School Choice & Charters

Lawsuit Says Students Preyed Upon Peers at a Leading Prep School

By Catherine Gewertz — September 12, 2001 3 min read
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A former honors student at a prominent New England preparatory school has sued the school, claiming that he and other students were repeatedly pinned down and sexually molested by groups of boys, and that he was ostracized for reporting the attacks.

Cannon E. Hawkins contends attackers went unpunished.

In a lawsuit filed against the Groton School in Groton, Mass., last month, Cannon E. Hawkins describes a school environment so hostile that he dropped out six weeks short of graduation. Mr. Hawkins, now 21 and a junior at Brown University, contends that the school did not take his reports seriously or do enough to discipline those responsible.

Officials of the 117-year-old boarding and day school, which counts such luminaries as Franklin D. Roosevelt among its alumni, have declined to discuss the matter beyond a one-page statement issued Aug. 30, the day the lawsuit was filed in Middlesex County Superior Court.

In the statement, Headmaster William M. Polk said the school acted responsibly, notifying parents and pertinent state officials of the allegations, and strengthening its programs on “sexual respect.” The school thoroughly investigated Mr. Hawkins’ claims, Mr. Polk said, and concluded that they were “exaggerated.”

Mr. Hawkins’ father, Peter G. Hawkins of Darien, Conn., said the suit was filed because the school has consistently minimized the seriousness of the allegations. Only one student involved in the attacks had a letter of reprimand placed in his file, according to Mr. Hawkins.

‘Code of Silence’

The lawsuit describes an ordeal that Cannon Hawkins, nicknamed Zeke, says began three days after he arrived at Groton as a 16-year-old sophomore in the fall of 1996 and continued until spring of 1997. Several male students would hold him down in the dormitory, grab his genitals, lick his face, and insert fingers into his rectum through his clothes, the suit maintains.

Sometimes, the attackers would play “Night on Disco Mountain” from “Saturday Night Fever” as the attacks proceeded, Peter Hawkins said in an interview.

The lawsuit contends that many male students were subjected to attacks, as well as sexual harassment by peers in hallways, the dining hall, and at athletic practice. Zeke Hawkins, a student representative on the school’s board of trustees, did not report the incidents until his senior year because of “the code of silence that existed among the students, and because they were so widespread and appeared to be intertwined in the fabric of the school’s environment,” the suit says.

When Zeke Hawkins and two other students told Mr. Polk about the attacks in March 1999, the headmaster said he believed them and apologized, according to the suit. But later, Peter Hawkins says, the Hawkins family came to believe that school officials were not living up to their word to take the claims seriously and deal with them responsibly.

The coed school of 350 students in grades 8-12, located 40 miles northwest of Boston, said in its Aug. 30 statement that school officials reported the incidents to the state department of social services.

A spokesman for the department, Michael S. MacCormack, said that Groton officials who called told the agency that all the students involved were older than 18, which placed the case outside the agency’s jurisdiction.

Acting in what he says was frustration that not enough was being done about his allegations, Zeke Hawkins stood up at roll call, where the entire school gathers daily, in April 1999 and detailed the allegations. Soon after that, he says in the lawsuit, some teachers began shunning him.

One teacher allegedly ridiculed him the next day for “criticizing behavior that some find pleasurable,” the suit says. He dropped out, it says, because he found the school environment too hostile. Unable to do the work at home, he sought a diploma from his local public school, his father said.

In a letter to parents written just after Zeke Hawkins’ statements at roll call, Mr. Polk said that “quite conflicting stories have emerged” about a series of “alleged incidents involving male students and the violation of personal boundaries” two years earlier.

He said that he had talked with students and faculty members about the events, and had spoken about “the importance of respecting personal boundaries” and his concern that “the line separating wrestling and horseplay from groping had been crossed.”

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