The Boy Who Cried Rape

Though the trees along its walkways still stand bare of leaves, the glory of the Groton School is otherwise on full display this early spring morning. The Circle, as residents call the broad central lawn, sports a recent trim. The rambling brick buildings have been swept showroom clean; atop the bell tower, the golden dome gleams. Today is the annual “Revisit Day,” the day the school makes its pitch to prospective enrollees, but the campus's condition owes little to those special guests. Some homes get straightened up only when company is expected. Groton always looks like this.

After their 8 a.m. service in the Gothic chapel, well-scrubbed boys and girls in button-downs and khakis stroll over to the Schoolhouse for the daily roll call. While other students file past, Zeke Hawkins, a gangly, sandy-haired member of the senior class — or sixth form, in Groton's British-style system — pauses in the building's wood-paneled hallway. Tucked into his pocket is a sheet of paper. Three of his friends — Jake de Grazia, Brent Houck, and Alston Ramsay — huddle around him. They're imploring him not to carry out his threat.

The night before, when Zeke first told his friends about the speech he planned to make, they warned him it could backfire. Now they grow more blunt. Everyone might turn against you, they say. That's without considering the things they can't foresee: the lawsuit, the district attorney's investigation, the scandalous articles. They can't hear the voice of Barbara Walters shaming their alma mater on prime-time TV. Even in their teenage imaginations, they do not go that far.

For five minutes, Zeke's friends cajole him: “Please, please, please don't do this.” Zeke listens quietly, and they follow him into the assembly hoping their appeals worked. They know Zeke is not easily swayed. They have also never seen him so on edge.

Inside the large, rectangular room, light pours through a bank of picture windows. Students fidget at long rows of antique wrought-iron desks and lean against the walls; some are flanked by the applicants and parents they're hosting. Tipped off about Zeke's plan, seniors who normally skip this part of their schedules squeeze in. Roll call is always crowded. Today, it's packed.

The tolling of a bell brings the crowd to order.

In 1997, four Winchendon School students kick a fellow student so viciously he winds up in the hospital. Two years later, the captain of the Northfield Mount Hermon football team carves the word “HOMO,” in large block letters, into a classmate's back. Not long into the 2000 school year, four Deerfield boys reportedly attack a fellow student with coat hangers and plastic baseball bats. In time, what Zeke Hawkins says happened to him will be lumped with those incidents in articles about the hidden culture of New England's most prestigious boarding schools. Groton's reputation will suffer, and Zeke's friends will be left trying to comprehend how a controversy that began with a stupid high school prank took on a life of its own. Zeke will consider that question himself.

At Groton, the message is printed in the official brochure and repeated frequently at chapel lectures: Character matters, and every choice creates consequences. But, sometimes, right and wrong are not so clear. Zeke's story is about the conflagration caused when he saw sexual abuse where others witnessed horseplay, and a protective father spied a coverup in an institution's circumspection. It's about youthful idealism (and naiveté), parental pride (and pique), and the hubris that befalls those who believe they can do only good. It is not, as some reports have indicated, about the malevolent silencing of a critic — or, as Zeke's detractors claim, about coldly calculated revenge. As one former trustee has suggested, this plot owes less to Machiavelli than it does to the Bard — and in Groton a more appropriate stage could not have been found.

In 1884, the same year he was ordained as an Episcopal priest, a burly, 27-year-old Brahmin named Endicott Peabody established a school in the pastoral countryside 40 miles northwest of Boston. Though he named it after the nearby town, his inspiration was transatlantic: Peabody modeled his curriculum after legendary English “public schools” like Eton and Harrow. Members of the aristocracy soon enrolled their sons at Groton at birth, trusting Peabody to provide the groundwork “for the active work of life.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt graduated with the class of 1900; U.S. Ambassador W. Averell Harriman, actor Sam Waterston, senators, generals, Cabinet secretaries, CEOs, and bestselling authors followed.

