In an interview March 4, ASD Executive Director Jeffrey Bravin says the findings have been heart wrenching, but some alumni express concern about other cases not within the scope of the report. [Editor’s note: This article was updated on Thursday, March 5.]
By Ted Glanzer
An investigation at the American School for the Deaf revealed numerous corroborated allegations of sexual and harrowing physical abuse by faculty and staff members against students that took place at the West Hartford school in the 1950s through the 1980s, according to school officials.
ASD Executive Director Jeffrey Bravin and Board of Directors President Catherine Burns, in a letter posted on the school’s website and distributed to the ASD community on Feb. 21, said the sexual abuse allegations involved, among others, a former longtime ASD executive director, four former dormitory supervisors, and a physical education teacher/coach who also served as the director of Camp Isola Bella (a camp in Salisbury that has been owned and operated by ASD since 1964) and was ASD’s assistant dean of students.
“As a community, we are devastated,” the letter says. “The revelations exposed during this investigation are heartbreaking, and we are stunned by the realization that former trusted members of the ASD family abused their power to take advantage of innocent, vulnerable children in their care.”
Several of those accused of sexual abuse, including Dr. Edmund Boatner, who was executive director of the school from 1935 to 1970, are deceased.
“Boatner … engaged in grooming and sexual contact with [a student] from the late 1950s through the early 1960s that ended after graduation,” the report summary says. “While Dr. Boatner is unable to respond to the allegations, and we recognize his otherwise unprecedented contributions to ASD and the deaf community, we found our alum to be highly credible and corroborated by the constancy of accusation witnesses.”
The former ASD employees who are still alive either declined to be interviewed or cut their interview with the investigator short after some initial questioning.
One former dorm supervisor who initially agreed to be interviewed said he was surprised at the allegations and had positive relationships with the students, the report says.
“He declined to be further interviewed citing his ill health and declined the investigator’s offer to postpone the interview,” according to the letter.
The summary of the findings also says 37 alumni reported they were abused and/or were punished by multiple staff members, including being forced to kneel on broomsticks, kneel for extended periods of time, walk on their knees, were slapped and punched, struck with sticks, belts, paddles or rulers, and were restrained with belts, sheets or straightjackets.
“Students also reported being forced to eat until vomiting and being confined in a clothes hamper and closets or isolated in dark rooms as punishment,” the letter says.
The letter lists the names of three former ASD employees, one of whom is dead, who engaged in physical abuse or corporal punishment.
“Whether the objective criteria for naming perpetrators were met, these allegations were found to be credible by the investigator and we want to convey to each of the alumni who contacted us the grief and compassion we feel and our deepest apology that this abuse happened,” Bravin and Burns stated.
The letter offered contrition for the events that took place at least several decades ago.
“The results of this investigation reveal startling and appalling truths,” Bravin and Burns say in the letter. “As a school community, we offer a sincere and heartfelt apology to the survivors of the inexcusable actions identified in this report and for the fact that the School did not prevent or stop them. The safety and well-being of our students is our highest priority.”
Bravin, in an interview March 4, said the findings of the investigation have been “extremely heart wrenching.”
“When we got the report, as an administrator, as a Deaf individual, we can never tolerate that here, I would never tolerate that here and my staff knows that very well,” he said. “I have complete confidence in my staff here. They are well-trained, they have been through many different trainings and have great experience.
“The most important thing is we shared what happened in the past in the hope that will help our alumni heal from the wounds that they had in the past. We can’t erase the pain of what they experienced back then, but what we can do is learn from them and ensure those things never happen again.”
Officials weigh in
The American School for the Deaf was founded in 1817 and currently has 149 students who are Deaf or hard of hearing, Bravin said, most of whom are from Connecticut and surrounding New England states. About 90 students live on campus, Bravin said.
State and local officials weighed in on the report summary.
Gov. Ned Lamont issued a statement saying his administration is aware of the “serious allegations” and the school’s response.
“It is important that alumni of the school are heard and action to be taken to ensure all of the facts are gathered, and the school has an environment that ensures this conduct never happens in the future at the ASD,” his statement says.
