Reports of sexual abuse at several top prep schools have surfaced in recent years. A group of Phillips Exeter Academy alumni have now launched an independent reporting website for sexual assault survivors from that school.
Susannah Morrison Curtis is part of that group and she’s on the line with me now.
(This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.)
I’d like to get into what you’re trying to accomplish with this website, but first tell us a little bit about your experience at Phillips Exeter, whatever you are comfortable sharing.
I was sexually assaulted in the fall of 1989 and at the time I didn’t report that injury and after all of the misconduct allegations started coming out around 2016 I decided it was time to really tackle that harm for my own self. Part of my healing journey was coming forward to the community as a public survivor. I do think it is important to say that we have sometimes heard from other alumni that it would have been better if we had never gone to Exeter and had that experience, and that’s really not true at all. There are very few people that don’t weigh the extraordinary education and friendships and the other things in the balance with the harm. To talk about at Exeter, I want to be sure and say that very clearly because I think that is a misconception among people who have not experienced that harm themselves.
What are you trying to accomplish with this website?
In 2016, we tried to do a Google form survey to try wrapping our own hands around the universal harm. We had to get rid of that pretty quickly because we hadn’t known to protect it legally from subpoena. So since that time we have been trying to create a resource for other alumni in our community who want to report their harm anonymously and safely and we’ve done with the website, PEAreports.com.
You mentioned concerns about being subpoenaed for that information. How did you remove that concern?
Basically, we had to build the survey so that it could be subpoenaed. In other words, there was no way that we could protect against that. We had to build something where all the information was hidden in plain sight, so to speak. So we created this survey with drop-down boxes, which we hope our both informative and descriptive, but they protect the identity of the responder. We also took the additional step of not collecting IP addresses, and for those who want an added step of anonymity, we encouraged them to fill out the survey inside a public access location like a library.
How are you hoping the data you end up collecting will be used?
It’s really a three-fold thing. The first thing is for the individual who has been harmed to be able to give their responses … All of those various data points are being collected cumulatively, and for the individual it is helping them see they are not alone. The second way is for our community to be able to start to say, ‘Hey, we focused on faculty situations, but two-thirds of these responses are from student on student assaults, so maybe we should look at that closely.’ Beyond that, and this is really exciting for me personally, we are getting contacted by other schools and communities that are struggling with this power imbalance where victims report their information and it goes into a void and they have no control over how it is shared back to the community itself.
The tagline for the website is, “Our reports, transparently told.” What does that mean to you?
When you report your harm to an institution, regardless of what that is, there’s a real feeling of vulnerability in what is going to be done with my information—is my story going to be managed respectively and responsibly, how are people going to be informed about how I fit into the greater piece. The transparently told goes to this idea of each individual gets to say what happened to them through this survey and the information automatically rolls to the home page, it’s transparent. There is no interface there and there is a great deal of empowerment in just that simple process.