As the school's renown swelled, so, too, did the mystique of its rituals. Most days still begin with an 8 a.m. chapel service. During the fall and spring terms, students dress for formal dinners. And every night at dorm check-in, they shake hands with the faculty member on duty. In 1977, the year before current headmaster William Polk took over, the school granted diplomas to its first female students, and enrollment started climbing toward the mid-300s. But Groton was reluctant to make other changes. When a wealthy parent offered to wire the campus to the Internet in the mid-1990s, the school turned him down.

This is the world Zeke Hawkins — math whiz, Connecticut doubles tennis champion — encounters when he attends Revisit Day in 1996. After two years at Darien High School, he's ready for boarding school and leaning toward Phillips Academy in Andover, his father's alma mater. But he has so much fun hanging out with his hosts — and hits it off so well with the other prospect bunking in their triple — that he changes his mind. Zeke heads home having met his future roommate. When he later elects to repeat his sophomore year, Groton adds another member to its class of 1999.

Zeke's parents, Peter and Phyllis Hawkins, pack his belongings into their Land Cruiser and deliver him to Groton. Two seniors are assigned to help them unload. Once Zeke is settled in, he heads off for a class meeting, and his mom and dad proceed to the headmaster's residence for a reception for parents of new students. “I know it will be hard,” Polk tells them. “But try not to call your children.”

The Hawkinses don't. But on his third night at Groton, Zeke calls them. He's crying. Three thoughts cross his father's mind: He's just homesick. It's not the end of the world. And I just plunked down more than $25,000. To comfort Zeke, the Hawkinses promise to visit him that weekend.

As his parents prepare for the return trip to Darien, Zeke lingers outside the car, stifling tears. “This is so unfair,” he mutters. As they pull away, Phyllis Hawkins ponders her son's odd choice of words.

When Zeke looks back on his first weeks at Groton, it won't be the water-drinking contests — last one to puke, wins — that bother him. The standard-fare hazing, he can handle. It's the twisted stuff that freaks him out. Before the teachers have begun assigning serious homework, guys are grabbing his genitals. In the dining hall, other boys pretend to make out. Then, several weeks into the term, a group of boys gangs up on him. Another night brings another gang, some of the faces the same. All belong to students returning to Groton for at least their second year. One of the ringleaders: a popular athlete and musician, the school's Golden Boy.

When they play their theme song — “Night on Disco Mountain,” from Saturday Night Fever — Zeke knows it's coming, and he has a few seconds to wonder if this will be one of what he'll later allege were the really bad nights, a night they'll pin him down, a tongue scraping his chest, a hand finding its way to the back of his boxers, fingers probing through the cloth. Zeke's a big kid — well over 6 feet tall — and at first he tries to fight back. But soon he figures out that they move on more quickly if you don't resist. By the time he's gone through this 10, 15 times, he has taught himself to go numb.

Other new boys will later claim that they, too, were targeted, but none complain to the faculty; the consensus holds that what they are victims of is nothing worse than a weird joke. Zeke doesn't know what to think: The behavior isn't consensual, but it also doesn't seem entirely mean-spirited. Weeks pass without another episode. Relieved, he puts the experience behind him.

At sporting events, Zeke's parents notice that he fails to return Golden Boy's pleasantries. “Zeke, aren't you going to say hello to him?” they ask. “I hate that kid. He's not what he seems,” says Zeke. He doesn't offer any further explanation.

Members of the faculty like Zeke. His Latin teacher appreciates his confidence and warm demeanor. In modern history class, he is commended in equal measure for his eagerness to debate controversial topics and his sense of humor. Yet some wonder how well he's fitting in. Tommy Sutro, who coaches the boys' lacrosse team, notices Zeke standing by himself at roll call, sees him walking around the Circle alone.

When Zeke finally starts spending more time with friends — and less poring over his books — the fact merits mention in the letter his adviser sends his parents at the close of the spring term. “It is the sense of the faculty that this drop in academic output is in large part the result of a positive development,” writes Jameson Morris: “namely, his discovery of a social life.” During Zeke's junior year, headmaster Polk appoints him as a student delegate to the board of trustees.

