My Turn: St. Paul’s has a long, long way to go

For the Monitor
Published: 5/10/2019 12:10:26 AM
Modified: 5/10/2019 12:10:15 AM

On Saturday, May 4, a service styled as “Repentance Toward Healing: Witness, Lament and Apology For Abuse at St. Paul’s School,” was conducted at 10:30 a.m. in the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul.

The service was well attended by trustees and administrators of the school, along with some alumni and past and present faculty.

The current board president, the interim Rector Amy Richards, and the permanent rector designated, Kathy Giles, attended, and they meaningfully and actively participated in the service.

The school’s chaplain, the Rev. Alice Courtright, did the unenviable but admirable work of balancing the many voices and sometimes conflicting needs of the vastly different experiences that the service attempted to capture in the net of apology, repentance and reconciliation.

In a section of the service styled “the Litany of Sorrows,” the school’s trustees and leaders recited: “In our roles as trustees, administrators and trusted adults, we admit to our complicity as we now face damage done to those in our care and realize the primary obligation for responsible ethical leadership. We have failed to protect children. We are very sorry.

“There have been times when the reputations of students were sacrificed in order to protect the reputation of the school.”

After the service, a pre-announced gathering was held at the rectory for alums to meet the trustees and to engage in a Q&A with alumni, school leadership, and returning victims of abuse and neglect. The two new rectors appeared, the school’s state-approved compliance officer appeared, and, for some moments, the trustees appeared for the finger food and then left.

Just moments before, in the service, the trustees said this: “Grant us the strength and vulnerability to practice compassion, patience and love – even just enough to face ourselves and others with humility and courage.”

Trustee abdication and abandonment of alums and others was not well taken. Alums had traveled from far and wide to get there. Evidently, the trustees had better things to do than, say, facing the people they had invited to come face them on the question of the school’s (and thus their own as trustees) abuse and neglect, and to perfect by presence an apology.

I was subjected to boundary violations and neglect at SPS as a child. I attended, too. But in my case the abuse as an adult outstrips that as a child. I suppose this makes me lucky. Over the last 18 years I have been subject to abuse for having the “audacity” to talk out loud about adult-child safety and governance. From here, then, the trustees’ collective weekend non-performance is yet more minimization, projected deficiency, shaming, blaming, finger-pointing and denial of the continuing, self-sustaining, self-selecting SPS board.

St. Paul’s School exists as a privilege conferred by the sufferance of the people of New Hampshire (and the people of the United States) who grant the school tax-exempt status as a charity with a long-range mission of educating other people’s children. The state and its people confer the privilege and tax-exempt status so that the school can provide a service that would otherwise be the obligation of the state and the public. Thus, the school exists at the sufferance of the people as long as it succeeds in its mission of care and teaching; its mission is not to harm, to deny or to cause endless years of tears and suffering among its own people.

And the school has failed the state of New Hampshire. It has done so for too long, to far too many, on far too many basic objects of trust, such as kid safety, integrity and sanctity.

This current failure now occurs while the school is subject to a settlement agreement that includes a state-approved compliance overseer. The school is thus not “free” to disregard others as it deems fit by its own dim whim.

We and some among us will endeavor to correct the plain errors in SPS board selection as a matter of substance and process; and we will find people capable of delivering on the basic objects of a charitable trust mission, including finding people whose devotion to mastery of the trust includes and enables actual care for the basic interests of others, such as basic dignity, integrity and compassionate loyalty. And, of course, safety. Also, we will explore removing those who currently cannot so fulfill trust duties faithfully. The school has better “leaders” and stronger people in its midst. This is a “million step” mission and the first step was taken long, long ago.

The vision is actually simple but woefully hard: I and others see a day when people at SPS treat each other well and with care, respect, dignity and integrity.

We are not there, yet. Thanks to all in New Hampshire for your patience.

(Alexis H. Johnson, a 1976 graduate of St. Paul’s School, lives in Santa Fe, N.M.)

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