One Survivor’s Quest to End Sexual Assault at Schools

As a high school freshman, Jamie Forbes was sexually abused by a male teacher at Milton Academy, the elite school that sits on the land his Brahmin family donated. Now he’s out for justice—and to change the culture at private schools in Boston and beyond for good.

Photo by Matt Kalinowski

The email brought me to a standstill. There was nothing unusual about receiving a mass mailing from Milton Academy, the swanky private school I attended in my hometown south of Boston. What was unusual about the communication that arrived in the spring of 2016 was the request it contained. Prompted by reporting that had appeared just days earlier in the Boston Globe about past sexual abuse at other private schools, the current administration wanted to know if former students had experienced anything similar.

There was no part of me that wanted to tell the story of how I was sexually abused by Rey Buono, a male theater teacher, when I was a freshman at Milton. The school was informed about it in 1982, and the only change I knew of was that administrators removed him as my adviser. Milton’s leadership did nothing else to protect me. They never even talked with me directly about it. Buono remained at the school. I had to walk the halls knowing that the man who raped me could be around the next corner.

I moved on to the next email. I didn’t think about the wiry salt-and-pepper hair on his balding head or the smell of his breath from the Parliament cigarettes that he snuffed out before they were even halfway smoked. I didn’t feel disgust for the things he did to me or anger toward the school administrators because they didn’t fire him. Instead, I felt the familiar numbness that prevented me from identifying and expressing difficult emotions. I pushed thoughts of the experience from my head, just as I had done so effectively in the past. It wasn’t that I had repressed the memories. In fact, I have worn out the couch cushions of many therapists’ offices over the years trying to process the impact of the abuse. But when I wasn’t actively working on it, I was pretty eager to forget about what Buono did to me. It was just one of the coping skills I developed to shield myself from the images of what happened way back then.

The day after I got the email, I was sitting on the couch in my living room when my phone rang. It was the familiar voice of my childhood friend and schoolmate Doug Cabot on the line. “Do you think it’s time to tell your story?” he said. I knew right away what Doug was referring to, though it hadn’t occurred to me to do anything after receiving the letter. Even his suggestion that I respond to it made me clench my teeth, and I could feel bile heating up my throat. I had no interest in digging up all of these thoughts and feelings again. It was a terrible experience that I had compartmentalized, put in its place, and wanted to move on from. Who would it help by adding my name to a list of others who had been abused? I didn’t see any way that this could be a good idea. Not for me. “No fucking way,” I told him.

After I hung up, my wife, Alison, helped me look at it differently. Over the next few days, her questions and thoughts led me to a different and empowering possibility: What if I could use my story to help others? The idea was compelling to me. My posture shifted from closed and defensive to open and invincible. My resistance became resolve. Within a matter of days, I was convinced not only that I could talk to Milton, but that I had to.

I wasn’t sure whether my story would ever become public, but I wanted my two daughters, ages 12 and 15 at the time, to know I was about to do something that felt both vulnerable and important. They already knew the general outlines of my abuse, but I recognized the value of modeling for them that they should never hide this type of information. We ate that night in the dining room we use mostly for entertaining. Halfway through the meal, I started talking. The facts came first: the email from Milton, Doug’s call, my desire to make a difference. As I explained that I didn’t want them to ever experience abuse or to not report it if they did, I was crying so hard I could hardly speak or see through the tears that diluted the salmon marinade on my plate.

The conversation became a combination of the pain from my own abuse and the devastation that I felt just thinking about the possibility of my daughters going through something similar. The thought of them being victimized and having to live with everything that came with the abuse crushed me. That was my motivation, I told them­—to protect them and to help others. They both stood up and surrounded me in my chair, wrapping their arms around me. We love you, Dad, they said. We’re proud of you. You have to do this. That’s when I knew I was finally ready.

Shortly after getting the email, I found myself back on the familiar grounds of Milton Academy. It was at once the place where my youth had been inexorably altered and also a place that felt inseparable from my own family. The vast campus sits on land that my great-great-great-grandfather donated to the school. My parents and grandparents attended the school, too. As I walked to my meeting with the head of school, I passed Forbes House, one of the residential halls on campus. Several other buildings also have names that appear on my family tree.

The school’s rolling green hills, neatly manicured quads, and brick buildings make it look closer to a college campus than a K–12 school. Generations of children from privileged families like mine—including the Cabots, Rockefellers, and Pritzkers—had passed through this campus, helping to foster the school’s reputation for being a competitive place for children of families spending their inherited wealth or preparing to build empires of the future. Yet not even that level of privilege could protect me, or anyone else there, from sexual abuse.

