Should Shattuck-St. Mary's have told police about accused teacher's child pornography in 2003?
by Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
June 10, 2013
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Nick Stoneman arrived in 2003 determined to save Shattuck-St. Mary's. His job was to turn this hockey powerhouse in the small southern Minnesota town of Faribault into an elite prep school.
Shattuck-St. Mary's was struggling. It had lost about $2 million a year for two years straight. Student enrollment was flat, and the boarding school had been without a permanent head of school for two years.
Yet at the hockey rink, it was hard to imagine anything was wrong. Future superstar Sidney Crosby had just led the school to a national championship. And Shattuck athletes, including current Minnesota Wild player Zach Parise, were eagerly awaiting the NHL draft.
Shattuck-St. Mary had ''nothing short of tremendous potential,'' Stoneman wrote in his first piece published in the school magazine.
He urged the school to take inspiration in the months ahead from the school's tenacious founder, Episcopal Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple, who ''came to a frontier town called Faribault and nurtured the seeds of the School that were planted in 1858.''
Days into the job, however, Stoneman was confronted with a problem. There was child pornography on teacher Lynn Seibel's computer. The discovery couldn't have been a surprise to everyone at Shattuck-St Mary's. School officials had overlooked red flags about Seibel's behavior, according to documents and interviews.
Seibel was hired in 1992 despite a criminal conviction for lewd conduct in 1989. Two years later, the school allowed the new teacher to bring a film crew on campus to shoot a soft-porn movie called ''Embrace of the Vampire.'' In the fall of 2000, a teacher told the head of school that he discovered a naked dance party led by Seibel in a boys' dormitory. Then in May 2001, the school investigated allegations of sexual misconduct by Seibel but said it found no evidence to support the claims.
The discovery of child pornography in July of 2003 was serious. The school now had evidence that a teacher may have broken the law. Moreover, school officials suddenly were aware of what legal experts and law enforcement consider evidence of child sexual abuse.
Stoneman, though, did not contact police. The school said it consulted its lawyers and decided that the child pornography on Seibel's computer ''did not trigger a reporting requirement.'' In addition, the school said it investigated and considered Seibel's claim that the pictures were popping up beyond his control.
By not telling police the school likely avoided a firestorm. An investigation may have angered donors and frightened parents. It also may have led to questions from police about whether Seibel was sexually abusing students.
Seibel was quietly forced out on August 7, 2003. The child pornography found on Seibel's computer would remain a secret for nearly a decade.
TEN YEARS LATER
Meanwhile, Stoneman, the new head of the school, increased student enrollment by nearly 50 percent in nine years and raised millions of dollars to fund new programs and strengthen Shattuck-St. Mary's endowment. In 2011, the board of trustees nearly doubled his annual compensation to $411,708.
A criminal investigation of Seibel ended in October 2012. The former teacher was charged in Rice County with 17 felony counts for the alleged sexual abuse of six male students at Shattuck-St. Mary's from 1999 to 2003 and possession of child pornography in 2003. He now lives in a Burnsville hotel awaiting trial.
Police said they still don't know whether Seibel took photos of any Shattuck-St. Mary's students. The school called the images ''unrelated to our community'' in a statement the day Seibel was charged.
The school is certain to face lawsuits, especially since the state Legislature passed a law last month that allows victims of child sexual abuse more time to bring claims as adults. Attorney Jeff Anderson, who has represented hundreds of victims of clergy sex abuse, said last month he plans to sue Shattuck-St. Mary's on behalf of students who say they were abused by Seibel.
Many of the students said they blamed themselves and didn't understand what happened for years, according to Anderson, police and statements in the criminal complaint.
Stoneman wouldn't agree to an interview. A communications consultant and the school's lawyers answered few questions via email from MPR News.
THE LEGAL DEBATE
The criminal charges against the former teacher also bring questions about how school leaders dealt with Seibel in difficult situations, among them: Should Stoneman have told the police what was on Lynn Seibel's computer?
Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen said everyone should report child pornography, and Shattuck-St. Mary's is no exception.
''I certainly believe that they should've called us in 2003, absolutely, and I certainly think that this is information we wanted to have,'' Bohlen said.
The images are important to police because they are evidence of child sexual exploitation, he said. ''It's a sickness and it victimizes our children, and we want to know about it.''
State law requires education professionals and other ''mandated reporters'' to call law enforcement or a local welfare agency within 72 hours if they think a child is currently being sexually abused or was sexually abused at any point in the past three years. State law requires reports of any abuse in the past 10 years for cases involving more than one child being abused by a non-family member.
The law defines child sexual abuse as rape, prostitution, or the use of a child to create pornography. Any educator who ''knows or has reason to believe'' a child is being abused in any of those ways is required to report it.
