Community Update May 2024

May 31, 2024

 

Providence Community,

In March 2023, we sent an email to current Providence parents, alumni, and alumni families informing you of serious allegations we had received from a whistleblower of behavioral misconduct by Matt Harmon, a former teacher and coach who was employed at Providence from 2004-2007. In that email, we told you that we reported the allegations to local law enforcement and also engaged the services of Amy Stier, an experienced and independent investigator, to thoroughly review the allegations, whether Providence had any knowledge of them at the time, and, if so, how Providence responded to the allegations. We also directed Ms. Stier to review our current policies to ensure that we are doing all we can in the present to protect our students.
 

We chose this course of action because we took seriously the allegations and our role as stewards of the lives of the children God has entrusted to our care. Our aim has been to bring facts to light, learn from our past, and most importantly, care well for anyone hurt under our care, irrespective of how long ago the incidents may have occurred. 
 

We learned in May 2023 that authorities had initiated a criminal investigation. To avoid interfering with or undermining the criminal investigation, Ms. Stier paused her investigation until the law enforcement investigation was complete. However, by that time, Ms. Stier had confidentially interviewed 23 people, including alumni, former and current faculty, administrators, and board members, and reviewed documents she had both requested from Providence and gathered independently.
 

In early 2024, not knowing the timeline for completion of the criminal investigation, Ms. Stier recommended that she provide a thorough report to the Board on the information collected during the five months her investigation had taken place. In this letter, we want to share her findings, which are heartbreaking, while also protecting the identities of the courageous victims who were willing to speak with Ms. Stier to share the harm done to them. Because of the bravery and strength of the alumni who participated, the investigator found credible accounts of misconduct committed by Harmon during and after his tenure at Providence.

 

The following is a summary of the investigator’s findings:

Harmon was employed at Providence from approximately July 2004 to December 2007, when he resigned in the middle of the 2007-2008 academic year, citing unspecified personal reasons. While employed at Providence, Harmon taught Class Six Computer, Class One and Two Boys P.E., Class Three through Eight P.E., and Class Eight English. He also coached Girls Volleyball, Boys Lacrosse, and Football.
 

Credible Accounts of Misconduct

The investigation found credible accounts of misconduct committed by Harmon during and after his tenure at Providence, including accounts of grooming behavior, emotional abuse, inappropriate sexual conversations, and sexual abuse of a minor. The grooming behavior exhibited toward female students included: meeting with female students in private, making inappropriate comments about a girl’s body that made her uncomfortable, buying gifts, tickling a minor student, and purchasing alcohol for a minor. The emotional abuse reported in the investigation included: excessive running used as discipline and inappropriate comments about a girl’s body. The reported child sexual abuse involved a former Providence student he had begun grooming while she was a student at Providence. The investigation reported the child sexual abuse occurred both during the time he was employed at Providence and after his employment ended.
 

Inadequacies at Providence

The investigation also found that during this time Providence had inadequate policies, procedures, and training for responding to and reporting allegations of abuse, failed to report facts giving reasonable cause to suspect abuse to law enforcement, and responded inappropriately to concerns raised about Harmon’s conduct at the time. For example, the investigator found evidence that Harmon may not have been adequately screened before he was hired given there were allegations of prior misconduct that occurred prior to his employment at Providence and documents reflecting the completion of a background and reference check by Providence were not in Harmon’s employment file. The investigator also found that teachers and students were not adequately trained in the areas of abuse prevention and response; thus, red flags that were spotted by staff (like meeting alone with female students) were not reported to leadership. Other instances of misconduct that were reported to school leadership (like private comments to a female student about her body she reported made her uncomfortable) were found by the investigator to have been handled by leadership in a defensive manner, even accusing the student of making false allegations, rather than a victim-centered manner. The investigator found no evidence that any independent investigation or serious examination of Harmon’s conduct was undertaken in response to this report or throughout his employment, allowing him continued access to minors. The only substantive inquiry that ever occurred was an internal inquiry immediately following Harmon’s resignation when concerns were raised about inappropriate behavior with a minor. The investigator noted that this internal inquiry was limited to communications by the Headmaster with Harmon’s wife (who was also a Providence teacher who had just resigned), the school attorney, the Board President and Vice President, and Matt Harmon himself. This limited internal inquiry revealed inappropriate behavior, including gift-giving and late-night phone calls between Harmon and the former student (still a minor), but, according to the investigator, further examination was dropped when School leadership involved in the internal inquiry concluded incorrectly that the inappropriate behavior was not sexual in nature and raised concerns about defaming Harmon. There is no evidence that any of this was reported to authorities at the time. There also was no evidence that the inappropriate conduct was discussed with the broader Providence community, including other parents or teachers, or Harmon’s former employers, and inconclusive whether any subsequent employers were told. According to the investigator, there is also inconclusive evidence that the information known to the Headmaster, Board President, Board Vice President, and the school attorney at the time was shared with the full Board of Trustees.
 

