EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 11, 2013

Unclear if state mandated reporter law applies to former Brooks headmaster

By Douglas Moser
dmoser@eagletribune.com

---- — NORTH ANDOVER — The relationship Brooks School disclosed last week involving its former headmaster and a one-time student was not reported to state children’s services authorities, and it is unclear whether a report was required under state law with the information made public so far.

Massachusetts requires a range of professionals who work with or near children, including school officials, to report suspicions or evidence of neglect or physical or sexual abuse to the state Department of Families and Children or face a fine.

Brooks disclosed in a letter to alumni on Jan. 3 that former headmaster Lawrence W. Becker had an inappropriate relationship with a student at some point during his tenure. A school spokeswoman said the relationship occurred while publisher Steve Forbes, a 1966 Brooks alumnus, was president of the Board of Trustees between 1987 and 1997.

Karen Schwartzman, a public relations consultant and founder of Polaris Public Relations who represents independent schools and specializes in reputation management, said the relationship was never reported to the state and the school does not plan to involve state departments or any police agencies.

“The School has engaged recently in conversations with the former student/now alumnus regarding that person’s experience at the School, and all matters are resolved to the satisfaction of both the School and the alumnus,” she said in an email to The Eagle-Tribune.

Current Head of School John R. Packard and Board of Trustees President William N. Booth emailed a letter to alumni Jan. 3 that called the relationship “objectionable, manipulative, and an abuse of his position.” Schwartzman would not discuss the nature of the relationship, the gender of the student or the student’s age when the relationship occurred.

Forbes, who remains a trustee emeritus at Brooks, said through a spokeswoman that the issue was handled correctly at the time.

“A matter that came to the attention of the School was referred to the School’s legal counsel and was properly investigated and appropriate action was taken,” said Mia Carbonell, a Forbes media spokeswoman. “Every step was undertaken with the advice and direction of the School’s outside counsel. The matter did not involve sexual abuse.”

When asked how Forbes defined “sexual abuse,” she declined to elaborate.

Becker, through his attorney, released a statement last week, in which he did not deny the incidents spelled out in the Brooks letter, but said the letter “causes me and my wife great pain, sadness and embarrassment.”

State law requires a “public or private school teacher, educational administrator,” child care worker, probation officer, police or fire officer, leaders of religious institutions, various medical personnel and others to report evidence or reasonable suspicions of physical or sexual abuse.

The law was first enacted in 1974, said Cayenne Isaksen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Families and Children, and the general language and list of people required to report has remained consistent. It defines a child as anyone under the age of 18.

However, the age of consent in Massachusetts is 16, opening a gray area where a relationship some feel would be inappropriate could occur and still be legal.

A case of statutory rape, where the student was younger than 16 years, would qualify as sexual abuse. However, if a student at Brooks, a preparatory high school, were 16 or older and there was no evidence of force or physical abuse, reporting becomes unclear.

Jetta Bernier, executive director Massachusetts Citizens for Children, a child advocacy organization, said she believed the school had a responsibility to report even if the student was 16 or older.

“You’re talking about a significant imbalance of power and a teenager cannot make a decision about this kind of thing and be on an equal footing as an adult,” she said. Additionally, the relationship should be reported to prevent other student-headmaster relationships from occurring, she said.

After the conclusion of the investigation, Forbes did not inform the full Board of Trustees about the accusation, Schwartzman has said. The president of the Board of Trustees would make the decision whether and how much to tell the full board and other school personnel about allegations and investigations into the headmaster’s conduct, she said

Failure to report under the law carries a $1,000 fine.

Brooks reviewed Becker’s tenure, from 1986 to 2008, after someone sent many anonymous emails to the school last summer. Becker first denied knowledge about the content and origin of the emails, but in September acknowledged to school officials that he was being threatened by a male escort he had hired in the fall of 2011.

In 2004, a different trustee president looked into an allegation against Becker of sexual misbehavior after school officials that year received calls claiming Becker had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior while traveling alone on school business. At least one interview was conducted, but Becker denied the allegations “and provided an account of his activities which, we now know, was untrue,” official wrote in the letter to alumni.

David R. Williams, III, a 1967 Brooks alumnus who was president of the Board of Trustees from 1997 until 2005, would have been responsible for that investigation. Again, the full Board of Trustees was not informed of the allegations, Schwartzman said.

It was in the course of that review school officials discovered the allegations of Becker’s relationship with a student, through conversations with faculty and staff who have been at the school for years.

During Becker’s 22 years leading Brooks, a private preparatory high school with 369 students founded in 1926 and situated on Lake Cochichewick, he oversaw a rise in enrollment and fundraising, the construction of a new library and the creation and expansion of a study abroad program led by former assistant headmaster Richard Holmes.

Anyone with information or knowledge that calls into question Becker’s conduct or oversight of the school is urged to email Packard at headofschool@brooksschool.org, or call 978-725-6239.

Follow Douglas Moser on Twitter @EagleEyeMoser. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.