My purpose in this three-part timeline is to share an account of the Lancaster Academy skinnydipping incident from my perspective as a Alumni and a close observer of this strange story. It is my hope that it will encourage others to have the strength to come forward and bring healing to the community at large.
I have been called an “accuser” a couple times in the last three months. It’s ok. I know I’m not perfect. But as someone who cares about the Adventist Message and our witness to the world in Massachusetts, I’ve taken the time to review my notes and describe for you my chronological concerns about chaperones skinny-dipping with students.
Let’s step back six months to August 2017. The thought of back surgery was super stressful to me. The car accident was six years prior and now after all that time and physical therapy I just couldn’t avoid it. So I reached out to a good friend (I’ll call him Burt) who had broken his neck and, after surgery, had near full mobility. I wanted that surgeon’s number.
My friend Burt expressed concern, hope, and promised prayers on my behalf. I was asked to keep everyone updated on the procedure’s date and time. But, only able to sleep for an hour at a time, no one in my circle was kept up to date on anything.
Praise God, the surgery gave me instant relief. No more leg and toe spasms and I could finally sleep a full night through. I did text my friend (who had also had surgery) a few days after the operation, when my eyes could focus again. Oddly, the message to Burt did not go through until nearly two weeks later.
On my first day back to the office, another friend called, wanting to know when I could go hiking again. “Not for a while” was my reply. My friend then asked, “Have you heard what’s going on at South Lancaster Academy (SLA)?” I had not.
It seems there was a skinny dipping activity during the Coed Senior Survival trip in Maine this year and some parents were not ok with it. Not realizing that the chaperones had led out in the activity, I replied: “Oh, who’s the snitch?” That was Monday, October 30, 2017.
After texting and phone tag for a couple of days, my praying friend (Burt) and I connected. For the purposes of anonymity and character clarity, let’s name my friends… ‘Burt & Ernie.’
So my friend ‘Burt’ and I finally connected. We chatted about the surgery and the prognosis. We discussed my inability to handle any medications ending in co-done or any other “one” (pronounced “OOONE”). I teased Burt for taking so long to get back to me, that the surgery had occurred weeks before. He insisted that the text had just arrived a few days ago, and had been pretty busy at work etc… It wasn’t until he responded to my next question that I understood what he was going through.
“So what’s new with you guys?” I asked.
Burt gave a long exhale. “You have no idea..” He told me the story.
It seems that Burt’s daughter was on this year’s Senior Survival trip and did not participate in the skinny dipping. She was one of two girls that stayed in the camp, which was some distance away from the swimming hole. Not one chaperone stayed back with the two girls. And it seems that the girls did not even realize that the other was there. So, two minors in the woods, left alone. Instead it seems that the female chaperones were more interested in going skinny dipping with the other girls. I then realized that this dear respectful and demur girl, one I had watched grow up, was “the snitch” I had previously asked about in my call with Ernie. I said nothing and listened.
It’s now four days since I first heard about the trip. I’m a friend, a mother, and an alumnus. I’m a fellow SDA, and an adult who should have remembered her own advice – that there are always two sides to every story. I was humbled that day. That day was Friday.
Burt didn’t realize that I grew up in South Lancaster. Or that my husband and I still have family in the area and have served on several Alumni and Conference Committees over the years. In fact, later he remarked that he never even considered that we had a connection to the area.
In one conversation with my husband, he dismissed my concerns about the chaperones swimming naked with the girls. By the way, one chaperone is a credentialed woman pastor and the other a substitute teacher for the Southern New England Conference (SNEC), both of whom work at SLA (South Lancaster Academy). I recall a comment from my husband who said, “In the expanse of time, bathing suits are actually a pretty new invention.” He did have a question though. He wanted to know if the pastor and teacher had been put on administrative leave. I shared that it was my understanding that they were currently on said leave.
During that weekend, friends started sharing stories about the senior survival trip. There were concerns and questions, but typically the conversations would end with an acknowledgement that the Conference was looking into it. At the time, I didn’t realize what that statement would mean. And little did I understand the undercurrent and maneuvering that would supersede the girls’ well-being.
