In the News

Lawsuits Allege Sex Abuse, Cover-Up at Private School

Isaac Avilucea, The Connecticut Law Tribune
October 20, 2014

Indian Mountain School

Christopher Simonds was a chain-smoking, charismatic English teacher at Indian Mountain School. He was also a “god,” according to one of the former teacher’s accusers, who spoke to State Police during a 1992 investigation into widespread sexual abuse that allegedly took place in the 1970s and 1980s at the private boarding school in the Litchfield County town of Lakeville.

The State Police report alleges a massive cover-up of sexual abuse by school officials, who were reportedly abetted by officials at what was then called the state Department of Children and Youth Services. The Law Tribune obtained a copy of the nearly 50-page police report after two new lawsuits were filed against the school in a little more than a week. The first was filed in federal court by Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder attorney Antonio Ponvert III on behalf of William Brewster Brownville, a former student who said he was abused by several school officials during the 1980s.

“The responsibility for keeping this secret really has to be laid at the feet of the school,” said Ponvert, who noted that the State Police report stated that the school was uncooperative in the investigation. “It was an intentional strategy to hush things up, to sweep things under the rug, and in the case of Simonds, to take care of one of their own.”

A second lawsuit was filed in state court in Waterbury by another former student. The man, now 45, is proceeding under the pseudonym John Doe and says the abuse started in 1981, while he was a seventh-grader at the boarding school, and didn’t stop until the spring of 1983.

School officials said they’re reviewing the latest lawsuit and will respond to both accordingly.

“We are just in the process of getting our arms around this,” said Maria Horn, president of the school’s board of trustees. “I’m committed to doing the right thing. We’re not hiding from anybody. This is about the most serious thing that can happen to a student.”

Many of the same sexual assault allegations made in a string of lawsuits the school settled for undisclosed amounts in the 1990s are rehashed in the new lawsuits. But Brownville’s lawsuit is the first to implicate now-deceased former headmaster Peter Carleton as one of a half-dozen teachers and administrators who sexually abused students.

Brownville claims that in 1986 he and three other boys were forced to live in the basement of Carleton’s on-campus home. During that time, Carleton routinely summoned Brownville to his bedroom, sexually abusing him at least 15 times, according to the lawsuit. Worse, Brownville claims, school leaders knew Carleton and other teachers were “pedophiles who preyed and had for years been preying on vulnerable children in the school’s care,” according to the lawsuit. Brownville also accused Simonds of sexually assaulting him.

Paul Levin, former president of the school’s board of trustees, is also quoted in the lawsuit as saying Carleton spoke about the boys’ bodies and their varying levels of sexually maturity to board members. “He was very interested in that change,” Levin said, according to the lawsuit. “He’d say this boy’s got pubic hair and that boy’s hairless. He was very interested in what the boys and girls might be doing with each other sexually. It was very bizarre for a headmaster to talk that way. … Carleton was very definitely kinky.”

The 45-year-old John Doe is represented by attorneys Richard Kenny, of Kenny, O’Keefe & Usseglio, and Susan Smith, a solo practitioner in Avon. The nine-page complaint includes counts of negligence and breach of duty to children.

Smith is no stranger to litigation involving Indian Mountain. She represented other Simonds accusers in the 1990s. Those five lawsuits eventually settled out of court, for undisclosed amounts. Another plaintiff Smith represented in 2013 reached an undisclosed settlement.

The John Doe lawsuit and the State Police report paint an unflattering portrait of Simonds, a short, portly, married man who pulled a lot of weight on campus. He apparently preferred tall, thin boys. They were accorded gifts and membership in a sort of “secret society.”

Simonds often took boys on camping trips, according to the police report. He’d also go into dorms after lights out, which wasn’t allowed. When Simonds was caught, he would reportedly explain he was simply helping students with homework. These boys often hung out with Simonds in a school basement, which was a printing room, and at Simonds’ on-campus home, according to one of the lawsuits and the police report.