West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor, a former ASD board member, said the revelations of abuse were “heartbreaking, shocking, startling and incredibly disturbing.”
“There has been enormous pain from this abuse inflicted on vulnerable children,” she said. “Our community is so saddened to learn about this and our hearts go out to the victims and their families.
“ASD has engaged in this thorough investigation to understand the extent of the abuse and to hear from any and all alumni that were either victimized or knew of abuse. ASD’s actions and statements demonstrate a sincere commitment to prevent any abuse or physical punishment from ever happening again.
“As a valued member of our community, we have every expectation that ASD will follow through on its commitments to protect students and staff and never experience abuse again.”
West Hartford Police Department public information officer Capt. Michael Perruccio said in a statement that a criminal investigation has been initiated and no further details were available as it’s an active case.
ASD moving forward
The summary noted that the school would take the following steps moving forward, including reviewing its suspected child abuse and neglect policy and reporting procedures, re-evaluating and strengthening its professional development training in the areas of psychological, physical, management training, universal health precautions and incident reporting; reviewing its harassment policy and physical restraint and seclusion policy “to be sure our students and staff are safe and that the school is at the forefront of best practices. Under no circumstances may staff use corporal punishment or physically manage students or utilize seclusion for purposes of discipline.”
The school noted it has invested in security on campus in recent years, and has purchased software to enable anonymous reports to be made through the school’s website.
“Furthermore, plaques and honoraria recognizing or celebrating the accomplishments of [credibly accused individuals] have been voided and removed, as appropriate,” Bravin and Burns wrote.
As for the alleged victims, Bravin said the door is still open for anybody to come forward.
“We would not shut them down or close that door,” he said. “I absolutely expect people to continue to come forward and share their stories. I want the school to be responsive and transparent.”
In addition, Bravin said, without getting into specifics, there is a continuing dialogue with the alleged victims. What that means in terms of remuneration, if any, or counseling, or anything, remains to be seen.
“No decision has been made by the school as to how or what shape or form we will be supporting them as of yet,” he said.
How the investigation began
The school initiated its investigation in February 2019, when Bravin posted to the ASD website that the administration had learned of “inappropriate conduct” by former faculty members in the 1960s and 1970s.
Bravin said in the 2019 statement the school “immediately reported the allegations to the proper authorities.
“ASD holds the health and safety of our students as our highest priority, and we are committed to maintaining a safe environment,” he said. “Today, comprehensive policies are in place to protect our students and are reviewed and revised regularly. We have a zero-tolerance policy in effect for any inappropriate behavior towards our students, and immediate action is taken in response to any allegations brought forth.”
Attorney Edward Heath of Robinson + Cole headed up the internal investigation, in which he interviewed 81 alumni, former faculty, staff and other witnesses.
Bravin and Burns said the decision to name individual perpetrators was determined based on whether there were multiple allegations, whether the allegations could be corroborated, whether the allegations were made directly by the survivor, the nature and severity of the conduct and whether the accused’s conduct involved physical or emotional coercion.
Bravin and Burns said the school also notified the West Hartford Police Department, the Connecticut Department of Education and the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.
Dissatisfied with the response [Editor’s note: This section was updated on Thursday, March 5.]
Bravin, in the interview, said alumni and staff and students were distraught over what had taken place in the past, but, “in terms of our alumni, I think there is a sense of relief the school has finally been able to explain what happened,” he said. “I think from their perspective that’s what they have been asking for since the very beginning they wanted the people who hurt them to be named. I think we heard them on that. … Some alumni had no idea that this had happened, even though they were students here during that time.
“In terms of our staff here, they are heartbroken of what happened in the past but they know we have a wonderful school here for our students and our staff are dedicated, they are here because they care about our students. … They are continually aware of the things we have to do as mandatory reporters. They know that if they see something, they’re going to report it.”
Bravin said he met with students, who said they are upset with what happened, but they love their school.