For perspective, here is the timeline through October, as I understand it.
September 15, 2017 -- SLA Seniors leave from South Lancaster, MA for Senior Survival Trip to Jackman, Maine and the Moose River Bow. I now know that on the bus ride up, one of the topics of conversation was that the girls would be going skinny dipping.
September 16 & 17 -- The topic of skinny dipping, often referred to as an “exciting activity” is brought up daily on the trip.
September 18, 2017 -- Some, if not all, boys are informed by the pastor through a student that the girls will be going skinny dipping that day.
-- The pastor & teacher gather the girls to discuss body image and how and why they will be doing this “exciting activity.” When some girls verbally refuse there is enormous pressure placed on them with language like “just do it, and “it’s tradition.” Apparently this has happened before.
-- Two girls do not participate, one sits on the beach (because she cannot swim), 5 participate with bathing suits on and 4 students, along with pastor and teacher participate naked. It appears that more than half the class of twelve girls were not comfortable with this activity.
September 22, 2017 -- Everyone returns from the Senior Survival trip.
-- Burt learns of the skinny dipping activity. He is shocked. He takes time to consider the event, including the impact on their child and possibly other children, the institution and the community at large.
Between Sept. 22 and October 19, 2017: Information and time frames have varied for these following items.
-- After several days, Burt comes forward and speaks with the Principal of SLA, who is shocked and, most importantly, had no idea that skinny dipping happened.
-- SLA Principal (a Massachusetts, Mandatory Reporter) contacts his employer, SNEC, and the Department of Children & Family Services (DCF), and an investigation is started.
October 17, 2017 -- Pastor and teacher are placed on Administrative Leave and advised by SNEC not to participate in any church or school functions or come in contact with the students during the investigation.
October 19, 2017 -- A letter from SLA is sent to parents via email describing the Skinny Dipping. This is how some parents learn of the activity, as their children are not talking about it.
-- This same letter is shared widely by email and social media.
October 20, 2017 -- Fulcrum7, an SDA apologetics and blogging platform receives the letter from a concerned parent and reaches out to SNEC to confirm the story. SNEC responds, and Fulcrum7 posts a brief article with the letter. Comments from the public go wild, YouTube videos surface and opinions fly.
October 21, 2017 -- The pastor speaks at a spiritual retreat gathering known as The One Project in Atlanta. In attendance with her are several students from SLA and area churches. Remember, this pastor is still on administrative leave at this time.
October 24, 2017 -- A letter circulates announcing that SLA is having a joint meeting on October 30, 2017 with the senior girls, their parents, school board members (who also have girls that participated that year), as well as the Principal and SNEC Administrators.
October 28, 2017 -- SLA Fall Festival takes place. The skinny dipping story rapidly spreads from parent to parent. Some are troubled. Some don’t see the big deal. It’s learned this is not the first year of skinny dipping, and that it may date back 4-6 years. Some girls were very uncomfortable and some just found it really weird. Incidentally, this is when ‘Ernie’ learns of the event and doesn’t see it as a big deal.
October 29, 2017 -- The School Board Chairman’s wife sends out an email beseeching parents, “There was no evidence of us coming together to determine what happened and if it warranted involvement of the criminal justice system. I fear that leaving our chaperones in the hands of people who may or may not look to God for guidance puts us in an inconsistent position with the Bible…” Where’s the concern for the kids, including her daughter who participated?
October 30, 2017 -- The joint meeting takes place. Several parents share that they are upset that the incident was reported to DCF. Those same parents verbally attack ‘Burt’ for going to the principal with concerns rather than to the pastor and the teacher directly. Two parents speak up to say that the incident never should have occurred and that the chaperones “abused their position of power and authority” by asking the girls to participate in the inappropriate activity.
October 31, 2017 -- The school issues an optional day off. They named it “Mental Health Day”, as some girls were emotionally distressed as a result of the joint meeting.
It is my hope that others will have the strength to come forward and fill in the gaps I may not be aware of. It is also my hope that God is glorified in all that we do.
Concerned Alumnus in Massachusetts.
To be continued in parts 2 and 3.