“I feared Simonds’ basement,” said one of his accusers, according to the police report. “I was terrified of it.”

Others were also afraid of Simonds, who reportedly disciplined students for having a “neck tie out of place” by making them walk in circles for hours. But he acted differently with several boys belonging to the “exclusive clique,” commonly referred to by faculty and staff as “Simonds’ boys.”

Doe said he was one of the students in that clique. According to the lawsuit, Simonds gave the boys cigarettes and marijuana. He allowed them to watch pornographic films. Then, the lawsuit says, he repeatedly violated them. They were blackmailed into remaining silent by being told that if they spoke out, compromising photographs kept in Simonds’ small black box would be released, according to the lawsuit and Smith.

Doe claims Simonds fondled him, exposed himself and performed pseudo oral sex on Doe’s fingers. In addition, the lawsuit says Simonds forced the plaintiff to participate in “circle jerks,” where students sat around in groups and masturbated, at the teacher’s home.

Among faculty, Simonds’ behavior was hardly a secret, the lawsuit said, and they expressed their suspicions about the teacher to school brass, who reportedly did nothing about it until 1985. Simonds was finally fired by Carleton, according to the police report, after the father of a student who said he had been abused by Simonds seven years earlier demanded the teacher be dismissed or he would report the abuse to police.

Afterward, Carleton called the Department of Children and Youth Services, and spoke to a social worker named Robert Deming. Deming consulted with Bob Baker, then an inspector in the Litchfield County state’s attorney’s office, before telling Carleton that he would be “beating a dead horse as far as a police involvement,” since the five-year statute of limitations for criminal charges had run out, according to the police report. Deming later told a state trooper that as “low man on the totem pole” at DCYS, he felt pressure from above to close the case.

Carleton was eventually fired from the school in 1987. As for Simonds, he eventually landed a job as editor of a New York biweekly newspaper. According to State Police, he refused to speak to the state trooper conducting the 1992 investigation.

“I think you better talk to my lawyer,” Simonds said, according to the police report. Then he gave the trooper a number for his New York-based attorney and hung up. Simonds wife, Patricia, reportedly cried hysterically when the trooper relayed the accusations. “You must have your facts wrong,” she said, according to the report. “You better check where you’re getting this information.”

The New York attorney told the state trooper if police had an arrest warrant for Simonds, he wanted to surrender to authorities rather than risk getting arrested in front of his family or at his new job. However, Simonds was never charged because of the expired statute of limitations.

Doe claims he was never the same after he says he was abused by Simonds. In his complaint, he said the repeated sexual assaults have affected his ability to carry on meaningful relationships and forced him to doubt his sexual orientation. He says he is still plagued by recurrent memories of the forced sexual liaisons with Simonds and had to undergo therapy to treat depression and other maladaptive behavior.

Like Doe, Simonds boys also went through “hell,” according to the police report. After a number of suspicious car accidents, rumors floated around campus that some of Simonds’ alleged victims committed suicide by crashing their vehicles.

Might other alleged abuse victims file lawsuit? Perhaps, said Smith, the plaintiff’s lawyer. But given the school’s preference for confidential settlements, there might never be a full accounting of what went on at Indian Mountain.

“There is a school of thought that there shouldn’t be confidential settlements,” Smith said. The dilemma, Smith said, is “doing for your client or doing for the whole world. Our primary concern is for our clients. A lot of victims do not want to come out. They’re ashamed; they’re embarrassed.”

Ponvert said his client, Brownville, was tired of being ashamed, and that’s why he agreed to let Ponvert use his name in the lawsuit.

“He wants people to be held accountable,” Ponvert said. “He wants the truth to come out. He wants other victims to be empowered. If nothing else comes out of this lawsuit, my plaintiff [wants to] makes sure it doesn’t happen to another kid in another school, anytime and anywhere.”

Isaac Avilucea can be contacted at [email protected].