Though he sometimes has to be told to turn down his stereo or clean his room, Zeke's disciplinary record remains spotless well into his senior year. But impressions are easily changed. In the dining hall, the staff notices that Zeke's name has been scratched into one of the trays. Then it's a handful, then dozens, and before long there are few trays that don't bear his mark. Zeke knows who's responsible, but he refuses to turn the boys in.

Faculty members wonder about other things. Zeke quits the J.V. hockey team. He wants to travel to Montreal — far from adult supervision — over a long winter weekend. Then there's the way he dances at socials, which strikes them as a little too carefree; some teachers suspect that his gyrations must be alcohol-fueled. Zeke says he returns to his room one day to find a faculty member snooping under his bed. “We think you're the leader of the Groton underground,” another one tells him.

Shaking off sleep, the students shuffle into the chapel and settle into the rows of stiff-backed chairs. A solemn speech is followed by a moment of silent reflection. The congregation rises, opening hymnals in preparation for song. Clink. Clink. CLINK-CLINK-CLINK. The night before, someone had hidden pennies between the pages. The coins ricochet off the stone floor.

Oh, they are champion pranksters, these kids. If tradition teaches Groton students, year after year, to dump their backpacks, stuffed with textbooks, in piles outside the chapel, so, too, does it ensure that they will walk outside one morning to find that the bags have temporarily gone missing. As the night watchman slowly patrols the campus, seniors instruct younger students on the finer points of pegging his truck with tennis balls, stifling their giggles as his flashlight beam chases them through the darkness. Is there any way a sailboat, mast up, sails rigged, would fit in this classroom? A band of Groton students — median SAT score: 1370 — figures out how.

Or here's an idea: The four of us, all sophomores in Zeke's dorm, will set up a hidden camera and record what happens to an unsuspecting victim when one of us pretends to confide that he's gay! The first marks laugh when they watch the tape. Who's next? Golden Boy has been known to scold guys who use the word “gay” to describe anyone or anything they deem uncool. He'll probably have an amusing reaction.

When informed he's on candid camera, Golden Boy doesn't think it's funny at all. He storms off in search of his dorm head.

As a prefect, Zeke is in charge of the boys who pulled the stunt. He's also their friend. Considering the precedent for seniors' enticing younger students into mischief — and his own animosity toward Golden Boy — some people start to suggest that perhaps he masterminded the prank. That's vexing enough. But what really galls Zeke is that Golden Boy seems to have violated the unspoken code that binds Groton students.

While the code is subject to interpretation, its influence is undeniable. One year, students learn a dorm head is going away after the Milton Academy football game. When a student borrows a teacher's unlocked car — as usual, the keys are inside — and drives away to buy beer, the code gives him cover. When their intelligence on the faculty member proves inaccurate, and the party is busted, the code prompts those who slipped away before the rest were caught to turn themselves in. The administration also understands the code: Upon discovering a slanderous student-produced tabloid, they invoke it in demanding that the senior class unmask the anonymous authors.

Zeke confronts Golden Boy, who insists that while it wasn't his intention to get the pranksters in trouble, it's now out of his hands — other faculty members have found out, and the school's judicial system has already taken up the matter. At Groton, two strikes from the Discipline Committee means you're out, and, according to the code, it's not a student's place to broker clemency for his peers. But the code has already been broken. Zeke convenes the pranksters in his room. He tells them that if they go down, Golden Boy will, too.

Bill Polk has occupied this office for more than two decades. The room is big and bright, nearly as tall as it is wide. Like a cathedral or a courthouse, it can make a person feel small.

During his years on the Groton football team, Captain Polk reliably reported for the preseason in shape; an avid runner at 63, the headmaster remains a model of fitness. He has lived at Groton longer than he has lived anywhere else, and when classes are in session, he doesn't like to leave the campus, a predilection that hasn't prevented him from overseeing the most successful fundraising campaign in school history. A couple of years back, renegade trustees attempted to oust Polk and bring in fresh leadership. They failed. As he offers a perturbed Zeke Hawkins a chair, Polk enjoys the certainty of a headmaster who believes he'll keep his job until he's ready to retire.