That includes possession of child pornography, argued Mark Shaw, the director of Rice County Social Services. ''We would be concerned about child sexual abuse and wanting to follow up on that as quickly as possible,'' he said.
Lawyers for Shattuck-St. Mary's said the school wasn't required to report the images in this case because the law does not say that possession of child pornography itself is sexual abuse.
''We understand that not everyone will agree with the judgment that we made and we respect that difference of opinion,'' the school said.
Two leading child sexual abuse attorneys who reviewed the public records of the case and the school's statements to MPR News said anyone who kept the images and anyone at the school who knew of the child pornography took a substantial legal risk by not reporting.
''This isn't the 1950s. This was happening recently...'' said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York who represents two victims of child sexual abuse at Penn State. Because they didn't report the child pornography, Hamilton believes, ''they're going to be in tremendous amount of trouble'' and there should be an investigation.
James Marsh, an attorney in New York who represents victims of child pornography in federal court said the school should have reported the images.
"Tucking it away for 10 years ... prevented law enforcement from investigating crimes that may have taken place by Mr. Seibel no matter where he was in the last 20, 30 years."
Prosecutors have three years to file charges against anyone at the school who may have known about child sexual abuse and didn't report it, which means it's unlikely anyone at Shattuck-St. Mary's who failed to report alleged abuse by Seibel could be charged, said Paul Beaumaster, the Rice County Attorney.
Other possible charges, like possession of child pornography and obstruction of justice, can still be filed.
It's still unclear what happened to Seibel's computer after 2003--or where it is today.
The school said it doesn't know what happened to the hard drive but last year gave police a ''record of the images'' discovered on Seibel's computer by an outside firm hired to perform a forensic analysis and a copy of the firm's report.
State investigators who looked at the material last year confirmed the images were ''without question illegal child pornography.''
Companies that investigate an employee usually try to document the problem and gather evidence of it. But federal law requires employers take a different approach in cases of child pornography.
In Marsh's view, ''The only defense to the possession of child pornography is that you immediately turn it over to the police. There's no exception for a school.''
Unlike allegations of an event or second-hand rumor, child pornography is direct evidence of child sexual abuse. Marsh compared it to finding cocaine at work and deciding with a friend to keep it in a safe. ''When the police break down your door and find the kilo of cocaine in your safe," Marsh said, ''(saying) 'we didn't think we had to report it, it's just sitting in the safe,' that's not going to save us from a significant prison term.''
Beaumaster disagrees with Marsh and Hamilton about what the law requires. He said he doesn't have evidence the school broke any laws in its handling of child pornography. The school likely did not know what was on the computer before it was sent to the private company, he said, so no one at the school should be charged with possession.
Once the school learned of the child pornography, Beaumaster said, he also doesn't think the school was legally required to tell police. ''There was no obligation there for them to report that, other than a moral one, which I think they should've,'' he said.
SEPARATING FROM SEIBEL
By 2003, Seibel had been teaching drama at Shattuck-St. Mary's for 11 years. He was known as gregarious and eccentric. The 61-year-old teacher regaled colleagues with stories from his time as a Hollywood actor.
Seibel pushed boundaries, though, and didn't mind if students got drunk or broke curfew, said former colleagues. Students viewed Seibel's behavior as strange, the criminal complaint said.
One year earlier, a student who had been caught drinking told a school official about what he believed to be inappropriate behavior by Seibel and threatened to tell the media, a source told MPR News. But the student reached an agreement to stay quiet if he wasn't punished, the source said.
Seibel's popularity was declining. The academic dean, Martin Thompson, wanted Seibel to leave, said Seth Hedderick, who was the assistant upper school director in 2003.
''In a certain sense, luckily this happened, because I'm not sure they could have gotten rid of him without something like that,'' Hedderick said.
Seibel's months-long exit began in May 2003 when he packed up his school computer and took it to the technology department for repair.
The school's tech workers found sexually explicit images of adults, the school said. School administrators confronted Seibel and said he violated the school's code of conduct and might be fired. Seibel threatened to sue and hired an attorney. He said someone else must have used his computer to look at porn, the school said.
However, rather than fire Seibel right away, the school sent the hard drive to be forensically examined by Databank Services in Austin, Texas, according to Beaumaster, the Rice County prosecutor. In July, Databank Services told the school it found child pornography--thousands of images, investigators would report nine years later.
Seibel objected. He blamed a ''pop-up infestation'' and told the school he didn't intentionally download the images. He did, however, confess to looking at adult pornography, the school said.
Still, the school did not immediately fire Seibel. It considered whether Seibel may have been telling the truth about the child pornography.
''Certain information uncovered during the investigation appeared to provide some corroboration for Mr. Seibel's assertion regarding the pop-ups,'' the school said.
