Teen was sexually abused at therapeutic boarding school, lawsuit says as parents advocate oversight

Jul 27, 2023, 9:00 PM

A lawsuit is seen on Thursday, July 27, 2023, in Atlanta. The parents of a teenager with special needs say he was repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped by an employee at the small private boarding school in South Carolina. They have sued the school's parent company, which has denied the allegations. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

A teenager with special needs was repeatedly sexually assaulted by an employee at a small private boarding school in South Carolina, his parents said in a lawsuit as they advocate for more oversight of similar therapeutic facilities.

The teen, who attended Whetstone Academy between October 2018 and January 2020, was “frequently sexually assaulted” and raped beginning when he was 14, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit accuses Singleton Investment Properties, the school’s parent company, of negligence and failure to reasonably protect the teenager. The company denies the allegations.

The parents are identified anonymously in the lawsuit filed in April as Mother Doe and Father Doe and their son as John Doe. The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually abused and is not naming the parents to avoid revealing their son’s identity.

The parents previously sued the school and in January reached a confidential settlement. But they said they hope to bring about broad change and accountability by going after the corporate structure in this subsequent suit.

The judge earlier this month indicated a trial would likely be held next spring, but has ordered the two sides to participate in mediation to see if a settlement can be reached before then.

“We’re really hoping there’s some systematic change, some legislation enacted and real accountability here,” the Does’ attorney, Tyler Bailey, told the AP.

Therapeutic boarding schools like Whetstone should be regulated similarly to state-licensed daycare centers, with complaints tracked and publicly accessible, to the extent possible, Baily said.

“Money is one thing but change so parents and children don’t go through what they have gone through, that’s what they’re seeking to get done by this case,” Bailey said.

John Singleton Jr., who owns Singleton Investment Properties and Whetstone Academy, said in an email, “We specifically deny the allegations.” The company also denied the allegations in a court filing earlier this month.

Once the school learned of the allegations from the South Carolina Department of Social Services, the employee was immediately suspended and the school fully cooperated with an investigation by the state agency. Since the agency took no action and no criminal investigation was undertaken or charges filed, the employee was reinstated and has returned to work at the school, Singleton said.

The employee is not named in the lawsuit.

“Whetstone Academy’s focus was, is, and always will be on ensuring that every student is cared for in a safe and nurturing environment with close supervision and stringent staff oversight,” Singleton wrote. “Students receive individual and family therapy by our licensed clinicians. We provide evidence-based training for our staff who are guided by our policies and procedures.”

The Does, who live in Alabama, said their son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was young. By age 14, he was having several outbursts a day, breaking things and emotionally troubled, the father said in a phone interview. An educational consultant suggested sending him to a therapeutic boarding school for extra care and therapy.

Whetstone Academy, in the remote Mountain Rest community in the northwest corner of South Carolina, takes students in grades five through nine and was one of the schools suggested by the consultant.

The teen initially seemed to be making progress at the school, but after about 10 months his behavior was so difficult that the parents were advised to send him to a different facility for more intensive treatment, the father said. After a summer in that facility, he returned to Whetstone.

“He stayed there for a little while, but he realized that if he acted out, he would get kicked out and he did,” the mother said. “Thank God he did.”

The Does then sent their son to a school in Utah. After about six months there, his parents flew him to a resort in Georgia for a vacation. At dinner one night, John Doe told his parents he had been sexually assaulted numerous times and raped by an employee at Whetstone, his mother said.

The Does called their son’s therapist at the Utah school for advice. Bound by mandatory reporting requirements, the therapist contacted authorities, who interviewed the teenager and said they notified South Carolina authorities to investigate, the father said.

South Carolina’s social services agency doesn’t license therapeutic boarding schools, but spokesperson Connelly-Anne Ragley said in an email that the agency investigates upon receiving reports of sexual abuse involving minors. Any sexual abuse allegation sent to the agency’s intake line would be reported to law enforcement within 24 hours as required by state law, she said.

The Department of Social Services told the AP that information about child abuse investigations is confidential and not releasable under the state’s open records law.

The sheriff’s office in Oconee County, where Whetstone is located, only conducts criminal investigations when an official report is filed and, in most cases, sexual assault prosecutions require the victim’s cooperation, Master Deputy Jimmy Watt said in an email.

He said the agency had no records related to any allegations against the employee accused of sexually abusing John Doe. A State Law Enforcement Division spokesperson said that agency has not been involved.

The Does want to make sure cases like their son’s are referred to law enforcement for thorough investigation and don’t fall through the cracks. They haven’t filed a report with South Carolina law enforcement because they don’t trust authorities in the small, insular community to investigate, their lawyer said.

John Doe, now 18, is still mistrustful at times and it has taken years for his parents to repair their relationship with him, they said. They’ve talked to him about how pursuing this case could result in people finding out what happened to him, his mother said.

“He’s the bravest kid I’ve ever met because he said, ‘I don’t care. This is all about helping others, Mom,’” she said.

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Teen was sexually abused at therapeutic boarding school, lawsuit says as parents advocate oversight