Since the school's discipline committee found the candid camera pranksters guilty of “conduct unbecoming” a Groton student, Zeke has been stopping by a lot lately to appeal the verdict. But today, March 6, 1999, he is here to introduce a new argument.

Polk listens as Zeke describes the inappropriate ways he claims some boys have been touching other boys, which he contends did more to engender homophobia than his friends' ill-considered video. He listens as Zeke names names, raising allegations about Golden Boy and others. As Zeke goes on, Polk grows visibly upset.

Two days later, Zeke's parents sit down with Polk. Having heard their son's account, they fear for his safety and ask that he be allowed to leave early for spring break. They also expect Polk to contact them regarding the outcome of an upcoming faculty meeting; two other boys have come forward with their own allegations, and the administration is taking the situation very seriously.

Zeke's father, a financial planner who moonlights as coach of the Yale rugby squad, brings his family along on a team trip to Spain. They call their answering service to check for messages from Polk. There are none. On their first day back, they head to Boston for an appointment they have scheduled with attorney Laurence Hardoon.

When a lawyer specializes in child-abuse cases, he becomes intimate with the seediest neighborhoods of human nature. As an assistant district attorney, Hardoon successfully prosecuted the notorious Fells Acres child-molestation case; he's spent the nearly two decades since defending the interview techniques that produced horrific allegations from the 40 preschoolers who claimed they were mistreated at that Malden daycare center. He created Middlesex County's child-abuse division — handled everything from selecting an architect to hiring the staff — and when private practice beckoned, he teamed up with three other attorneys and built a firm from scratch. With his dark mustache and unyielding intensity, he bears resemblance to Jan Schlichtmann, the crusading attorney of A Civil Action fame.

Hardoon speaks with Zeke for more than two hours. After hearing Zeke's most serious accusations — about the fingers stuck into his rectum through his boxers — Hardoon introduces a new word into their conversation. The law doesn't care if the attackers never removed his underwear. According to the statutes, this isn't just horseplay. It isn't just sexual harassment. What it is, Hardoon tells him, is rape.

A letter of demands is drafted. It states that the parents of every male student ought to be notified. The parties involved, Hardoon writes, want a swift and thorough investigation and new awareness programs, and they want the perpetrators punished in accordance with school policies. After the letter is sent, Hardoon asks Peter and Phyllis Hawkins for their comments. They indicate that “licking of the face” should be added to the list of allegations.

On March 31, Zeke returns to Groton to find that Golden Boy is still there. The next day, Polk addresses his students: There have been reports, he says, about incidents in which personal boundaries have been disrespected, the line between grappling and groping crossed. Zeke feels that Polk is downplaying his allegations. But while he's quickly growing disillusioned with the school's response, he's not yet prepared to contact the D.A.'s office, the course of action his mother urges when the Hawkinses take Zeke to the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston for Easter brunch.

Zeke goes to see Polk again on April 5. He wants to know why, if it's customary to bring disciplinary actions to the attention of the student body, the punishments handed down on the alleged abusers have not yet been announced. He wants something to be said the next day — Revisit Day. Polk indicates he's not prepared to do that. “Fine,” says Zeke. “If you won't, I will.”

That afternoon at tennis practice, as prospective students are settling in for their Revisit Day stay, John Conner, Zeke's adviser and coach, tries to talk him out of his ultimatum. After dinner, Zeke tells his friends about his plan. Some of them try to dissuade him; others egg him on.

In the solitude of a phone booth in his dormitory, Zeke jots down a speech. He scratches out phrases, revising as he goes, his conversation with Hardoon informing the language of his accusations, a quick mental calculation inserting the number of alleged perpetrators and victims. When he finishes his draft, he calls his father to review it.

“Whatever you do, don't exaggerate,” his father says.

Zeke hears his friends' entreaties. Some of them maybe even make sense. But it's too late — he's on autopilot, locked on his target.

To make announcements at roll call, students have to enter their names on a list. Zeke finds the prefect in charge and writes down his name.

