Off Campus

School mulls news of Washburn suicide Former teacher dismissed for sex abuse took his own life in April

Over three decades after he was fired from the school for sexually abusing three students, former Middle School (MS) English Teacher Edward Washburn, 75, committed suicide on April 6. 

Mr. Washburn was also suffering from Parkinson’s disease for several years before his death.

In addition to teaching at the MS for 23 years, Mr. Washburn coached crew at Harvard University before his dismissal from both schools when reports of sexual abuse surfaced. 

The school fired Mr. Washburn in February 1987 immediately after the allegations were made, but school administration did not report the abuse to the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. Mr. Washburn’s abusive behavior became public in December 1987 when his sister accused him of raping her son.

In 1988, Mr. Washburn was prosecuted and pleaded guilty to raping his nephew, for which he received a suspended sentence that did not include incarceration. In the same year, the head of school at the time, Peter K. Gunness, appeared in a televised trial and admitted criminal wrongdoing for not reporting Mr. Washburn’s abusive behavior when the school learned of it.

The school’s mishandling of the matter came back into the limelight in 2008, when Daniel Weinreb ’89, a student abused by Mr. Washburn, started Opening BB&N Minds, a campaign advocating for the school to acknowledge its mistakes in 1987 and to show more active effort in making amends to survivors of Mr. Washburn’s abuse. 

Mr. Weinreb, who initiated a civil lawsuit against Mr. Washburn for the abuse in 2016, told The Vanguard that he believes having to confront survivors could have been a factor in Mr. Washburn’s death.

“I think the confrontation contributed to his self judgment to die by suicide,” Mr. Weinreb said. “Ted’s suicide feels like he confessed to being a serial rapist.” 

He added that while in this regard the death provided some closure to Mr. Washburn’s crimes, he is more concerned with upholding the ideals for which his 2008 campaign advocated.

“[Head of School Rebecca] Upham and the BB&N administration’s actions are more significant to me than his suicide. BB&N’s standards are higher than hundreds of other schools that discovered pedophiles on staff,” he said. “And there is always room for improvement.”

One of the school’s immediate actions in 2008 in response to Mr. Weinreb’s campaign was to hire the executive director of Massachusetts Citizens of Children (MassKids), Jetta Bernier, to run a workshop for faculty on how to monitor and report abuse. MassKids is a statewide child advocacy group that specializes in preventing sexual abuse in schools.

“The best way to support survivors is for the institution itself to be transparent about the facts of what happened, what the school is currently doing, and any future reoccurrences of sexual abuse,” Ms. Bernier said. “When survivors see that process happening, I think they begin to feel more confidence that other students won’t share in the same painful experiences.”

English Teacher Rob Leith, who taught at the school through Mr. Washburn’s dismissal and trial, said the school’s implementation of procedure to handle sexual abuse reports was a positive outcome of the situation.

“BB&N incorporated procedure before many other independent schools, so we became kind of a trailblazer for establishing a way to monitor and address sexual abuse,” he said. “Over the years, our procedure has become a model for other schools as they find a way to handle similar situations in their communities.” 

The school’s current standards for monitoring abuse include mandatory yearly training for faculty on issues of abuse and a reporting system for both students and faculty, Ms. Upham said.

“We believe that the best way for students to report issues of discomfort or abuse is with an adult that they trust around them—a teacher, their advisor, a class dean,” she said. “I believe very strongly that you need to have not just one channel. It can’t just be one person that you can go to.”

Alumni can report sexual abuse by contacting Ms. Upham directly via phone or email or sending a message to an anonymous reporting system on the school’s website. An investigator hired by the school then looks into the report, and the alum has the option to engage in a confidential counseling service paid for by the school.

Ms. Upham added that Mr. Washburn’s death has not and will not affect the school’s continuing mission to help survivors of his abuse.

“Washburn’s death doesn’t bring any closure to the matter for BB&N,” she said. “For as long as this issue impacts our alumni, it impacts us.” 

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