EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 22, 2013

Teacher, student's relations improper

School: Relationship to result in lawsuit

By Mark E. Vogler
mvogler@eagletribune.com

---- — ANDOVER — Officials at The Pike School say they expect a former student will sue the school, saying he was the victim of an “inappropriate” relationship with a woman faculty member when he attended Pike in the 1990s.

Pike’s Head of School John “Muddy” Waters said he fired the teacher – Judith Elefante (Judith Chapell at the time) – two years ago after the relationship came to light.

“Upon first hearing of this in 2011, Muddy immediately met with Ms. Elefante and she acknowledged only that she had provided advice and support to this particular alumnus while he was at Pike,” Waters and Andrew Chaban, chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees, said in a letter sent to the Pike School community yesterday.

“She confirmed that their relationship continued after he left Pike and that, in fact, the relationship developed into a sexual one,’’ the letter continued. “As a result, Muddy made a decision to terminate Ms. Elefante from further employment at Pike.’’

Elefante could not be reached for comment last night. A telephone call to the Boston office of her attorney Rebecca Pontikes was not returned.

Elefante, now 70, of Newburyport retired from teaching soon after being fired, according to Karen Schwartzman, a consultant with Polaris Public Relations who has been retained by the school.

“It was really a letter intended for the Pike community, explaining a situation this school is confronting and informing the community of this matter so they can be aware of it,” Schwartzman said yesterday.

Schwartzman declined to comment on the age or grade level of the student at the time of the relationship. The Pike School at 34 Sunset Rock Road is an independent, coed, day school for students in prekindergarten through grade nine.

“There is no assertion that there was any kind of physical relationship while the student was at The Pike School,” Schwartzman said. “The teacher did acknowledge that the relationship evolved later into a intimate and physical relationship after the student left Pike.’’

School officials said they learned about Elefante’s “inappropriate conduct” when they were approached by lawyers representing the former student in 2011.

“Now two years later, we have been approached by new legal counsel, representing the former student, this time indicating that he intends to file suit against Pike for the damage allegedly done to his client in connection with this relationship,” Waters and Chaban said in their letter.

“Pike has received no information at this point to show that faculty or administration knew of an inappropriate relationship between the student and the teacher, which is not surprising given that it is alleged that the association between them involved only phone calls and other contact off campus. The lawyer intends to bring suit, nonetheless,” the letter said.

“Any allegation that a student might have been harmed by someone associated with The Pike School is of course troubling. While we took steps two years ago to satisfy ourselves that no one at Pike had knowledge of this developing relationship nor, for that matter, any other inappropriate conduct by Ms. Elefante, we are now undertaking a more comprehensive inquiry to ensure that no stone has been left unturned,” the letter continued. “At the same time, we are also taking steps to provide professional development for our faculty and staff to further heighten their awareness about appropriate boundaries between student and teacher and to ensure that they are as sensitive as people can be to patterns of behavior that might subtly suggest the possibility of an inappropriate relationship existing between the two.”

Boston attorney Carmen Durso, who represents the former Pike student, said Elefante will be a co-defendant in the lawsuit he plans to file against the school soon.

“I notified them that it is my intention to file a lawsuit,” Durso said last night, declining to provide details of the complaint until it is filed.

“This is the fourth case that I have had this year in which a female teacher has been involved with a male student,’’ he said. “It’s not a rare thing any more, unfortunately, and it’s as serious as when the gender roles are reversed. People are starting to understand that they should be just as upset to learn a young male has been treated this way.’’

Durso said he will determine whether The Pike School receives federal funds before filing the lawsuit, which could also focus on potential violations of Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions.

“You can’t discriminate on gender,” Durso said, explaining there is a potential for violations if there evidence shows school administrators handle teacher misconduct cases involving male students differently from cases involving female students.

“These cases are far more common than most people understand, because male victims are far more reluctant to talk about it,’’ he said. “One of the reasons is it’s a very confusing event for males. A sexual relationship with an older woman is looked upon as a sexual adventure or right of passage. I understand there are plenty of guys that are going to joke about it, ‘I wish it happened to me’. But this is an enormously harmful thing, and it’s just as harmful for a young man as it is for a young woman to go through. It’s very destructive of someone who is at a developmental stage of their life.’’