EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 6, 2013

Campus secrets resurface

It's been a year of confronting old allegations of student abuse for the Brooks School community

By Mark E. Vogler
mvogler@eagletribune.com

---- — NORTH ANDOVER — The Brooks School’s airing of decades-old dirty secrets — allegations of students being abused by high level staff — has soiled the once-clean, wholesome image of the prestigious prep school by Lake Cochichewick.

First, in early January came the disclosure of former headmaster Lawrence W. Becker’s improper relationship with a student. A joint letter by current Head of School, John R. Packard, and the president of the Board of Trustees, William N. Booth, also informed alumni and parents of reports that Becker — who presided over the school from 1986 to 2008 — “had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior while traveling alone on school business” in 2004 with a male escort.

“We act now in the belief that this inquiry is compelled by our highest priority, which is the well-being of the students who have been entrusted to our care,” school officials said of their reason for soliciting “personal knowledge that calls into question Mr. Becker’s conduct” while headmaster.

Brooks officials never explained Becker’s relationship with the male student, but called it “objectionable, manipulative and an abuse of his position.” Some officials said it didn’t involve any sexual abuse. Based on the feedback received from their outreach, officials said they had no reason “to conclude that additional students were harmed by Mr. Becker.”

Then, last month, after an alumnus claimed in a lawsuit filed against Brooks that he was sexually abused by a woman administrator when he was 15, the school revealed similar alleged misconduct by Lois Poirot, who was assistant director of admissions at the school during the time of her alleged affair with the student.

In another joint letter emailed to The Brooks School community, Packard and Booth called the lawsuit filed by the former student — identified in court papers as “John Doe” — “obviously troubling, made even more so because it is consistent with a similar account of such conduct on her part brought to the school’s attention and settled confidentially decades ago.”

Poirot, now 67, of 60 Merrimack St., Amesbury, was also the wife of the late William Poirot, a popular teacher and coach who spent nearly 40 years of his professional life on the Brooks campus, where he died while working out in the school’s new gymnasium in late 2005.

“Bill Poirot filled many roles on this campus, not the least of which was serving as our institutional memory,” Becker said shortly after his death.

“We are extremely grateful to him and humbled by his decades of devotion to Brooks as a faculty member, as a parent, and as one who cared deeply about the preservation of our school’s life.”

Bill Poirot served as a Latin teacher, chairman of the Classics Department, head football coach, assistant wrestling coach, director of both college counseling and admissions and head of major gifts for the Office of Alumni & Development during his decades on the Brooks staff.

The Class of 1980 — John Doe’s class — dedicated the yearbook to Mr. and Mrs. Poirot.

“They have been advisors, teachers, coaches, formheads, but most importantly, friends with whom many of us would not have made it through the spring. Thank you both. For everything ...,” said the tribute beneath the idyllic photo of Bill Poirot on a bicycle with his wife walking alongside him.

But looking back on his three years at Brooks, Doe said he regards Lois Poirot as somebody who used her position as a school administrator “to groom, sexually assault and rape me” while many of the Brooks teachers and administrators ignored a very public affair. In a recent interview, Doe said he believed school officials chose to cover it up because they didn’t want to tarnish the legacy of the late William Poirot.

“It was pretty sacred ground, the wife of a popular teacher — and someone as exalted as Bill Poirot,” Doe said.

“He was ‘Mr. Brooks School.’ Mr. Poirot was such a big part of the school, I don’t think most people dared to approach it. There’s a wrestling room named after him and he’s the guy who let his wife abuse me. It was tremendously stressful to have it that obvious,” he said.

Former Brooks Headmaster H. Peter Aitken, who was at the school from 1973 to 1985, is among the many administrators and teachers “who knew, or should have known, that Poirot was engaging in an improper relationship,” according to the lawsuit, which also names Aitken and Lois Poirot as defendants along with the school. The complaint refers to “Michael Moe Nos. 1 - 10” as future defendants — administrators and teachers — who have not yet been named.