“Parents have been calling in and have been extremely supportive,” Bravin said. “I had a group of parents come in and say, ‘Why? Why is this happening? We love this school. We know there’s no issues here at this school.’ I said that’s right, we have to do what is right for the community and our alumni.”
But not everyone was satisfied with the school’s investigation or its response to the findings.
Sources say the Deaf community is highly insular, and say it’s difficult to overstate how vital a role the school plays in serving as a hub for education, socializing and employment in that community.
As such, a number of ASD alumni declined to be interviewed on the record for this article due to the concern of pecuniary loss, social reprisals, or both. However, one alum said they were disappointed with the school and how it limited the scope of the investigation to its specific time period and for when it was released.
“It’s very disheartening as a person in the Deaf community to see how the victims who come forward are being disregarded due to the statute of limitations or because of insufficient evidence presented,” the alum said on the condition of anonymity for the reasons stated above. “Truthfully, the evidence is there and the investigation needs to be more thorough. From there the real healing begins, not before. Accountability, honesty, transparency are sorely lacking. Until then victims such as myself have to stay on the sidelines till we feel it’s safe for full disclosure of our positions. This is largely because the way things are handled.”
The statute of limitations for civil cases in Connecticut allows for victims of sexual abuse to file suit before they turn 51. The timing of the report’s release was called into question because it was released just hours after the state legislature’s public safety committee voted to leave off its agenda for this session a proposed bill that would have eliminated the statute of limitations for sex abuse survivors to file suit.
Bravin said it was a coincidence that the report’s release and the subcommittee’s decision took place on the same day. He said the board of directors decided in early January to release the report on Feb. 21.
The report also doesn’t mention at least two instances involving ASD staff members who have been accused by authorities of sexual assault.
In 2008, ASD teacher Julie Denno was arrested and charged with second-degree sexual assault and impairing the morals of a minor for allegedly assaulting a student at her former home in Bristol over a two-month period.
According to press accounts at the time, ASD officials said Denno’s employment was terminated months before her arrest, after the school found out an investigation had been initiated. The arrest warrant was sealed by the court.
Bravin said Thursday that a report regarding Denno was made to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF).
One member of the Deaf community said the report released by the school was whitewashed by not mentioning Denno.
“I can’t even with this [stuff], so much discrepancies,” the person said on the condition of anonymity. Julie Denno was arrested in 2008 for having sex with a student. Nothing was put in place for safety measures. Now [Bravin] … assures us that nothing bad happened after 1980. This is an insult to us as a community who lived and breathed this [situation] for years. They keep getting away with it.”
Another school employee, Miles Burrell, an ASD dorm supervisor and van driver, was convicted of sexual assault in Pennsylvania in 2018 and is a registered sex offender.
In a phone conversation with We-Ha.com on Thursday, Bravin offered the following clarification: “What I can say is that after [Burrell] was terminated we learned more about the situation in Pennsylvania.” [Editor’s note: The original version of this story stated that Burrell left his employment after his conviction and according to sources was not terminated.]
“I want to be very clear that I would not discuss the reason for that termination,” Bravin said Thursday.
An alleged victim expressed outrage that Burrell wasn’t mentioned in the report.
“Miles has been getting away with mistreating women for years,” the person, who also declined to be identified because of the potential negative repercussions of doing so, said. “This campus isn’t safe but I have no other place to go. How they support a predator like him – not me – isn’t right.”
Bravin, during the interview, said he could not comment on personnel matters like Denno’s and Burrell’s.
“Anything that was reported to DCF appropriate action was taken by DCF and the school,” Bravin said. “I can’t speak for any personnel issues that happened during that time. … Any action that was taken was appropriate.”
Further, Bravin said no incidents or alleged perpetrators were named after the 1980s because any accusation that was made did not fit the criteria set forth by Heath and the school in its report summary.
“The scope was based on whoever came forward,” Bravin said. “If there was anything that happened beyond that period and expressed those concerns, we would have included that in the report, but the report was based on the individuals who had come forward. …
“If I could go back … if I had decided to sweep everything under the rug, I would not have helped anybody. … We are ensuring this will never happen here. Either here or any other place. … This is not to be tolerated.”
