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What duty does a school have to protect its children from abuse?

Kamehameha School is one of the most prestigious K-12 schools in Hawaii. It has a proud legacy of serving underprivileged children of Hawaiian descent since 1887.

However, the #metoo movement has sparked a new lawsuit against the school, which sheds light on its shameful past. Between 1958 and 1985, Dr. Robert Browne was employed at Kamehameha School as a child psychiatrist. The lawsuit—which has been brought by 32 men who were former students at the school—claims that they were subject to repeated sexual, emotional and psychological abuse by Browne.

The psychiatrist forced the young boys—full-time residents in the school’s boarding program—into terror-ridden overnight weekend stays at his house. He used them to satisfy his pedophiliac urges. He raped them, forced them to masturbate and forced them to watch pornography—often while threatening them with his revolver. He forced them to take drugs. He psychologically belittled them and made them believe the treatment was a normal part of therapy.

The trauma these young children endured had a crippling impact on them into adulthood. Some victims have suffered from severe emotional and mental health issues. Others have committed suicide. Others have battled life-long drug addiction that was started under Browne’s “care.”

Browne committed suicide in 1991—the day after one of his victims confronted him about his disgraceful past. Although it is no longer possible to try Browne for criminal sexual misconduct, the victims are now filing a civil suit against Kamehameha School.

What role did the school play?

While anyone who harms children should be held responsible for their actions, it is also the responsibility of the institution entrusted with the care of these children to ensure that they are safe and healthy. Kamehameha School failed its students in this regard.

It was the school that, in some instances, forced the boys into treatment with Browne—threatening expulsion if they didn’t comply. It was school officials that disregarded victims’ complaints or responded with minimal, palliative actions designed to pacify grievances—rather than tackle the underlying abuse. In 1991, when one brave former student made his abuse public, it was the school that chose not to investigate whether there had been other victims as well.

It is common for an institution to wash its hands of responsibility for one staff member’s transgressions. However, when abuses are repeatedly perpetrated under the roof of an institution that has a responsibility to protect children, then that institution failed in its duty as well. Kamehameha School will pay $80 million in restitution to the victims in this lawsuit.

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