Lawsuit: Administrators ‘observed’ sexual misconduct

The lawsuit alleged that “at least three members of the Brooks administration directly observed explicit sexual conduct between defendant Poirot and John.” It cited these circumstances:

-- Instances where William Poirot caught his wife and Doe in bed, in the shower and in other situations together, “but he did not say or do anything about it.”

-- The Rev. George F. Vought, a chaplain at Brooks, caught Mrs. Poirot and John “in a state of undress. He also took no action, except to glare at John for the next three years.”

--Mrs. Poirot arranged to have herself and Doe spend a weekend at a cottage in Rockport, with Richard Holmes, a history teacher and Brooks director of Alumni, along with his lover. Mrs. Poirot and Doe shared a bedroom and had sexual relations.

The lawsuit also notes that Mrs. Poirot arranged to have her husband assigned as Doe’s advisor. This enabled the student to be in the Poirot home “constantly” to receive help with his studies.

“Instead, he was provided with alcohol and drugs in Poirot’s household,” the lawsuit alleged. “On some occasions, when drugs were delivered to defendant Poirot’s home by a cab driver, John was required to pay for them.” Doe said in an interview that alcohol consisted of beer and wine and that he also smoked marijuana in Poirot’s home.

In their recent email to alert the Brooks community about the lawsuit, school officials noted that Doe came forward to report the allegations against Lois Poirot as a direct result of the school’s investigation into Becker’s conduct. The officials insisted that they began immediate discussions with Doe “to address any harm he felt he had suffered.” They also reported his allegation to the Essex County District Attorney’s Office. The district attorney’s office declined comment on whether it’s investigating.

 

School seeks to resolve ‘this matter’

“Although we have not been able to agree on a settlement, we remain interested in resolving this matter and hope that we can continue to engage in conversations that will achieve that goal,” the Brooks officials said in their email.

But Doe said he believes Brooks officials only decided to publicly acknowledge past misconduct of Lois Poirot because of the filing of the lawsuit. So do his lawyers.

“We believe that at some point, she (Lois Poirot) was asked to leave Brooks,” Boston lawyer Carmen Durso said last week. “But the school has not been forthcoming about that.”

Durso said the school failed to provide Doe’s other lawyer, Roderick MacLeish Jr., “full disclosure” about Poirot’s past misconduct when he requested it last May.

School officials have declined comment on whether its recent outreach effort has yielded other complaints about Lois Poirot or others at Brooks, including Dr. Donald Allen, a child psychiatrist who was a former consultant at the Brooks School for more than seven years before he was indicted on sex charges in 1977.

Allen was one of 24 men charged by the Suffolk County Grand Jury with various charges of rape, assault and sodomy against boys aged 8 to 13. Then-Headmaster Aitken said at the time that he had “no reason to believe that the charges made in this incident have any relationship to his professional work at this school.”

Meanwhile, school officials have stressed in their recent email to the Brooks community their interest in continuing to address allegations of student abuse at the hands of staff, both past and present.

“Although these matters occurred long ago and there are numerous policies and procedures in place today to protect student safety, the current Brooks administration has redoubled its efforts to ensure that this kind of behavior does not happen again,” Packard and Booth wrote.

“During the last nine months, the school has conducted a thorough review of policies, procedures, and professional development related to student safety. A faculty meeting in early April centered on better understanding boundaries while maintaining positive student-teacher relationships that are at the heart of a Brooks education,” the officials said.

“This work will continue. In addition, work is ongoing on an employee code of conduct, which we will share with the school’s employees later this fall. The goal of this process will be to make more explicit what is expected of adults in this community, while emphasizing ways in which we might build upon the strong relationships that have been an essential element of the Brooks experience for generations.”

Packard and Booth also noted they were “encouraged by the willingness of all our constituencies to engage the school in frank and open discussions about such troubling matters from the past, and we hope that you remain willing to do so.”

School officials apparently don’t share the same willingness in their dealings with the general public.

“Sadly, Brooks is in the news again,” Brooks library director Ann Massoth wrote in a recent email.

“As such, it is certainly possible that a reporter could come to the library to try to access our yearbooks. Do not allow anyone from outside the Brooks community to see the yearbooks. If you have any doubts as to who a person is DO NOT give them access.”