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Private School Adopts Child-Abuse Policy

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A Cambridge, Mass., independent school has developed a comprehensive policy for reporting cases of child abuse and sexual harassment that is said to be among the first of its kind at a private school.

Officials of the Buckingham Browne & Nichols Schooladopted the guidelines after the school's headmaster was fined for failing to inform state authorities about sexual-abuse allegations against one of its teachers.

The school did not have a reporting policy when, in February 1987, the teacher was accused of sexual misconduct, including showing pornographic materials to male students. The teacher was fired. Subsequently, he was convicted in Middlesex Superior Court of raping a child, who was not a student at the school.

Peter Gunness, Buckingham's headmaster, later admitted in court that there was sufficient evidence to be found guilty of failure to notify the state social-services department of the abuse allegations, as required by state law. He agreed to pay court costs of $1,000, but was not convicted.

Mr. Gunness said the school's lawyer and psychologist had advised him that no report was necessary.

"In my 18 years as headmaster, we never had a problem of child abuse by a teacher,'' Mr. Gunness said. "We frankly were not prepared to deal completely with the situation last year.''

School officials made mistakes, he said, "not through negligence or self-interest, but from ignorance and our desire to protect the families of the victims.''

Definitions, 'Crisis Management'

Buckingham's guidelines were written by a task force of school administrators, faculty, and parents. The policy provides definitions of child abuse and sexual harassment, a detailed list of procedures for reporting and resolving cases, general "crisis management'' guidelines for the headmaster, and information for parents to be included in the school's catalog.

The task force also recommended that one male and one female teacher from each of the school's three campuses be appointed to deal with student and faculty concerns about abuse and harassment.

The school has held meetings with students, parents, and faculty to discuss those subjects and is planning to include information on them in its human-sexuality courses.

Written policies for abuse report rare among private schools, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. The association is urging its 900 member schools to adopt standards similar to Buckingham's.

Copies of the report are available from W. Allen Rossiter, Director of Studies, Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, Gerry's Landing Rd., Cambridge, Mass. 02138. --KG

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