*** This post is updated with a statement by Shattuck-St. Mary’s.***
In 2003, Headmaster Nick Stoneman had a choice.
His drama teacher had been found with child pornography on a school computer. This same teacher—Lynn Seibel—had admitted to being complicit in “Naked Dance Parties” with male students in school bathrooms. Seibel was also rumored to have conducted a special AP (Advanced Placement) class in penis enlargement.
What is the headmaster of one of the nation’s most elite boarding/day schools to do?
Shattuck-St. Mary’s (SSM) in Faribault, Minnesota is considered a “feeder school” for the National Hockey league. Their alumni list is a “who’s who” of the professional sport. Tuition is $29,000 a year for the day students and $43,000 for students who live at the school. There’s a lot at stake.
Plus, Stoneman had no idea how many students had been “peeked at,” groomed, or molested by Seibel. He also had no idea if Seibel had created pornographic images of any of SSM’s students.
It gets worse. There were other teachers at the school who had molested students. While we don’t know how much Stoneman knew in 2003, but by 2012, Seibel and another teacher, Joseph Machlitt, would be criminally charged for molesting SSM students. In 2008, a third, Leonard Jones, would kill himself after one of his victims confronted Jones about the sexual abuse.
But I digress. Let’s get back to Stoneman’s 2003 dilemma.
He had two options:
The first would be to call the police, cooperate with any and all investigations, reach out to alumni who may have been abused, and ask for help from the community to make sure that predators like Seibel never have access to students again. Sure, he would take a PR hit and parents would be upset. But if he dealt with the issue head on, he could easily win the support of parents, especially if he took charge to ensure that the school was a safer place.
The second option would be to keep things hush-hush and pay off Seibel to make him go away.
I’ll give you one guess what he did.
(Seibel went on to teach in Rhode Island and act in small roles in Hollywood before he was arrested and convicted of molesting SSM students in 2013.)
So, why would a headmaster—whose personal mission should have been the education, emotional encouragement, and safety of the children in his care—make this kind of decision?
It’s simple. He loved and feared the institution more than he cared about the children in it.
He took the dangerous “long view” and thought, “Gee, most of the kids who knew Seibel will graduate in a couple of years. But the school will be around for a lot longer. This is a small problem that the school will live through. The kids come and go, but the school’s legacy is eternal.”
In his heart of hearts, I bet he actually thought he was doing the right thing. He was so indoctrinated into the “institution,” he completely forgot what the institution was supposed to do.
Sounds a bit harsh and over-simplified, but that’s basically what happened.
Stoneman is not an outlier. We saw this behavior at Penn State and continue to see it in Catholic dioceses and other hierarchical and secretive religious groups across the country. In fact, even in my own case, the then-principal of Mater Dei High School Fr. John Weling let the man who abused me and other girls quietly resign. Years after the cover-up was exposed, Mater Dei gave Weling its “Ring of Honor” award (And when you think about it – it makes sense. He did protect the school from scandal, which seems to be their mission). Later administrators at the school covered up for abusers such as Larry Stukenholtz and Jeff Andrade – even letting Andrade back on campus after admitting to molesting at least one girl for more than a year.
And like Mr. Stoneman, the principal and president of Mater Dei who covered up for Stukenholtz and Andrade still work at the school.
So why does Stoneman still have a job? Why do the principal and president of Mater Dei?
Because when it comes to institutions, our society has a tragic blind spot. Donors who give these schools millions of dollars think, “These administrators have made these schools into powerhouses. They have educated thousands of children. Why let one rotten apple spoil the barrel? What about the money I donated?” Parents who send their kids to the school say, “Things have changed. Besides, who knows how ‘willing’ those victims were? My child would never go to naked dance parties or an AP class on penis enlargement.” (I will address the problem with this view in a later post)
Stoneman and the administration at Mater Dei have jobs because we let them. And when we let them, we tell victims and predators that NOTHING has changed. Because NOTHING has.
Institutions are only as good as the people who run them. If they are rotten, so is the institution.
Stoneman had a choice. He made the wrong choice. Now, it’s up to SSM.
UPDATE – 2/10/14
Shattuck-St. Mary’s issued a statement about recent coverage of the Seibel case.
“The crux of the matter is simple: did we do the right thing in deciding to remove Lynn Seibel from our school and did we do it the right way? Even with the benefit of 12 years of hindsight, we believe we made the right decision for the right reasons, made with the facts as we knew them.”
We respectfully disagree. You can read the whole thing here.