Sex assault victim suing school

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BENNINGTON — Bennington School for Girls and related corporate entities of the residential program for emotionally troubled teens are being sued by a former student who was sexually assaulted during and after her time at the school.

The suit in Bennington Superior Court Civil Division was filed in late May on behalf of a Charlestown, N.H., woman, now 21, by attorneys with Brannen & Loftus, of Hanover, N.H.

Allegations include negligence in hiring, supervision and retention of a former math teacher at the Bennington-based school, Morris David Nelson, now 57. He was convicted in 2017 of felony aggravated sexual assault involving the teen, punishable by a minimum 10-year prison term.

The suit seeks damages, punitive damages and attorney fees from the defendants.

"Defendants had a special relationship with the plaintiff and a duty to protect plaintiff from harm," according to the suit, which was signed by attorneys Barney Brannen and C. Justin Sheng, of Brannen & Loftus.

The suit adds, "Defendants' breach of their duties constituted wanton and willful, grossly negligent, and/or reckless conduct, acting in conscious and deliberate disregard of a known, substantial, and intolerable risk of harm to the plaintiff, with the knowledge that the acts or omissions were substantially certain to result in the threatened harm to plaintiff."

According to the suit, the girl began attending the residential school based on Fairview Street in Bennington around January 2015. At the time, she was minor in the custody of the New Hampshire Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The state agency "entrusted the care and custody of plaintiff to the school after plaintiff had been placed in DCYF custody," following the incarceration of her father and the death of her mother, the suit states.

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It alleges that Nelson, who was hired by the school in 2013, had between January and October of 2015 "groomed plaintiff for sexual abuse, providing her with gifts and other special treatment, including special attention in class and during free periods."

Nelson also volunteered to transport the girl to and from Keene, N.H., for weekend visits with her family members, the suit states.

Other students reported Nelson's favoritism toward the girl to employees at the school and the dean, the suit alleges, yet the only warning issued, it states, "was a warning to the plaintiff by the dean that it was a policy violation for plaintiff to be alone with Nelson at the school. The school made it clear to plaintiff, who was 17 years old at the time, that the school was mainly concerned with protecting Nelson from potential accusations by the plaintiff."

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BPD investigation

The suit continues, "Nelson's grooming culminated in an incident in October 2015, when Nelson removed plaintiff from the school to attend a concert in Manchester, New Hampshire, furnished plaintiff with alcohol, and sexually assaulted her at an area hotel."

The suit alleges that sexual abuse of the teen by Nelson "continued up to and after the end of Nelson's employment with the school in November 2015.

Nelson was terminated from his job in November 2015 for "boundary issues" with the girl, the suit states.

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The school was aware or should have been aware that the former teacher also was "providing `respite care' to plaintiff, with the permission of the [New Hampshire] DCYF, and was beginning the process of fostering or adopting plaintiff while she was a student at the school, even after he was terminated from employment, and did not attempt to intervene or provide notice to DCYF or to the plaintiff's [court-appointed] guardian ad litem."

The suit states that in May 2016, Bennington Police began investigating Nelson after receiving a report from a school employee, and in June 2016 he was arrested and subsequently was arraigned ordered held until his trial.

He was convicted in June 2017 of three counts of sexual assault in the Bennington court.

Also listed as defendant entities are Vermont Permanency Initiative Inc. (which does business as Vermont School for Girls); Mount Prospect Academy Inc.; Becket Academy Inc., doing business as Becket Family of Services, and Bennington School Inc., which is the former corporate owner of the school, before the new ownership took over in 2013.

Jeffrey Caron, who is described in the suit as president of Mount Prospect Academy, did not return calls seeking comment.

Attorney Brannen could not be reached Monday for comment.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien     


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