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Practice Area in Sexual Abuse Claims Emerging in Response to Prep School Allegations
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Summary: With sexual abuse claims at prep schools becoming normal, law firms are developing practice areas specializing in the topic.

The reports of sexual abuse at elite prep schools and lack of administrative support have become almost a common occurrence. Those schools include Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass; Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut; Pingry School in New Jersey and dozens more. With those allegations come investigations to determine who is responsible for the misconduct so the schools can ensure to parents that their children will be safe at their school. Those charged with conducting these investigations are generally law firms.

  
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The demand for investigations is driving up business for firms, creating a specialty. Each investigation requires a team of six or so individuals to spend multiple months holding interviews, scouring through records, and tracking down any leads. This results in costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for the schools. One prep school reportedly spent $2 million for a comprehensive report.

While many firms have done one or two investigations, there are a few firms emerging as the key players. There is T&M Protection Resources, a global security firm that conducted investigations for Milton Academy and Pingry. Their website states, “We investigate the true nature of sexual misconduct claims, promoting justice for alleged victims and those accused while limiting liability for institutions.” Holland & Knight is a major law firm that handled the inquiry at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Cozen O’Connor Chair Gina Maisto Smith and Vice-Chair Leslie M. Gomez of the Philadelphia office have worked with over 400 institutions to conduct investigations, develop policies, and offer legal advice. These institutions have been colleges and universities, religious institutions, camps, businesses, and K-12 schools. Smith formerly served as a sex crimes prosecutor, giving her the appropriate experience in the field of sexual abuse allegations. They recently helped Emma Willard School with two reports.

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Smith and Gomez emphasize that their kind of expertise is crucial because the laws are complex and the process is delicate. Smith said, “It’s not only the process of these investigations but what we do with the information, how do you weight it, how do you value it. We have a better sense of context of these cases by doing thousands of them, as opposed to one or two of them.”

The problem with the way the process is now is that the schools are the ones accused of allowing sexual abuse to happen and they are the ones footing the bill, so they control what information found in the reports is released. As Roderick MacLeish, an attorney for victims of abuse at private schools, notes, “If they do this full time, there is a perception issue, that they’re not going to draw tough conclusions in all cases. If you’re going to keep doing this, how tough are you going to be on some private school client, when you are basically marketing yourself for other investigations in the future?”



Schools are the ones setting the guidelines, often directing guidelines to focus on things like adult misconduct, a specific span of time, and more. They decide if a written report is required or if an oral presentation is all that is needed.

A big downside to having private lawyers carrying out the investigation is they are not law enforcement agents so they cannot force people to participate in their investigation. They are also relying on old records and the school to have contact information for past victims and possible perpetrators.

On the other side of the spectrum is the emergence of lawyers focusing on the representation of those victims. MacLeish works almost exclusively with those from private schools. “This is all I do now. I don’t have time to do anything else.”

Do you think law firms should be the ones conducting investigations? Tell us how you think the investigations should be handled in the comments below.

To learn more about the prep school abuse allegations, read these articles:



 

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