New York State Attorney General Letitia James has announced an investigation will be launched into Babylon High School on Long Island after an avalanche of sexual misconduct allegations by former students sent the small seaside community into total uproar.
“Every student on Long Island and across New York deserves to feel safe and protected at school,” AG James wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “The reports of sexual abuse of students at the hands of their teachers and coaches are troubling and must be investigated.”
The misconduct claims began swirling earlier this month after Brittany Rohl, a 28-year-old PhD student now living in Florida, penned a letter to the school and district and posted it on social media.
In excruciating detail, she wrote that she’d been groomed by a teacher/coach twice her age while still a student, and the contact turned physical in the days following her graduation.
Over the summer, after her 18th birthday, the relationship became sexual and controlling and essentially destroyed her college experience and mental health, she told The Independent after posting the letter online.
Ms Rohl flew from Florida to attend a meeting of the school district on 15 November. She not only detailed her own abuse but publicly named several other teachers despite defamation warnings. Victims began lining up behind her, sharing their stories, often breaking down in tears and having to be comforted by friends and family.
At times, the meeting became riotous, as people shouted each other down and at least one person was kicked out.
Ms Rohl says she came forward after another teacher – an educator she knew but not the same man who she says groomed her – was removed from the classroom in recent weeks.
A handful more have also been assigned to work from home following the bombshell avalanche of abuse claims.
On Thursday, as she was preparing to rest and celebrate Thanksgiving, Ms Rohl told The Independent that announcement of a state investigation left her feeling “relieved”.
“I think we need the outside pressure,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to the results. I never thought it would go this far, and I think that for me, this kind of symbolises that we’ve broken out of [what] people call the ‘Babylon bubble’, where things are contained.
“I’m assuming they’re going to do a thorough investigation and talk to everyone. I really hope so.”
The sheer number of victims coming forward – with stories involving multiple teachers and coaches – has supported many of their claims that the problem was an “open secret” swept under the rug in a close-knit community about an hour east of New York City.
One speaker at the 15 November meeting, now working as a public defender, was a 2011 graduate along with Ms Rohl and said she felt hesitant to come forward because her own story was so similar to the others being told – but that in itself should indicate what the culture was like, she suggested.
“This was just so common that it became … it was so normal,” she said, adding that, in her work, forcible touching would warrant a misdemeanor and a spot on the sex offender registry.
“In Babylon, you get a giant pension,” she said to applause.
A walkout by current students followed the meeting,
Linda Scordino, a former school board president and wife of Babylon’s late mayor, told News 12 that “it was an open secret” and “there were very few people who had the guts to fight it. It was part of the culture. It wasn’t just one or two teachers”.
She wrote on Facebook that “the same teachers’ names kept coming up, again and again”.
In a statement this week, district superintendent Linda Rozzi said: “As these are all matters pertaining to personnel and individuals are protected under privacy laws, the district is limited in sharing further information.
“However, it is important to know that the district does not tolerate abuse of any kind, takes all allegations very seriously and is committed to acting upon each and every claim we receive.”
That was of little comfort to many of the women coming forward with their own painful experiences. Ms Rohl tells The Independent she has now launched a fledgling website, buildinghopeandsafety.org, which she hopes will help give victims support and “keep moving the conversation forward”.
“For decades, Babylon students have eagerly walked into their first day of junior high, naive to what the next six years may have in store for them,” states the site, which offers links to victim resources, assault and crisis hotlines.
“For decades, Babylon parents have dropped their children off at the school doors, blissfully unaware of what would be waiting on the other side.
“For decades, Babylon alumni have struggled to navigate the impact of their high school years and trauma … The BHS Foundation is a group that will do everything in its power to right those wrongs. Made up of passionate alumni, parents, current students, and community members, the BHS Foundation will educate, advocate, and collaborate to build a better Babylon.”