How Marlborough let us down

I was accepted into the all-girls Marlborough School on my 12th birthday.
February 12, 2015

I was accepted into the all-girls Marlborough School on my 12th birthday. I wanted to be a Marlborough girl more than anything. I wanted to put on a khaki skirt and polo shirt and be welcomed into a space where women were encouraged to be loud, smart and powerful.

Although my official acceptance into the class of 2011 established my formal entrance into this elite sisterhood, it wasn’t until I was taught Marlborough’s alma mater by Head of School Barbara Wagner that I truly felt like I was a part of something larger than myself. On that day, our entire seventh-grade class was ushered into the auditorium where Wagner was waiting for us. We stood on the stage as she taught us the Marlborough alma mater, critiquing us when we made an error and cheering us on as our individual voices became one. 

But there was one line in the alma mater, Wagner told us, that almost everyone got wrong: “Love for Marlborough will endure.” It was the word “endure” that all previous classes stumbled over. We would be the class to fix this. We would sing the word with perfect pronunciation and imbue it with all the meaning it commanded. 

Looking back on that day now, as a 21-year-old woman, far away from the unsure 12-year-old girl I was then, I can hear that line echoing over and over again. In the midst of the horrific behavior of English teacher Joseph Koetters and the appalling response of Wagner, Director of Upper School Laura Hotchkiss and Marlborough’s board of trustees, I am questioning if love for Marlborough should endure in its current contradictory state. 

The institution of Marlborough does a lot of things well. I cannot deny that as a middle and high school student I received a superb education. I was given every academic opportunity and taught how to take my intelligence seriously, which is a gift I will always cherish, and one that has undoubtedly shaped the woman I am today. Nearly every day in school we were told that women were invaluable, that no man was better than us simply because he was male. Our teachers challenged us. They pushed us to think creatively, to work harder than we thought possible, and to grow into women who would someday run the world. Here is where the disparity emerges. While we were consistently taught to be loud, we were simultaneously silenced where it mattered. Marlborough excelled at celebrating our accomplishments — a personalized letter home from Wagner whenever I won a debate tournament or Model U.N. conference. Yet when we failed, or when we felt disappointed, or uncertain, we were made invisible. 

I could write pages on how disgusted I am with Koetters, a predator who was also my AP English teacher. A man who made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe. A man who sexually abused his students and went unpunished for many years, and who deserves to be publicly and legally identified as a dangerous person. I hope that this happens and that his case is treated with the seriousness it deserves. However, my disgust with Koetters is self-explanatory. It is my deep disappointment with the institution of Marlborough, specifically with the non-actions of Wagner and Hotchkiss, that need explanation.

Wagner and Hotchkiss seem to exemplify what all Marlborough girls hope to become — strong and powerful women who run a respected institution. Wagner and Hotchkiss both position themselves as resources and support systems for all Marlborough girls. They preach about the safety and security of their students being their No. 1 priority. However, when a student actually goes to them for help, their safety and their emotional needs take a back seat to the reputation of Marlborough and its faculty. 

I would like to say that what happened with Koetters was an isolated incident, but that would be untrue. 

While I was a student at Marlborough, teachers and staff repeatedly crossed boundaries, interacting with us like we were adults, and not adolescents who were still growing and forming. As a student, I was privy to numerous inappropriate student-teacher relationships. Aside from Koetters, to my knowledge none of these relationships resulted in sexual abuse, but they did result in extreme distress, and still the institution of Marlborough did not take concrete actions in any of these situations unless forced to by parents. A female teacher became so involved in a student’s life that she sent secret messages and followed her off campus. There were teachers who instant-messaged students inappropriate and cryptic messages at all hours of the night, significantly blurring the line between right and wrong.

This paradox creates patterns of boundary-violating relationships that have been sanctioned by the school itself. The priority of Wagner, Hotchkiss and the faculty was not protecting the girls. They valued the institution above all else. Teachers were not fired or openly acknowledged as acting inappropriately unless parents and the students themselves fought to be heard. It should not have been this way. Young women who are taught to demand equality in academic spheres should not simultaneously be taught to be quiet when it comes to their safety and their emotional and physical well-being.

I wonder how Wagner, Hotchkiss and the institution of Marlborough can pride itself on its exceptional student body, the same student body that it doesn’t protect? In writing this, I am pleading for the institution of Marlborough to prioritize its students and their safety above all else. We need to value the voices of young women even when what they are saying may be hard to hear and even more difficult to address. The current scandal at Marlborough is not only about Koetters. It is about a school culture that needs critical self-evaluation that will lead to core changes. Marlborough needs to face the dangerous culture that it has created in order to stop allowing its students to pay the price of its neglect. Love for Marlborough must be questioned and reconstructed in order to endure. 

Isabelle Sanderson is a Los Angeles native and currently a senior at Kenyon College in Ohio, studying psychology and trauma

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