Southbank teacher accused of molestation

When Kaia Skillman (’16) attended Southbank International School, she didn’t think much about the rumors she heard of incidents involving her male classmates on school trips. “I remember hearing jokes of kids waking [up] – then it all seemed normal – but kids waking up and being like, ‘It’s so weird that my underwear is on backwards,’” she said.

Now, in the wake of her former history teacher William Vahey’s suicide after allegations of child molesting, Skillman must revisit and piece together events that seemed unimportant to her at the time.

Vahey, who taught at Southbank from 2009-2013, was one of Skillman’s “favorite teachers” in what is a very small and tight-knit community. While mixed in gender, the school was personal due to a small  class size, creating a net of safety and comfort for its students. This perception of safety was shattered for many, including Skillman, when the reasons for Vahey’s death and the FBI investigation against him were brought to light.

Vahey reportedly admitted to molesting over 90 12 to 14-year-old boys whom he taught at various international schools, dating from 2008 to 2012. The news of the allegations against Vahey shocked both the current students and alumni of the Southbank community. “I thought my brother was joking when he [told me] what happened especially because Vahey was such a beloved teacher,” Skillman said.

What is most perplexing about Vahey’s story was that in 1969 he was jailed for child molestation in California. Moving multiple times internationally, Vahey’s jail record was not communicated. He was soon able to re-enter the workforce, teaching at several prestigious international schools.

Vahey’s access to students ended when a housekeeper in his home in Nicaragua found a USB drive, which she gave to the administration of the American Nicaraguan School (ANS), where he was teaching, on March 11. The USB, which contained pornographic images of boys sleeping, had captions of the date and location where the photos were taken.

When Vahey was asked about the USB drive by ANS administration on March 11, he admitted to molesting the boys as well as to drugging them with sleeping pills so he could molest them. Eight days later, he committed suicide in Minnesota after learning of an FBI investigation into his actions.

Because Vahey drugged students with sleeping pills before molesting them, the unknown is what is most troubling for Southbank students. Counselor Stephanie Oliver has previous experience dealing with cases of sexual assault. Through practice, Oliver has come to find that sexual assault and the age when it occurs are inextricably intertwined. “There are signs when children are very young that you can pick up on that indicate sexual abuse, but at this age- level people are verbal and insightful,” she said. “Usually we find out about sexual abuse at this age level because people said that [sexual abuse]  happened to them,” Oliver said.

The sleeping pills given to the victims by Vahey take away the process that normal sexual abuse victims go through, as described by Oliver. Usually, affected students can reveal to a trusted person that they have been taken advantage of. Instead, victims are being told they have been molested. “I think what’s really scary about the drugs is that there are people wondering more if it happened to them, there’s this uncertainty,” Oliver said.

While some students were shocked after Vahey’s years of sexual abuse were uncovered, the joke between Maria-Jose Nebreda (’15) and her friends at Southbank was that their history teacher, Vahey, was a little “creepy.” “Everyone used to make jokes about him being creepy,” Nebreda said. “He was a really nice and a fun teacher, but no one ever stopped saying he was creepy.”

Doing the math, Nebreda realized that, her teacher had most likely assaulted many male members of her class. “Southbank is a really small school and to find out that he had around 90 pictures [total of students found on his USB]… that’s about 80 percent of the male population.”

With a school as small as Southbank, which has just over 300 students, there is cause for worry that a serial child molester like Vahey was able to slip under the radar. However, in a 2010 assessment of Southbank by the Independent Schools Inspectorate, action points for the school to comply to, with regulatory requirements included, “An enhanced criminal record check is made by the proprietor in respect of any person employed at the school and that any enhanced criminal record certificate which is the subject of the application is obtained before or as soon as practicable after the appointment.”

The report also noted that, “Some staff recruitment procedures were not followed fully.”

Andrew Skow (’17), who attended Southbank from 2008 to 2010, believes that 100 percent of the blame should be placed on the school, citing what he sees as an improper background check on Vahey. “From my experience there, I personally didn’t think that, as a school, it was necessarily up to the educational standards which it should be. Especially when compared to other schools I’ve been to, such as ACS Hillingdon and ASL, the differences are astronomical,” Skow said. “If I were to expect one of the three schools [where this would have happened] it would definitely be Southbank.”

While Nebreda believes it is not Southbank’s fault that Vahey was able to commit these acts while teaching at the school, she does believe that the school is, “Not regulated at all. Anything could have happened at that school,” she said. “It could have been really obvious and they still wouldn’t have done anything about it. They really don’t have any sense of structure in general.”

Before information as to why he died was uncovered, Vahey was so well-liked that a potential “Vahey Award” was discussed; it would celebrate students of the highest academic calibre at Southbank.  “It’s kind of strange because the person that I met as a teacher seems completely different from this man who is the predator,” Skillman said. “He seems like the biggest predator of this century.”

Similarly, when Ariel Calver (’16), a former student of Vahey’s found out that he had been molesting Southbank boys, she felt “physically sick” with shock.

Because of the positive character that Vahey exuded in the classroom, Calver found it difficult to accept that a teacher, whom she felt safe with, could have violated so many students. “He was such a charismatic, nice guy, so it’s hard because you think back and try to remember him as that guy, but then you have to realize there’s this other side of him,” she said.

Head of School Coreen Hester recognizes that people like Vahey are able to isolate a side of themselves and lead a completely normal life, with separate intentions unknown to others. “Unfortunately, the people who do these vile acts are often very good at disguising who they are. My understanding is that they can also compartmentalize so they can have one identity and one role and behave differently in another role,” she said.

Hester found out about Vahey’s death through the Chairman of the Board of European Council of International Schools (ECIS), an organization that Vahey’s wife was the Executive Director of.

For Hester, Vahey’s case strikes home as she is responsible for the safety of all ASL students. “You have to do your best to make sure you’re guarding the safety of every student in the school,” Hester said. “This just represents a nightmarish violation of the expectation the parents have and a horrific realization that a school might have hired someone who could do this to children.”

In a report sent out to ASL parents following the incident, Hester affirmed that ASL was doing all that it possibly could to prevent a similar situation. This includes “continually reviewing our policies and practice to ensure that we are doing everything we can to secure the welfare of our students” by “promot[ing] a culture of vigilance.”

Additionally, Hester cited a 2013 Ofsted report which praised ASL for its “very effective systems [that] are in place to ensure the suitability of staff.”

Some students, including Nebreda, believe a situation of this magnitude could never happen at ASL. “There [have] been so many instances where ASL would have stepped in and said something. For example, the teacher made someone sleep in the same room as him. There had been a parent who complained and then they didn’t do anything about it,” Nebreda said. “ASL would never let this happen.”

However, in 2005 ASL dismissed a Lower School teacher after what Hester describes as “a very serious case of this kind of behavior which resulted in the teacher being fired, convicted, and serving a jail sentence.”

In response to Nebreda, Hester added, “A bad thing can happen in any school, you hope against hope that it never happens under your watch,” furthering the case that these situations are often impossible to predict.

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