Cultural Findings

The investigator also examined aspects of the school culture at Providence at the time to determine how it may have impacted the organizational response to the misconduct that occurred. The investigator found that teachings on modesty and abstinence wrongly emphasized that girls were at least partially responsible for boys/men not lusting after them, adding shame to victims of abuse. The investigator noted how institutional messaging discouraging “gossip” contributed to concerning behavior to go unreported. The school’s strict discipline regime excused inappropriately harsh discipline. The investigator also found a lack of transparency and priority placed on protecting the reputation of the institution that compromised protective measures, including communication with the school community and failure to report to law enforcement, when troubling information came to light in the immediate wake of Harmon’s resignation. Finally, the investigation found that respect for, and obedience to, authority was emphasized to the exclusion of appropriate boundaries and empowering students to speak up or say “no” when disobedience of authority was warranted.

 

Recommendations

The investigator not only made factual findings but also outlined four categories of recommendations in light of those findings (Prevent/Recognize/Respond/Repair). First, though the investigator found that Providence’s current policies are broadly consistent with other policies she reviews, there were recommendations for review and consideration in the areas of creating structures to better prevent, recognize, report, and respond to abuse. Second, the investigator emphasized the importance of ongoing education and training in abuse prevention and response. While child sexual abuse prevention training is a part of current employee training, the investigator recommended more regular, robust training, training related to all forms of abuse and reporting, and training other members of the school community, such as students, parents, and volunteers. Third, the investigator made recommendations regarding how the results of the investigation could be communicated in a transparent and victim-centered manner to the Providence community and others that may have been similarly impacted. Her recommendations include creating structures for ongoing review and implementation of best practices for preventing and responding to abuse within the school and exploring ways the cultural dynamics revealed by the investigation might be addressed. Fourth, the investigator identified practical steps Providence could take to promote healing for those harmed by the events described in the investigation.

 

The presence of a faculty member who groomed the victims with the intent of abuse and the inappropriate response of the administration represent a failure of leadership by the Providence administration at the time. It is unacceptable that any family or student’s trust in the School was violated, and we recognize that an apology at this point, while heartfelt on our part, is insufficient.

It is admirable that those who suffered so greatly were willing to share with Ms. Stier the abuse that had taken place so that the light of truth could shine on these grievous actions. The bravery of these alumni is humbling, and their willingness to come forward is courageous and bold. Such courage and boldness were absent in the School’s response at the time. The pain that the victims have endured is egregious, and we extend our sincerest apology to alumni who were affected and to those who courageously stepped forward to participate in this investigation.   

Among other things, this investigation has prompted a thorough review of our current safety and security policies and protocols, and we are committed to the highest standards of safety for our students. Providence faculty, staff, and administration are trained on abuse awareness and prevention. We have implemented safety and security protocols (review the policies here) to keep our students safe while on our campus. While Ms. Stier found that our present policies are broadly consistent with other policies she reviews, we recognize that there is room for improvement in the ways we prevent, recognize, report, and respond to abuse. From additional employee training and parent education on abuse prevention to educating and empowering students to detect abuse and report concerns on this topic, we are committed to continual review and improvement of all our security and safety policies.

As Christians, we worship a God who commands us to care for the vulnerable (Matthew 25:34-40). He also calls His followers to “do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly” with our God (Micah 6:8). This report makes painfully clear that the School failed to care for all the children God has entrusted to it. We are grieved that the alumni participating in this investigation did not receive the care and concern they deserved from the Providence administration during their time at the School. We humbly extend our apology to all who were and continue to be affected by this abuse of trust. We encourage anyone with knowledge of any abuse to contact local law enforcement promptly. Please join us in praying for the Lord’s healing of past trauma, protection in the present and future, and for His justice to finally prevail.

Sincerely,

Jeff Hendricks, Headmaster
Ellen Porter, President, on behalf of the Board of Trustees

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