Accusations of Sex Abuse at Boarding School

ByABC News

Aug. 31, 2001 -- For an adolescent, the trauma of being sexually molested is often compounded by overwhelming fear, which keeps the victim from speaking out about what has happened.

But Zeke Hawkins says he could not keep silent about what happened to him and to others at the elite Massachusetts boarding school he attended. And, he says, when he came forward, the school refused to take him seriously.

Hawkins became so frustrated at what he saw as a lack of responsiveness to his allegations that he announced publicly to a school assembly that he had been molested by other students when he was a 16-year-old sophomore. His shocking story threw the 100-year-old institution into a crisis.

This week Hawkins filed suit against the Groton School, charging it failed to provide a safe environment for him. The Middlesex County district attorney's office is investigating and a grand jury has heard evidence in the case.

Hallowed Institution Disgraced?

Founded in 1884, the exclusive Groton School has powerful alumni who include senators, admirals and generals. The 32nd president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was a Groton alum.

Today parents of students pay $30,000 a year for a Groton education, which stresses moral growth and character building.

So Phyliss Hawkins says she was shocked to receive a disturbing phone call from her son during his senior year. "Mom," she remembers him saying, "I was molested when I first started at school."

Zeke Hawkins entered the school in 1996. Two years later, he told his parents that during his first months at Groton — beginning on this third day of school — other students who had been at the school longer restrained him, ripped off some of his clothes, licked him, grabbed his genitals, and digitally penetrated him through his boxer shorts. He says he was attacked 10 to 15 times in all.

Hawkins recounted this to the headmaster, William Polk, but he and his parents say they were dismayed at the school's response. "From the start, this school has done the opposite of what I ever expected it to," says Hawkins' mother.

The Hawkinses say that instead of applauding their son for his moral courage in the face of such pain and embarrassment, the school questioned his credibility and downplayed his allegations.

They suspect their son was subjected to some kind of school ritual, saying that his alleged attackers played a theme song to signal the assaults were about to begin.

"If it happened on the third day of school," says Hawkins' father, Peter. "You have to ask yourself, 'Gee, maybe this has gone on before.'"

20/20 has learned that Hawkins is not the only Groton student claiming to have been molested. At least three other students have come forward, saying they, too, were sexually abused by other students.

School officials declined to be interviewed by 20/20 on camera, but a spokesperson for the school said that despite the allegations, the accused students were "good kids" and were not a threat to anyone's safety. School officials say the accused boys were disciplined, but because of privacy laws, they cannot give specifics.

Frustrating Response

Soon after Hawkins told Polk his story, he left campus for spring break, hoping everything would be over upon his return. But after vacation, the boys he had accused of molestation were still on campus and living in the dorms.

Hawkins says seeing the boys on campus was a slap in the face, and he was frustrated that the faculty didn't seem to know what happened to him. "I finally got angry," Hawkins says, "I was like, 'You know what? You don't announce it, I'll announce it to the rest of the school.'"

Shaking with anger and fear, Hawkins stood up at an assembly and told the student body — including some incoming students — that he had been subjected to a series of molestations at Groton. His explosive story threw the school into a crisis.

The public announcement alienated him from the rest of the school, he says. "He became the enemy of the state," Hawkins' father says.

Many teachers and students were furious at him for embarrassing the revered institution, Hawkins says. The fallout made him feel so isolated he could no longer bear to stay at the school. He left Groton and eventually received his diploma from a local public high school.

But Hawkins has no regrets. "I felt like I was getting the runaround," he says. "By making this announcement, I was going to force them to deal with this."

Groton says it was still investigating the incident at the time of Hawkins' announcement and also points out it took Hawkins more than two years to come forward.

Were the Charges Adequately Reported to Social Services?

In a written statement to 20/20, Groton says it interviewed more than 300 students and the "overwhelming majority … were unaware of the conduct." The statement says 19 students said they knew about or felt victimized by sexual misconduct, but the students "offered very conflicting accounts … what some described as wrestling and horseplay, all of it consensual, a few described as aggressive sexual harassment."

Hawkins strongly denies he consented, but says he eventually stopped fighting back because it only prolonged the attacks. "If you really stopped resisting, that was the moment that they basically went on to someone else," he says.

In a written statement released to the media Thursday, Groton says it concluded Hawkins' allegations were "exaggerated." The school says, however, that it did discipline some students "where it was clear that their conduct had violated the School's policy against harassment." The school declined to identify what disciplinary action was taken, citing privacy constraints.

Three days after Hawkins' announcement, Polk sent the first of a series of letters to parents assuring them that Groton had complied with a Massachusetts law that requires schools to immediately report suspected abuse to social services. At a school assembly, he also apologized to boys who felt they had to "go along to get along."

In a letter to 20/20, Groton said the school reported the "specific allegations, promptly and in detail, to the Massachusetts Department of Social Services."

But the Department of Social Services told 20/20 the Groton report was vague and unspecific.

According to DSS Commissioner Jeffrey Locke, the school never told the department specifically about Hawkins' allegations of sexual assault or digital rape. In fact, the Groton School, never mentioned his name or the name of any other student who came forward, Locke said.

"The reports that we received were very vague," he says. "There were no specific allegations set forth."

Based on what Groton did report, Locke says social services decided the case was out of its jurisdiction, and recommended that the school call the district attorney. But Groton denies ever being told to contact the district attorney.

Eventually, the Hawkins family reported the allegations to the district attorney's office, which is now investigating the allegations of abuse and Groton's handling of the matter.

Hawkins, now starting his junior year at Brown University, says coming forward was his way of helping his fellow students at Groton.

And Groton says that, in the aftermath of Hawkins' charges, it has "strengthen[ed] its existing education and training programs regarding sexual respect" and "worked with faculty and students and re-emphasized the School's position that harassing behavior is unacceptable."