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Prep School Faces Accusations Of Chronic Mishandling Of Sexual Assault Cases

Administrators at Phillips Exeter Academy prep school admit they mishandled a recent case of sexual assault, and say they will hire a new staff member to deal with future allegations.
Jim Cole
Administrators at Phillips Exeter Academy prep school admit they mishandled a recent case of sexual assault, and say they will hire a new staff member to deal with future allegations.

Administrators at Phillips Exeter Academy acknowledge that the New Hampshire prep school failed to respond adequately when a student was accused of sexual assault and was assigned an "act of penance" that included baking and delivering bread to the girl he allegedly assaulted.

The Boston Globe's Spotlight investigative team, which wrote extensively this spring on sexual assault at New England boarding schools including Phillips Exeter Academy, reports that school administrators wrote in a letter to alumni, "Without question, the situation could and should have been handled in a better way."

The Globe reports:

"[Phillips Exeter Academy] also announced the creation of a new 'director for student well-being' to handle future sexual misconduct complaints.

"The admission and the announcement of the new position came the day after the elite boarding school received a petition with more than 1,000 signatures of alumni who vowed to withhold donations until the school cracked down on sexual abuse."

The case in question was brought by Michaella Henry, a 17-year-old student who told school administrators last October that she was groped by another student, Chukwudi Ikpeazu, in the basement of a church on campus, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader. (NPR names victims or alleged victims of sexual assault if they have willingly identified themselves publicly.)

Henry told administrators that Ikpeazu had "put his hands under her shirt and grabbed her backside as she repeatedly said 'no,' " the paper reports.

Initially, the girl accepted a school minister's proposed solution: that Ikpeazu bake bread for her each week and deliver it in person as an act of "penance."

But Henry found the arrangement disturbing because it forced her to repeatedly come in contact with the person she says assaulted her, reports the Globe, and months later she reported the assault to the Exeter Police Department.

Ikpeazu, 18, graduated from the school this spring and was arrested by police in June for misdemeanor sexual assault. He was released on bail and an arraignment is scheduled for August.

It is not the first time the school has mishandled or covered up accusations of sexual misconduct on its campus.

A former admissions faculty member, Arthur Peekel, is also facing trial in New Hampshire for allegedly sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy who visited the school in 1973 as a prospective student. The Exeter Police Department brought charges this spring after the victim, Lawrence Jenkens, accused Peekel of sexual assault, according to The New York Times. The school had dismissed Peekel without reporting the claim to police.

Exeter Police Chief William Schupe noted in an online statement after the arrest that, because Peekel left the state shortly after the alleged assault, the statute of limitations was effectively put on hold, allowing the case to go forward more than 40 years after the incident.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports a Boston Globe investigation found similar records of hidden sexual misconduct at many private New England boarding schools:

"A recent Boston Globe investigation found hundreds of students were allegedly abused by teachers and staff at scores of New England prep schools since the 1950s. Many of the perpetrators were quietly let go, and then moved on to re-offend at other schools.

"To many who've been through private boarding schools, the stories of sexual abuse come as little surprise. There are not only more opportunities for misconduct with kids at school day and night, but also, arguably more pressure on elite, competitive prep schools to keep such problems private."

Phillips Exeter Academy announced in April that it had fired two teachers — one in 2011, and another this year — for sexual misconduct with students that occurred decades ago, reports the Times.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.