Sure, Polk could stop him right now. He could swoop in, improvise a comment or two — it might be awkward, but, just like that, he could snuff out the threat: Roll call adjourned.

But that's not Polk's style. So, instead, he stands back as Zeke, trembling, takes the microphone. “An announcement similar to this was going to be made on Thursday by the headmaster; however, I feel this announcement is more appropriate today,” he begins. “All of the following facts are indisputably true: At Groton School, over at least the past four years, a series of homosexual rapes and molestations has occurred. These incidents have included a minimum of 15 victims and a minimum of 15 rapists and molesters.

“Four and a half weeks ago,” he continues, “three victims came forth to the school with the crimes. All that has happened is that a letter has been sent to the home of one of the rapists along with a mark on his record. This at a school where students are more severely punished for having a friend of the opposite sex in their dorm room or possession of one unprescribed pill of Ritalin. These rapists and molesters still attend Groton School and are in charge of younger students.”

Zeke doesn't wait for his audience's reaction. As he rushes out the door, Polk assures the room that an investigation is already under way. His rebuttal competes with the rising din.

Three days after Zeke's announcement, Polk composes a letter to parents; like his remarks to students, it talks about allegations of “groping.” The Hawkinses set up a meeting for April 15, stipulating that they'd like the president of the board of trustees, Hardwick Simmons, to attend. Simmons has known Polk since they were classmates at Groton; during their senior year, he caught a touchdown pass from Polk in the big win over Boston's English High. In his office at Prudential — where he led the brokerage out of a massive fraud scandal — he keeps a stuffed pillow from his alma mater. If the Hawkins family would like a few words with him, he's happy to oblige.

Simmons, Polk, and the school's attorney, John Regan of Hale & Dorr, gather in a conference room in Hale & Dorr's State Street headquarters. Across the table sit Hardoon and the Hawkinses; they are joined by another set of parents whose son has also brought allegations to Polk. Peter Hawkins opens by outlining his family's grievances. The other parents add theirs. They're told that the school's internal investigation — they had suggested outside experts — has determined that 280 out of the 299 students surveyed had neither witnessed nor experienced abuse at the school. The Hawkinses think Zeke and the other boys who came forward deserve to be publicly commended.

Though his exact words will eventually fade, the sting of what Simmons says next will stay with the Hawkinses for years to come. They'll claim that his first response is an expression of empathy. As a father, he says, he understands their concerns. He emphasizes that he doesn't feel any boys are currently at risk. And then he mentions he has information that the Hawkinses might not want the other parents to hear. We don't mind, they say. Go ahead. So Simmons produces an account of a wrestling match that ended with the victor, Zeke, licking the chin of the boy he pinned.

For the rest of the three-hour meeting, Simmons does most of the talking. When lunch is served, Phyllis Hawkins notices that Polk seems to dive for the food.

The Hawkinses had already heard the chin-licking story, and they know how ashamed it makes Zeke; he revealed it when they asked him if there was any incriminating information Groton might dig up from his past. But that forewarning doesn't blunt the jab. It was bad enough that a faculty member cornered Zeke the night after his announcement, berating him for nearly an hour. It hurt when their son told them that students were spreading rumors or standing up and leaving when he sat down at their tables. Now, the school is doubting his integrity, scrutinizing his behavior? Growing up in the bedroom community of Bogota, New Jersey, the son of a Golden Gloves candidate turned indomitable minister, Peter Hawkins developed a distaste for bullies. Simmons's insinuation lingers like a fat lip, stoking his fury.

Following the meeting with Simmons, Zeke sits down with Polk several more times. He clings to the chance that the candid camera pranksters might still be absolved, and for a moment he believes Polk will finally yield. But on April 19, Polk ends their discussions: As far as he's concerned, the case is closed.

Dejected, Zeke calls his parents and tells them he wants to leave Groton. This time, Peter Hawkins doesn't hesitate. He arrives on campus before nightfall, buys dinner for a group of Zeke's friends at a nearby hamburger joint, then helps Zeke gather his belongings. He is taking his boy home.

