Vermont School for Girls in Bennington faces AOE investigation over alleged sexual assaults

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BENNINGTON >> The Vermont School for Girls is being investigated by the Agency of Education after receiving complaints of sexual assaults and other incidents at the school.

Two cases are currently pending against former Vermont School for Girls employees, both involving alleged sexual assault against students. Jacob Dunican, 27, of Bennington, pleaded not guilty in April to felony counts of sexual assault on a victim under 18 years old, sexual exploitation of a minor, and lewd and lascivious conduct after a 16-year-old student told staff members that Dunican had touched her inappropriately.

Morris David Nelson, 54, of Bennington, pleaded not guilty in June to counts of aggravated repeated sexual assault, sexual assault on a victim under 18 entrusted to the actor's care, and sexual exploitation of a minor. A student claimed that Nelson had raped her on multiple occasions. Ralph Bennett, director of operations for the Vermont School for Girls, said at the time that school policies strictly prohibit male staff taking female students anywhere alone.

Neither Dunican nor Nelson remain employed by the school. Their cases are being heard in Vermont Superior Court Criminal Division Bennington Unit.

The State Board of Education (SBE) wrote in a letter to Jeff Caron, executive director of the Vermont School for Girls, dated July 29, that, "(Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe) has received complaints and information related to sexual assaults and other serious incidents involving students at the Vermont School for Girls which raise significant concerns about the school's ability to provide a safe and healthy environment for students." The letter says Holcombe conducted a preliminary investigation, which brought to light additional concerns regarding student safety. As such, she has launched a formal investigation. Based on the results of that investigation, the state board has the power to revoke, suspend, or place restrictions on the school's approval to operate.

The school has been allowed to continue to operate during the course of the investigation.

Becket Family of Services purchased what was then known as The Bennington School in January 2013. The school, now known as the Vermont School for Girls, is directly operated by VPI South, a subsidiary of Becket. According to their website, "VPI South specializes in the treatment of complex developmental trauma and services girls ages 10-19. Our team became dedicated to creating a trauma informed residential treatment center and placed our energy in integrating modalities that have been shown to help heal the wounds our girls carry."

"The Vermont School for Girls is not affiliated in any way with the school previously operated at the same physical location (The Bennington School)," said David Chabot, director of legal and regulatory affairs for Becket Family of Services, "Vermont School for Girls has worked closely and transparently with all relevant authorities regarding the two alleged incidents at the school. Vermont School for Girls plans to work collaboratively with the State Board of Education and the Agency of Education to satisfy its inquiry as well. We are extremely proud of the high quality of the program we provide to our students and of the safety and security protocols we follow each and every day."

Haley Dover, public information officer at the AOE, said on Friday, "When a child is placed in state custody, the state effectively stands in the place of the child's parents or guardians, and is responsible for that child's welfare. The AOE and the SBE take safety and education quality extremely seriously, and are especially committed to oversight of more vulnerable, less empowered students. The decision Friday to investigate VSG's approval status as an independent school was made because the AOE and Board have concerns about the ability of this school to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for its students. We will work through all of the facts and circumstances as expeditiously as we can. For now, while this investigation is ongoing, we feel it is best, out of caution, to press pause and assess all the facts. We will work with all relevant entities to ensure continuation of needed services for these children."

The Vermont School for Girls approval to operate from the SBE is currently valid through June 30, 2017.

— Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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