Pingry School could’ve stopped widespread child rape, 2 victims say
BERNARDS — After more than two dozen former students of the prestigious Pingry School recently came forward to say they were molested by a teacher and administrator decades ago, two of them have filed lawsuits challenging what the school knew and when.
One lawsuit was filed in Superior Court in Somerset County against the school and former teachers Thad Alton and Bruce Bohrer. Another lawsuit was filed in Essex County, naming only the school as a defendant.
Alton left the school in 1978 and two years later was convicted in Essex County of molesting scouts who also had been his students. After his conviction, for which he served no prison time, Alton got a university job in New York and continued molesting children in his kayaking club. He was only forced to register as a sex offender in New York in 1995 when he was released from prison.
In 2015, Pingry School victims got together for the first time to document the abuse in their past, spurring the school to hire a firm to conduct its own investigation.
The firm's investigation — which included sending out news releases and letters to alumni to request that witnesses and victims come forward — resulted in a report that went into shocking detail about the alleged group sex with children and rape that occurred on trips and inside the school.
The candid report was released to the public along with an apology by the school's current administrators.
According to the report, teachers and administrators may not have been directly aware of the abuse at the time, but Alton's actions and behavior gave certain adults "pause" about his actions. Some parents told investigators that they had been encouraged not to press charges and to let their children forget the abuse.
The lawsuit in Essex County was filed by a former fifth grader who claims he was sexually molested by a teacher in the 1970s. The lawsuit also claims that the school "was aware of the sexual abuse and fraudulently concealed it from the public and in particular the parents of Pingry students," according to a press release from the attorneys representing the plaintiff.
The lawsuit in Essex County says Alton was the student's lacrosse coach, scout leader, teacher and advisor. The lawsuit claims that Alton sexually abused him and "was otherwise sexually inappropriate." The student, identified only as M.F., stopped playing lacrosse and also left the scouts "in order to avoid Alton."
The former student claims that he had "no memories of his sexual abuse" until his father forwarded him a letter from the school about the allegations against Alton.
"Since receiving Pingry's letter and recalling his own abuse and the culture of abuse that existed at Pingry, M.F. has been greatly distressed and has struggled with intense feelings of shame, depression, anger, and anxiety," the lawsuit says. "M.F. is now able to see how many of the problems he has experienced in life are connected to the fact that he was sexually abused as a young child."
M.F.'s lawsuit cites the report as saying that Alton's abuse was not reported for several reasons, including feelings of "fear, shame and embarrassment," as well as concern that the man's behavior was their "fault" and that they would get in trouble if their stories weren't believed. The lawsuit also cites the report's claims that teachers and staff at the school would have to be "deaf, dumb and blind if they didn't see it" because it would be an "impossible secret to keep."
Some of the behavior included Alton having "special kids" or a "special friend" who might sleep in his tent during camping trips. The lawsuit claims that one former teacher at the school called Alton's behavior during this time "unusual" and "not right."
Alton was charged by Essex County authorities in 1979 on multiple counts of "acts of lewdness" involving incidents that happened outside Somerset County school. But the lawsuit claims parents were not notified about what he had done.
"Pingry shall be held accountable for the consequences of permitting and concealing for decades the shameful and widespread sexual abuse of young students," attorney Justin P. Walder said.
The Somerset County lawsuit was filed by a Whippany resident identified as W.T. who was a minor at the time of the abuse but is now 52 years old. The lawsuit claims Alton was the boy's scout master. According to the lawsuit, the abuse started in September 1976 and lasted through June 1979.
The abuse included "sexually molesting, fondling and assaulting the plaintiff," which caused the boy to feel "greatly humiliated and disgraced." The lawsuit also claims that Bohrer "did illegally molest, fondle, humiliate, harass, and sexually assault" the plaintiff when he was a boy.
The lawsuit claims that Pingry did not do enough to protect the boy and other students despite concerns that had been raised about their "proclivities and/or improper behavior towards students."
After the report about the abuse was issued, the Pingry Survivors alumni group said they were glad to see the findings.
"We believe that healing from the abuse we suffered — and preventing future abuse — requires that the Pingry community be given a complete picture of what happened and how it was allowed to happen," the group said in a statement. "We hope that revealing the truth about abuse at Pingry will serve as a first step in the healing process - for ourselves and for our community, and we remain hopeful that we can find a way forward through a collaborative process to address the past and to create a safer Pingry for future generations."
Alton was charged in New Jersey with molesting 12-year-old boys who had also been students during a scouting trip where they played strip poker. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation after a determination was made that he was not a compulsive sex offender. The following year he got a job at a New York university.
Almost a decade after the the New Jersey plea deal, he was charged with molesting and sodomizing two 14- and 15-year-old boys who were part of his kayaking trip. He was also charged with raping a 12-year-old boy and fondling a 10-year-old boy. He pleaded in exchange for other charges being dropped and was sentenced to six years in prison.
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com