Vt. lawmakers consider reforms in wake of Westminster boarding school abuse allegations

Published: Mar. 17, 2021 at 6:30 PM EDT
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WESTMINSTER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers are looking into reforms to protect children following allegations of decades-long sexual abuse and neglect at a Westminster boarding school.

The Kurn Hattin Homes for Children, a nonprofit boarding school, has been under the microscope following allegations that surfaced last year of sexual abuse and neglect dating back to the 1950s. The school near the New Hampshire border serves anywhere from 80 to 100 students age 5 to 15 from troubled homes.

Attorney Kim Dougherty with the Justice Law Collaborative represents over 30 survivors, age 11 to 80, who have come forward with allegations of abuse. Dougherty testified to lawmakers Wednesday, laying out a timeline of when and where the alleged abuses occurred. In the late 1980′s, a staff member, Mark Davis was found guilty of sexual misconduct against over a dozen students. Dougherty says students replicated abuse by staff, on each other, and causing generational trauma over the years.

“The only way to stop and break that chain -- because it is vulnerable children who don’t know the difference -- is the institution acknowledging it and saying we acknowledge it, this is wrong,” Dougherty said.

School officials say they can’t comment on the abuse allegations as they’re still under investigation, but they say the school is dedicated to creating a safe and caring environment and that they’re cooperating with the state “We want to be sensitive to that, we want to be open to that, we want to recognize we’re moving in a direction of trying to hear what they have to say and rectify any of their concerns,” Kurn Hattin executive director Stephen Harrison told Senate lawmakers Wednesday.

Kurn Hattin’s legal team also says in a statement to Channel Three News: “Kurn Hattin Homes takes the allegations described today extremely seriously. They have repeatedly spoken out against any abuse or violence against their children, whether it was 60 years ago or not. The Homes have never tried to cover up any allegations brought to their attention and have no desire to do so. But facts matter. That’s why an independent investigation was agreed to with Kim Dougherty’s firm on behalf of the claimants.”

Kurn Hattin gave up its residential treatment program license last fall, although there’s a disagreement of whether they did it voluntarily or were forced to. The Agency of Education is also investigating whether the school should maintain its status as an approved independent school. The results of that investigation are due to come out soon.

Lawmakers are examining whether the state was aware of the alleged abuse when it happened. “To make sure there is the investigation, the licensing is thorough, the mandated reports are provided,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County.

As lawmakers dig into the case, child advocates say it’s about seeking accountability and protecting the current and former students. “I think the survivors deserve that. they deserve this form of justice and knowing what they went through does not need to happen to others,” Dougherty said.

As state agencies investigate the allegations, Dougherty says she and her clients have not yet filed a civil lawsuit.

Related story:

Westminster nonprofit to investigate decades-old allegations of child abuse

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