I cut across campus and arrived at a modern glass building that connected two traditional brick ones, then walked in, feeling like my life was about to change, although I had no idea just how much. I was terrified as I sat there and told my story to the head of school.

It began the summer before my freshman year on a bike trip in Italy led by Buono, then head of the drama department and an English teacher at Milton. On one of the final nights on the trip, we sat at a café in Venice and each drew a toothpick out of the cigarette package in Buono’s hands. We all knew the layout of the rooms reserved for our group. The room I was assigned to had a double bed and two twin beds. Buono volunteered to be one of the people to share the double bed. The person to draw the shortest straw would join him. The cigarette package went around the table. Then it was my turn. I pulled the toothpick out of the package and looked at it: the short straw. At least there were also two twin beds in the same room, I reasoned. No big deal.

I didn’t suspect that anything unusual was going to happen that night, but I remember wanting to stay out later than normal, hoping that everyone would be asleep when we returned. They weren’t. As I drifted off to sleep, I felt Buono’s hands first on my back. Then they moved to my front and finally to my crotch. I thought that if I rolled over on my stomach Buono would get the message, but that didn’t discourage him. I was terrified and had no idea how to make him stop. I didn’t want a back rub and I absolutely didn’t want his hand on my dick. I wanted to scream at him, but was muted by a potent mix of confusion and fear.

The next day, I pulled aside Doug and Will, another childhood friend on the trip with us, and relayed the experience. They were both upset, but Doug was indignant. “I’m going to speak to Rey,” he said. Because my parents had raised me to follow rules and respect adults, Doug’s calling out a teacher for inappropriate behavior felt like an incredible act of courage. “Rey, you fucked up,” Doug told him. Buono offered no denial. “I’m really sorry,” he admitted. “That won’t happen again.” But it did happen again. And again, and again.

The night I returned home from Italy, my mom sat on my bed and told me she and my father were separating. Embedded in my privileged upbringing came the generationally crafted restraint of all emotions except joy. Because my parents were so inexpressive, seeing my mother cry really hit me hard. How could I possibly add to her sadness by telling her what Buono had done to me? I had told my buddies, and Doug had spoken to Buono about it, so there was no need to burden my mom with it. I wanted desperately to believe that it had been an isolated incident. But not telling my mom also meant that she believed everything was terrific about the trip and that Buono was a great guy. I gave her no reason to believe otherwise. As a result, in a nightmarish twist, my mother asked administrators at Milton if Buono could be my academic adviser, thinking it would help me weather the stress of my parents’ separation if my adviser was someone I knew and trusted. My mother was trying to do the right thing for me, but she had no idea what she had really done.

At some point that fall, Buono offered to help me prepare for a test in a class that had been difficult for me. As my adviser, he knew I could use academic support. To say that I struggled academically at Milton is putting it mildly. I know now that I was not suited to learning by reading and memorizing details. All I knew then was that my grades were mediocre at best, despite the three to four hours of work I put in each night. Buono told me to come to his campus apartment. I was scared I might fail the class, and I felt I didn’t have another option. By then, I was so deep into the deception of pretending that everything was just fine with me that I’d also deceived myself into believing that having him help me prepare for my test would be fine, too.

Like many things in my life from 40 years ago, I don’t remember every detail about those study sessions, but I do remember that they ended with him giving me a blow job. I was really into girls and had a girlfriend at the time. Never before had it occurred to me that I might actually be interested in men. But what did it mean if I kept going to his apartment when I need academic support, I asked myself? I felt confused and ashamed that I seemed to have no control over what was happening to me. I could explain it happening once. But why would I ever agree to go to his apartment again and again? I wanted to leave Milton Academy to get away from the situation, but I also wanted to stay. I was proud of my family’s legacy there, but I also felt swallowed by it.

The abuse stopped only after Doug’s mother reported it to school administrators about seven months into my freshman year. The school assigned me a new adviser and never asked to speak to me about it. Buono kept his job and could continue to do to others what he had done to me. Five more years would pass until he admitted to abusing another male student and was fired.

I was one of the first people to respond to Milton’s letter, but I would not be the last. Seventeen other male students shared their own experiences of Buono abusing them. Still, I believe the number is likely much higher given the dozen or so years that Buono worked at Milton Academy. The school decided to launch an independent investigation.

When a summary of the findings was released in a letter in February 2017, I read it and felt surprisingly incomplete. Everyone who reported abuse was promised confidentiality, so there was no indication of who the others were. I wished I could connect with them so I could feel less alone in my own experience. I also felt that if the others who participated in the investigation—and those who decided not to disclose their abuse—could put a name and a face on at least one victim, or find out one of us was someone they all knew, it would make the findings feel more real for all of us.

