Private schools are attractive to parents who want small classes, close student-teacher relationships and a supportive community, but at times that culture has been exploited by predators who seek to misuse those trusted relationships.
The Gilman School, a prestigious all-boys school in Roland Park, is the latest Maryland independent school facing a crisis after a teacher was charged with sexual abuse and rape of a student, but Gilman isn’t unique, and independent school leaders say coordinated, systemic changes are needed to prevent abuse.
Gilman’s head of school, Henry Smyth, described the abuse allegations that washed over the school’s community as “a tsunami of revelations” that have caused him to rethink what can be done to make it easier for victims to come forward so that abuse can be caught earlier, even as Gilman takes immediate action to start the healing process.
“It is a devastating blow to us. People are hurt. And it’s hard. And I can’t overstate that. ... It is an awful, awful thing for all of us who have dedicated our lives to working with children to parents. We’re hurting as a community right now,” he said.
In the past several years, The Park School, Friends School, the Key School and others have publicly reported instances of faculty abuse of students that go back decades.
Independent schools have learned since those incidents have come to light to set much clearer boundaries between students and teachers and to put policies in place that reduce the risk of sexual abuse, said Tom Reid, a former head of St. Paul’s School in Baltimore County who has spent the past nine years as an interim head of numerous private schools along the East Coast.
But he believes that since then schools have become complacent, believing that sexual abuse is in their past. Schools, he said, have not gone far enough to prevent incidents. After confronting the issue at one of his schools, he wrote a column for the National Association of Independent Schools last November, calling on the independent school community nationally to take more action, including safeguards so teachers with abuse allegations aren’t passed from one school to another. There is no national registry for teachers who have been disciplined or fired for sexual misconduct.
Reid said independent schools do not need to give up that close teacher-student relationship. Research, he said, shows that a teacher can have a profound positive impact on learning, and he believes that independent schools can offer students an advantage. “Does that lead to opportunities for this? Yes, for the individual who is set on creating that ugly abusive relationship.”
The middle school teacher, Christopher Bendann, a 38-year-old social studies teacher and Gilman graduate, began teaching at Gilman just after he graduated from college and stayed 15 years before he was fired on Jan. 20. In his first letter to some of the school community about the issue, Smyth, said the school did not know of any inappropriate physical contact between Bendann and students, but just 10 days later Bendann was charged with sexual abuse of a minor and rape.
The charges are based on an allegation from a graduate who said Bendann sought sexually explicit photographs from students and asked him to take off his clothes in exchange for rides home from parties, according to the charging documents. The charges include numerous examples of improper conduct outside of school hours and off school property. The sex acts allegedly occurred while Bendann was housesitting for families, according to the charges.
A state prosecutor has said that a couple more victims have come forward asking to talk to police, and an attorney representing the victim said he believes there are “scores” more victims.
“Often times it is the teachers who are most beloved on campus or the youth minister that children gravitate toward,” said Myra McGovern, who served on a National Association of Independent Schools task force on educator sexual abuse. “These folks become very good at grooming the community. Disrupting that in any organization can be a challenge.”
According to interviews with former students and parents, who asked not to be identified, Bendann was well liked by students. Like many other teachers, he also oversaw other extracurricular activities, was an adviser and worked in the admissions office, so he came into contact with students outside the classroom.
Gilman encourages those relationships. At each level — elementary, middle and high school — students have an adviser who deals not only with academic issues but also is expected to become the boy’s advocate, meet with their group of advisees regularly and encourage their social and emotional growth.
Interviews with six recent Gilman alumni say their good relationships with teachers was one of the positive aspects of their time at the school.
In the week since charges were filed, the school brought experts in trauma and abuse, along with its own counselors, to speak with students individually or in groups about their feelings. It’s offering the same to parents, staff and alumni.
Since the investigation is currently being handled by law enforcement and social services and not the school, Smyth said Gilman may be unaware of who has come forward.
So the school is setting up a way for victims to get counseling paid for by Gilman without being identified. “We want to provide resources to help people process devastating information in whatever way they’re processing it,” Smyth said.
McGovern, of the National Association of Independent Schools, said Gilman will have to take care to help not just the student body, but also the teachers. Often, she said, “the teachers at a school are really traumatized because they missed it. There is often a lot of guilt.”
Experts also said that Gilman will have to balance conflicting interests. In general, schools have to help and support victims while being transparent with the community. In its guidelines for how schools should respond, the association says that when there is a police or social services investigation, the school staff should not do the interviews with victims.
Reid said it is difficult to balance the need to be discreet to protect victims “with the need to be transparent to indicate the school is responding correctly.”
In effect, families have a right to know enough of the details so that they can know the school is taking the right actions to ensure that students are kept safe, he said, but do not need to be told information to satisfy their curiosity.
Independent schools who belong to the Association of Independent Maryland and D.C. Schools, as Gilman does, must show that they have policies in place to reduce the chances of sexual abuse by educators, said Peter Baily, executive director of the organization.
Gilman did that after a 2021 report that detailed prior abuse by two teachers at the school over decades. The report said the school had failed to investigate allegations and inform the Gilman community. Today, those policies call for regular training and discussions with faculty and students so that appropriate boundaries are well understood.
As an interim head of a private school that wasn’t in Maryland, Reid, who was contacted by an alumnus who had been abused 50 years before, said each victim may feel differently about what details they want shared. After going through the experience, he said, he has become more involved in advocating for schools to put systems in place that prevent abuse.
For instance, most schools, like Gilman, don’t allow staff to drive students around unless they are going to a school-sponsored event. Bendann is accused of driving students around late at night on the weekends, a practice that is against school policy.
He also babysat for families, a practice that is prohibited by the school if the teacher is caring for a current student, according to the faculty handbook. Gilman officials would not discuss any of the details of the case against Bendann.
Smyth said he is committed to reviewing all the policies Gilman has in place to reduce sexual abuse and to increasing the training of staff, students and families to be aware of the boundaries that should not be crossed.
“We are committing to looking at our policies and guidelines afresh, and making sure that if they’re things that need to be broadened, tightened up, overhauled, that we do that,” Smyth said.
In addition, he said, he wants the school “to foster an environment in which people are as comfortable as they possibly can be coming forward with really uncomfortable information.” The faculty can’t know everything that happens outside the school, he said, so they must promote a culture in which students don’t feel shame, or that they are a tattletale, when they come forward. The sooner victims come forward, he said, the faster the school can stop the abuser.
Smyth is thankful for those victims who have had the courage to report abuse in recent weeks, saying he has high praise for them.
Reid wants independent schools across the nation to adopt four measures, including a nationwide reporting system for credible sex abuse allegations, settlement agreements between the school and the survivors that don’t require non-disclosure agreements, and requirements for schools to follow precise protocols to prevent abuse for the school to be accredited.
The national sexual assault hotline is available 24 hours a day. The number is 1-800-656-4673.