For decades, former students at a northwest Georgia boarding school harbored a secret.
Each says he was sexually abused by a teacher at the Darlington School in Rome – and that the school failed to stop it.
A judge’s ruling last week will allow the secrets to be aired in public. Superior Court Judge Adele Grubbs rejected Darlington’s request to dismiss a lawsuit filed by 17 former students who allege they were molested by teacher Roger Stifflemire during the 1970s and 1980s. Stifflemire, now retired and living in Alabama, has denied the allegations.
Grubbs’ ruling upheld the constitutionality of Georgia’s Hidden Predator Act, which opened a window for victims of decades-old sexual abuse to file lawsuits even though the normal statute of limitations had long since expired. At the same time, the ruling recognized that the former students have valid claims under other state laws.
“It upholds exactly what we’ve been saying from the beginning,” said Darren Penn, a lawyer for the former students.
Grubbs ruled that nine of the former students filed Hidden Predator Act claims within the two years allowed by the law. Eight missed the window to join in those claims.
However, Grubbs allowed all 17 to pursue other claims against Stifflemire and Darlington, including that the school engaged in fraud and racketeering by promising a “safe and secure environment” and by failing to act when it learned of the abuse allegations.
Many of the students reported their abuse to faculty or school administrators at the time, Grubbs wrote. But the response was “to do nothing and let the situation continue or (to) threaten the student that they could get in trouble from making the accusations.” Some students were physically disciplined over their allegations, Grubbs said.
Most of the 17 former students – men now in their 40s and 50s – came forward after a 2017 story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution detailed allegations against Stifflemire. Nine of the 17 joined the lawsuit anonymously. One plaintiff is the mother of former student Charles Mark Day, who killed himself in 2016. In a suicide note, Day said he had notified officials about Stifflemire’s abuse but was threatened with “a lot of trouble” if he told others.
Darlington has defended the actions of administrators and other employees from past decades, many of whom have died or moved to other schools.
“Darlington has not taken these allegations lightly,” the school’s lawyer, Bob Berry, said in a recent court hearing in Rome, according to the Rome News-Tribune.
In an interview Monday, Berry said the school hired a law firm to investigate the allegations in 2017 to “find out as much as we could.” The school has not released a report on the investigation, but he said the findings will assist in responding to the lawsuit.
Darlington has not decided whether to appeal Grubbs’ ruling, Berry said.
Several former students who attended the recent court hearing said they were pleased with Grubbs’ ruling. But every proceeding in the case dredges up memories.
Chris Gaba, a 1981 Darlington graduate, said that as a freshman, “I was selected, groomed, manipulated, coerced and lured into a situation that no child should ever have to endure.” In the years since then, he said, “Darlington School has tried every tactic possible to not take responsibility for what they have done and not done.”
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