A vulnerable population
The relatively few studies that have been conducted in the area indicate that members of the Deaf community are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.
One study that was submitted but not published by the Department of Justice cites a study that up to 50% of all Deaf and hard of hearing individuals have been sexually victimized before adulthood, as compared to roughly 25% of hearing women and 10% of hearing males.
“Deaf individuals who are sexual assault survivors face multiple barriers and stereotypes due to their status as a Deaf individual, as a sexual assault victim, and also due to the male or female gender stereotypes associated with their status as a sexual assault survivor,” the report says. “As with other disability groups, the Deaf community experiences significant barriers in communication with the general hearing population and has limited access to media information that hearing people take for granted.”
Another study from the Rochester Institute of Technology says Deaf and hard of hearing children are more than 25% more likely to be neglected and/or physically or sexually abused than among hearing youths.
Another study says parents may be afraid to come forward because of fears a Deaf school will be shut down and, therefore, taking away one of the only community their child has.
Bravin gently challenged the notion Deaf and hard-of-hearing students are vulnerable.
“For Deaf and hard of hearing students, we call them more vulnerable not because they are Deaf and hard of hearing, but because of a lack of communication, a lack of language,” Bravin. “That is why we have a place like the American School for the Deaf. This is the best place, the least restrictive environment for our children. The reason is they get appropriate education and access and support so they can grow up to be wonderful people.”
Bravin said he did not see the Deaf community as being insular, nor did he believe students and alumni would be afraid to come forward because of the potential economic impact of doing so.
He said ASD is having a hard time finding qualified Deaf teachers, “just like public schools are having a hard time finding qualified public school teachers. The reason for that is the employment opportunities are much larger than they used to be.”
He noted in the 1980s there were just three Deaf attorneys. Now there are 400 Deaf attorneys, Bravin said.
“The opportunities for the Deaf community are so vast now,” he said.
As far as the social impact of coming forward, Bravin said it’s true for any community, including the Latinx community and African American community, there are some insular aspects to them. It may have been true in the past “that could have been an issue,” Bravin said.
But advances in technology and the breaking down of barriers has made that less of a concern.
The next #MeToo moment?
Rachel Coleman, creator of the PBS show “Signing Time!” and the executive director of American Society for Deaf Children, a parent helping parent organization for the Deaf community, said this is the Deaf community’s #MeToo moment.
“It is ‘Spotlight,’” said Coleman, who has a Deaf child, in a telephone interview from Utah. “It is time for the community to tell the truth. This is a population that has been underserved and undereducated.”
She said for too long members of the community have been too afraid so come forward with allegations of abuse.
“There’s an unspoken agreement that you’re not going to make the Deaf community look bad,” she said. “If you speak out, it impacts you for the rest of your life.”
She also challenged Bravin’s claim to another publication that Deaf children aren’t more vulnerable than the hearing population.
“That’s terrifying to me,” she said. “That’s a recipe for abuse to say a vulnerable population isn’t vulnerable.”
The time, Coleman said, is now to make a change.
“It’s bigger than the ASD,” she said. “I would love everyone to have a place to tell the truth. A whistleblower hotline? How do you do it nationally?
“I think everyone needs to tell the truth. … You have to tell the truth that this is happening and for people to know the scale it’s happening. Being willing to tell the truth is only way to stop this from happening.”
The future of ASD
Instead, when asked about the future of the ASD, Bravin said there would be a place for the school. He noted he is giving a presentation at a conference in California later this month. The title of the presentation is “Deaf Education 2067,” the reason why Bravin uses 2067 is that’s the year of ASD’s 250th anniversary.
“At that conference I will be presenting what Deaf education will look like in 2067,” he said. “I see ASD continuing to have a place in the lives of Deaf and the hard-of-hearing community members.”
Will ASD be open in 2067 to celebrate the anniversary?
“Absolutely,” Bravin said. “ASD for normal Deaf people will always be here. Deaf people and hearing people will always be side-by-side together. … There’s no way we can not have ASD.”
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