Since I couldn’t learn who Buono’s other victims were, I reasoned that they might choose to find me if I came out and declared myself a survivor. At the same time, I thought that going public might be a way to shed the shame that still lay in the folds of my brain. I decided to write something on Facebook because of its potential to reach a broad audience. I typed and re-typed my statement. Then I sat in my office staring at the “post” button, too scared to hit it.

When I finally did, the reaction was immediate. I received an outpouring of support from classmates, friends, and family—even from people I didn’t know. Some told me that my story gave them an opening to speak with their kids about how to avoid being victimized. Others were also survivors who were considering talking to school officials and wanted to know what to expect. All of these reactions affirmed my belief that people were hungry to talk about and process the findings and were grateful to me for disclosing my story.

At the same time, going public with my abuse has helped in the pursuit of justice against Buono. After Milton’s report was released, the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office took up the case and reached out to the victims that they were able to locate, asking if anyone would be willing to testify at trial against him. I agreed to do it. Buono was indicted in the fall of 2017, and in June 2018, he was extradited from Thailand, where he was living. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges of sexually abusing me and is currently out on bail while awaiting trial.

After I went public with my story, the notion that I might be able to help others dealing with the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse took hold of me, and I soon learned that I was capable of contributing on a much larger scale than I’d initially imagined. Participating in Milton Academy’s investigation was a protracted, raw, and stressful experience for me. I sat for three hours with representatives from the investigations firm the school retained, digging up highly unpleasant memories, and then was left to wait for nine agonizing months with my newly reopened wound until the initial findings were released. I offered my observations of the missed opportunities to support the victims during the investigation process to administrators at Milton. They replied by asking if I would be willing to use my unique perspective to help them respond to the findings of the investigation.

Despite the potential risk of aligning myself with the school, I agreed to help. Then I began to imagine that if Milton needed to understand the survivor perspective, lots of other schools might, too. There were stories in the news on a regular basis about other private schools facing past abuse, but the institutions didn’t have a centralized place to access resources and guidance on how to provide survivors with the kind of support they need to begin healing.

I started working with other private schools in 2017, lending my experience as a survivor. Many school administrators were asking me the same questions: How should I treat people who are reporting abuse? How do I put them at ease? How do I balance my obligation to protect our fiscal and reputational risk with caring for the people who have been harmed? How do I apologize without opening the school up to greater risk? Where are the professionals who are counseling school leaders about how to do this work? What I observed and experienced personally was that the people willing to risk so much to disclose their experiences were primarily doing that to help the school and protect other students. If they were met with hesitation, doubt, or resistance, that response triggered anger, which often led to litigation. They simply wanted to be heard, cared for, and shown that the school was doing everything it could to prevent future abuse.

In 2019, I founded the nonprofit organization Learning Courage with a mission to reduce sexual abuse at schools and respond to abuse in ways that support healing. What began as a way to help others became a profound turning point in my own healing. Telling my story of abuse on nearly a daily basis has helped me eliminate the shame I once felt. I no longer feel stigmatized as someone who was abused. The abuse that once held tremendous negative energy for me became a force for positive change that has created meaning and purpose well beyond anything I’ve felt in my professional life. I am a survivor, not a victim.

When I first thought about coming forward, what helped me was the possibility of helping just one person. I am no longer satisfied with this because I know how much more is possible. What motivates me now is the possibility that we can transform the conversation about sexual abuse in schools. And this isn’t just about adult-on-student abuse. While those incidents still occur, the bigger opportunity is to prevent students from hurting one another. To borrow a term from the noted researchers and authors Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan, we need to teach children to become good “sexual citizens.” This doesn’t mean that we promote sex, but it does mean that we recognize that we are sexual beings with desire embedded in our DNA. Once we become more aware of and comfortable with this notion, we will be able to better teach students to respect their intimate partners.

The reality is that the rising generation isn’t what’s getting in the way—they crave information and advice about sexual relationships. It is the adults who aren’t comfortable talking about or having someone else educate their children about being good sexual citizens. But I know that as we make steps toward achieving this goal, rates of sexual violence—at the hands of adults and peers—will drop.

In the meantime, my team and I are hard at work with private schools, helping them reduce incidents of sexual abuse and misconduct and respond in ways that support healing when incidents do occur. Our goal is to extend our services to all types of schools in the future. There is no shortage of work to do. I hope someday there will be.

For those who need help or support for themselves or a loved one after sexual violence, call RAINN’s national hotline at 800-656-HOPE.