Finally, Shattuck-St. Mary's ''completed the process that ended Mr. Seibel's employment in August 2003,'' the school said.
Wes Goodwin, the owner of Databank Services, declined to talk about Shattuck-St. Mary's, citing company policy on confidentiality.
He said that his company reports child pornography to the Austin Police Department but could work with an attorney representing the client, as well. ''There could be various ways to report it.''
Neither the Austin Police Department nor the FBI has records of any report made by Databank Services about child pornography in 2003. The Faribault Police Department also has no report.
Goodwin wouldn't say what happened. ''First of all, I don't have any recollection, and asking questions about a case that long ago, and number two, I'm not at liberty to discuss particular cases.''
BOARD INVOLVEMENT UNCLEAR
The school wouldn't say whether Stoneman told Shattuck-St. Mary's board about Seibel's computer. Emails and phone messages from MPR News to the 25 board members went mostly unanswered.
The board chair at the time, Linda Dasher, did not respond to interview requests. One former board member said the school told them not to talk with an MPR News reporter.
Three former board members did agree to interviews. None could recall anyone at the school telling the board of child pornography on Seibel's computer.
''I did know that there was pornography on there, but I did not know that it was child pornography,'' said William Scheel, who left his position as board president at the end of June 2003 but stayed on as a trustee.
He declined to say how he learned the school found pornography. ''This is getting into a kind of area that I may have to be in court about,'' he said. Scheel wouldn't say whether the board knew of the school's consultation with attorneys, the forensic company, or Seibel's threat of legal action.
He also wouldn't say whether he thinks the school should have called the police. ''That's a matter of opinion, and I don't want to go there at this point,'' Scheel said.
''PORNOGRAPHY WAS EVERYWHERE''
After Seibel left Shattuck-St. Mary's, he found a job in Rhode Island as an acting instructor at a company that worked with children, according to his resume. He later moved to Hollywood to resume his acting career, landing a role on ''The Big Bang Theory'' as a naked professor who was fired for inappropriate sexual behavior at an employee Christmas party.
It's possible that no one else would have learned what may have happened at Shattuck-St. Mary's while Seibel was a teacher there.
Then, last year, the revelation of alleged abuse emerged almost by chance when a former Shattuck-St. Mary's student who had been convicted of a sex crime told a corrections officer he had been sexually abused by Seibel.
The officer called the Faribault Police Department, and detectives responded with an investigation that lasted months and sent them around the country interviewing former students. Many were reluctant to talk because they feared a scandal would ruin the school.
Police also executed a search warrant at Shattuck-St. Mary's, according to the prosecutor.
The former students, now in their late 20s and early 30s, described how Seibel held naked dance parties and group masturbation sessions in the boys' dormitory. Police said Seibel also sexually abused three boys when they were alone.
Pornography was everywhere, the former students said. Seibel would play pornographic videos while boys masturbated, according to the criminal complaint.
One man told police that Seibel would even watch pornography in a classroom with students. Another said Seibel approached him and tried to talk him into getting into acting in pornographic movies. ''Basically you could just get the roster of the dorm when I was there ...'' one man told police, ''Everyone was involved in this.''
Faribault police and state investigators traveled to North Hollywood, Calif., in August to execute a search warrant at Seibel's apartment.
They found sexually explicit images of boys on a computer in his bedroom, according to detectives. Seibel was booked into the Los Angeles County Jail and charged with possession of child pornography. Los Angeles prosecutor Samer Hathout said she later dropped the charge to speed Seibel's extradition to Minnesota.
During the search of his apartment, Seibel recorded an interview with police in his bathroom. He confessed to measuring boys' genitals with a ruler, holding group masturbation sessions, and touching boys' genitals while at Shattuck-St. Mary's.
''There were times when I did inappropriately touch, and it was stupid, it was stupid on my part,'' he said.
But Seibel denied having child pornography. Seibel told police he left the school ''because there had been talk'' of his sexual behavior involving students. He said he told school personnel, ''Basically what I'm telling you, except I didn't tell them about touching anybody,'' according to the complaint.
Seibel also said that interim head of school Dennis Brown even once told him, ''Lynn, you're a sick man. You need to do something about it'' and said he should ''get help,'' Seibel told police.
Three months ago, in an interview at the Rice County Jail, Seibel said he's not guilty. The slight 71-year-old man said he misses being a teacher at Shattuck-St. Mary's. ''It's a wonderful school. They've done a great job.''
Seibel wouldn't say who confronted him in 2003 about pornography on his computer. He also wouldn't explain the extent of any conversations with Stoneman. ''Nick Stoneman is a very good man,'' he said.
Seibel declined to say why Brown, the interim head of school, called him a ''sick man'' or whether a former head of school confronted him about naked dance parties.
''They're all very good men who did a very good job,'' he said.