Four days later, Peter Hawkins faxes Polk to request his son's diploma, reminding him that Zeke is a fifth-year senior. A package containing assignments Zeke must finish arrives at their house. Zeke refuses to complete the homework and instead sends Polk a letter stressing that he plans to attend graduation with his class.

A few days before donning their embroidered Groton blazers and straw boaters for Prize Day, the school's senior class gets together for a cruise on Boston Harbor. They dance wildly, without inhibition. They dance as Zeke would have.

Zeke's parents arrange for him to receive a diploma from Darien High School. From his home office, Peter Hawkins fires off letters to Polk and the trustees. To the editor of the school paper, blaming him for omitting Zeke's name from the class roster. To every Groton parent for whom he can find an address.

It is August 2001. Zeke's charges — and his father's subsequent missives — have led to articles in the New York papers, but, for the most part, the school's public relations consultant has been able to stave off a media frenzy. Peter Hawkins points out to reporters that two of Zeke's supporters, both juniors with prior disciplinary records when the controversy broke, failed to survive Groton's annual “spring cleaning” and were not invited back for their senior years. “Not one kid stood up publicly and said Zeke is right and shame on the school. Where is everybody else? The only conclusion I can reach is that it could not have happened the way Zeke said it did,” the school's spokeswoman responds, and then asks for the next question. Publications including Newsweek poke around but hold off on publishing stories. Zeke is due to enter his junior year at Brown.

Then, on the day before the statute of limitations is scheduled to expire, Zeke files a complaint against the Groton School in Middlesex Superior Court, alleging negligence. The story spreads across the country over the Associated Press wire. A 20/20 segment, on the shelf for months, is slotted into ABC's schedule.

In July of this year, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts orders Groton to turn over internal documents. A grand jury wants to review the files in an effort to determine whether the state Department of Social Services was properly notified about the allegations of sexual abuse involving minors. Another cycle of bad press ensues.

A former trustee reads the news report and wonders if this story might have ended differently for Groton. He puzzles over why the school could not — or would not — mollify the Hawkinses. Then he recalls a conversation he once had with one of its older teachers, who told him, “When you're on the top of Everest, a step in any direction is a step down.” Offering a settlement, he surmises, is not the Groton way.

A grand jury ruling is possible soon; the Hawkinses expect an indictment, while the school feels confident it will be cleared. Hardoon has deferred further action on Zeke's civil suit pending the outcome of that investigation. Meanwhile, Moody's Investors Service is evaluating how the school's finances would be affected by a potential indictment or expensive jury award. Simmons has gone on to become CEO of the NASDAQ exchange. And Polk has decided that next June, at the end of his 25th year as headmaster, he will finally step down. He insists his resignation has nothing to do with the ongoing controversy. “I think Polk's sense of self is that he's the keeper of the flame, the carrier of the torch that's been handed down by Endicott Peabody,” the former trustee says. “If there's a tragedy here, it's that you've got this aging monarch — and that's a good analogy for Polk — who has this strong set of values that turn out not to be particularly adaptive to today's world.”

In a busy restaurant on Providence's College Hill, Zeke Hawkins picks at his sandwich and talks about regret. His Groton classmate Jake de Grazia also attends Brown, but Zeke is no longer in touch with his other friends from boarding school. “My friends have somehow convinced themselves that I'm not the same person that I was during my first two and a half years at Groton,” he says. “That's been one of the really hard parts for me.” Then there's that word, that radioactive word, and the damage it caused once he'd released it. “What makes me uncomfortable is the word rape,” says Zeke. For a lot of people, he says, “that connotes things that didn't happen.”

There is much that Zeke would change about what happened during his final year at Groton, but the choice he would not take back is the one that sparked the chain reaction. He felt his friends were being treated unfairly. So he took a stand, believing he could force an institution to confront its flaws. “There are two ways to look at the world,” says Zeke. The first view — Groton's view — is that you are great because of what you have done. “The second,” he says, “is that you are great because of what you are about to do.”