Pain was the catalyst for institutional change at Porter-Gaud 

Lessons Learned

Porter-Gaud School, located here in Charleston, is one of the top-ranked co-educational college preparatory schools in the Southeast. Located on 70 acres on the banks of the Ashley River, it has produced several nationally known luminaries including Stephen Colbert, former NFL running back Ovie Mughelli, former Citibank CEO Sallie Krawcheck, and award-winning authors the Lee brothers and Katie Crouch.

Despite the school's phenomenal success in producing top-level graduates and sending them to top colleges all over the country, Porter-Gaud was rocked in the late 1980s and early '90s by a sexual abuse scandal which resulted in a lawsuit and several significant changes being made at the school. This sad history has been highlighted in a recent documentary entitled What Haunts Us, produced by Porter-Gaud alumna Paige Goldberg Tomlach. The movie and the school have been the topic of several recent news articles ever since the announcement of the film's pending release.

I know a little bit about Porter-Gaud School. I had the privilege of serving on the board of trustees of the school for eight years, including three as board chair. Additionally, I attended Porter-Gaud throughout all of my high school years, and for part of my middle school years. As such, I was able to witness the profound changes in the culture and leadership of the school from the time period detailed in Ms. Tomlach's documentary, until now.

Given that backdrop, here is what I can say with absolute certainty: there is no school that is more committed to preventing sexual abuse or fostering a community where inappropriate conduct will not be tolerated than Porter-Gaud School. Few schools have taken more affirmative steps to establish policies to promote a culture and atmosphere where students and employees of the school are safe. Sadly, things weren't always this way.

The allegations at the heart of Ms. Tomlach's documentary are that key leaders at the school during the seventies and eighties knew of possible sexual abuse being perpetrated by former coach Eddie Fischer, and rather than reporting the criminal activity they looked the other way. The key administrators implicated by this alleged malfeasance have long since passed away, but much of the pain caused by this era remains. What Haunts Us details the narrator's relationship with six victims of Fischer's abuse who have since committed suicide. It is clear that the deaths of these individuals had a profound and lasting effect on Ms. Tomlach, whose message, in part, is that the damage of sexual abuse lasts indefinitely, and that we must do everything we can do to prevent it from harming our children at all costs.

Ms. Tomlach is absolutely right in this regard. Although I have had limited contact with her since we both graduated from Porter-Gaud, I know her to be a brilliant and passionate individual who cares very deeply about her friends. Knowing her as I do, I do not believe her intent was to damage the school's reputation but instead was to honor her friends victimized by the abuse.

Porter-Gaud, just like Penn State and the Citadel, are esteemed institutions which have undergone profound changes in leadership and culture since details of past sexual abuse came to light. When an institution goes through a tumultuous and painful time period such as these schools have, there are several choices it can make. Do nothing, or make institutional policies to ensure, as much as possible, that similar instances never happen again. Porter-Gaud has made those changes, transforming from an insular school tightly controlled by its founder, to a top flight organization run by an active, representative board following best practices. Just as no one today would mistake Penn State with the Penn State of Jerry Sandusky, the former coach who was convicted of sexual abuse, no one would mistake the Porter-Gaud of today with the Porter-Gaud of the seventies and eighties. If anything, schools such as Porter-Gaud and Penn State have become even more hypervigilant to signs of abuse or harassment, and even more committed to promoting a culture which encourages full reporting and transparency. As we acknowledge the serious problems of the past, we should also acknowledge the changes made as a result, to the extent it makes our institutions safer places.

Documentaries like Ms. Tomlach's show that the wounds caused by sexual abuse never fully heal, and that they also often have grave or even mortal consequences. We should honor and respect those victims and their families for what they have endured, and commit ourselves even more ardently to preventing and promoting greater awareness about sexual abuse. We should be respectful and also thankful for voices like Paige Goldberg Tomlach's which tell us that the mistakes of the past should never be forgotten.



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