school culture.”

In a letter to the school community, Cox said the board of trustees – which has 24 active members – has already started its search for a new rector and will come up with an interim plan in the coming weeks. The school is working with an outside consultant to assist in the process.

“During his years as rector, Mike has overseen major advancements in meeting the mission of the school, among them the expansion and integration of campus facilities, development of the School’s unique integrated curriculum, a transformation in academic professionalism, and numerous efforts to strengthen the school community, while at the same time having to deal with unprecedented challenges on numerous fronts,” Cox wrote.

Those challenges include a series of lawsuits accusing top school officials of failing to protect students from sexual abuse.

Earlier this month, two alumni who say they were sexually assaulted by faculty and staff in the late 1960s and early 1970s sued their alma mater in Merrimack County Superior Court. George Chester Irons – the former president of the school’s alumni association and a former board of trustees member – and Keith “Biff” Mithoefer are suing the school for negligence and are seeking unspecified compensatory damages, alleging St. Paul’s was a “haven for sexual predators.”

Irons said in an interview Monday that sexual abuse has been rampant at St. Paul’s for decades and that students who were sexually abused were in many cases blamed and threatened.

News of Hirschfeld’s early accelerated departure did not come as a surprise, Irons said.

“Mike Hirschfeld reports to the board of trustees and, as such, he was the point man responsible for carrying on his shoulders an institutional legacy of child sexual abuse that has lasted decades,” Irons said. “Several allegations of continued child sexual abuse under his watch did not make it any easier.”

Cox previously told the Monitor in January that Hirschfeld’s decision to step down had nothing to do with pending civil litigation or the attorney general’s investigation of the school, noting the “timing is simply coincidental.” Cox and Hirschfeld both said it’s time for new leadership.

Through that department of justice investigation, prosecutors are examining how St. Paul’s responded to reports of sexual assault and misconduct, including whether the school endangered the welfare of children or broke a law that prohibits the obstruction of criminal investigations, according to Attorney General Gordon MacDonald. Investigators are reviewing two reports released by the school in 2017 that substantiate accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse by more than a dozen faculty and staff, dating back to 1948.

Irons and other alumni like Alexis Johnson have questioned how the school can move forward with a rector search when, as many claim, the school has consistently failed to provide a safe educational environment for its students.

“I take it on faith that Mike Hirschfeld’s decision to accelerate his resignation or retirement was his own, and that he did that for his own reasons at this time and perhaps to safeguard his own or his family’s interests moving forward,” said Johnson, a lawyer and graduate of the class of 1976. “The school, and its board, on the other hand, as I have advocated for many months, should slow down in its rector search and seek whatever care and superintendence is necessary to clean up the school before the next permanent rector takes office.”

Johnson continued by noting those decisions “should not be driven by investigation or prosecutorial decisions that may lay out ahead by the state attorney general. The school should be doing the governance and administrative work on its own and then meeting the attorney general and prosecutors or investigators more productively.”

The latest former student to sue the school was recruited by St. Paul’s during Hirschfeld’s tenure and began her schooling there at age 13. The student, who enrolled in 2012, claims top officials knew of sexual conquest games, including the now-infamous “Senior Salute,” yet turned a blind eye to reports made by students who were targeted. The girl said she was repeatedly sexually harassed and groped, and was also raped multiple times by a male student with whom she began a romantic relationship with during her first year.

The new lawsuit also alleges that Hirschfeld was told about a sexual relationship between an administrator’s son, who was 13 years old at the time, and an 18-year-old student, but failed to report the abuse to authorities. Instead, the suit says, he simply changed the room assignment of the 18-year-old student and did not discipline the student further. The age of consent in New Hampshire is 16.

The claims in Jane Doe’s suit mirror many of those brought by Alex and Susan Prout on behalf of their daughter, sexual assault survivor Chessy Prout, in 2016 after Owen Labrie’s conviction on statutory rape and other charges. The Prouts argued that St. Paul’s had failed to “meet its most basic obligations to protect the children entrusted to its care,” and that administrators knew about the “salute,” in which upperclassmen would solicit intimate encounters from younger pupils, and did nothing to curtail it.

That case was settled this past January in U.S. District Court through a confidential agreement.

Hirschfeld made $375,573 in addition to other compensation in 2015, according to the school’s most recent tax filing.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea. Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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