Report finds Southbank International could have stopped Vahey after emergence of ‘intrinsically inappropriate conduct’
The headmaster of an elite London school where the US paedophile William Vahey abused more than 60 boys dismissed a complaint about his worrying conduct on a field trip as “unfair pressure” by “vindictive parents”, an independent report in to his criminality has revealed.
After an eight-month inquiry into the sex abuse scandal at Southbank International school in London, where Vahey worked from 2009 to 2013, the senior barristerHugh Davies QC concluded Vahey’s systematic abuse was the result of serious failures and “straightforward errors” by the leadership at the £25,000-a-year school.
Vahey drugged teenage boys with sedatives secreted in Oreo cookies and soft drinks while on school trips to places such as Jordan, Nepal and India as recently 2013.
In less than four years he went on 17 school trips and set up his own travel club. He offered to look after the “ill” children he had dosed, moving them to different rooms and abusing them.
He killed himself in March after hundreds of photographs of his victims were found on his computer. The case has devastated the school community, which includes many international business and diplomatic families.
The report was commissioned by Sir Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools in England and head of Ofsted. Woodhead is now the chairman of Southbank International’s board.
In a damning report seen by the Guardian, Davies found the headmaster and deputy head, who have now left, had received four separate complaints about Vahey’s suspicious conduct but did not report them to local authority child protection experts.
Davies said “a clear pattern of intrinsically inappropriate conduct” emerged from teachers, pupils and parents that was sufficient for Vahey to have been stopped, but that did not happen.
“Vahey’s conduct on trips, most particularly his altering of accommodation arrangements, was manifestly inappropriate,” Davies said. “Teachers surely must know this should not happen. It should accordingly have been reported, recorded and fully investigated at the time.”
When reports were made to the school’s leaders, their response was “objectively inadequate” and the reporting procedures were incoherent, he said.
Davies’s report comes as Scotland Yard and the FBI continue to investigate Vahey’s abuse in the UK and abroad. He taught in schools from Indonesia to Venezuela.
Davies’s findings will be made available to the child protection expert Dame Moira Gibb, who is conducting a statutory serious case review into the scandal.
Davies found that during one trip Vahey urged colleagues not to tell parents that several boys had fallen ill. He also made inappropriate comments to students, which a parent later reported to the then headmaster, Terry Hedger.
According to Davies’s report, Hedger told Vahey he would not be going on a subsequent trip as a result, but did not tell the school board or its owner, Cognita, about the incident.
In fact he sought to reassure Vahey, who sent an angry email complaining the decision could undermine his reputation.
Hedger emailed to say “my intention is to ensure that your fine reputation and standing in the community are maintained”. In a later text message he told Vahey not to worry and explained that “some vindictive parents have found a way to put unfair pressure on the teachers”.
Davies asked Hedger about this last remark, to which he said: “My response does not read well, although I imagine that I was merely trying to placate Vahey. I do not know what I meant by my reference to ‘vindictive parents’.” They were certainly not vindictive, he added.
A parent of a child who believes they may have been abused by Vahey, said on Wednesday that they were shocked by the remark.
“It sends a message that you are not allowed to complain or you will be labelled unfairly,” the parent said. “The culture of the school was that these things would be handled in-house and Vahey knew it was a lax environment. Chris Woodhead and the school board were ultimately responsible, but I don’t see their roles reflected in this report.”
Asked to comment on the severe criticism of the school, Woodhead said: “Perhaps our teachers could have registered more quickly that this man was not behaving in a way that was, for want of a better word, normal.
“The signs of a potential paedophile, everyone in the teaching profession needs to know about … It is a dreadful, appalling thing that has happened to Southbank. But the publicity that has been generated, if it does raise awareness in other schools, amongst other teachers, that is of course a good thing.”
The Guardian was unable to reach Hedger or the deputy headmaster for comment before publication.
After one trip, a teacher reported to the deputy head that Vahey had moved a pupil who had become unwell to another room without consulting anyone.
It shocked the other teachers, and when challenged Vahey went into a “horrible, creepy” defensive “overdrive”, the teacher said.
The teacher later told the deputy head that Vahey’s behaviour had been strange, to which he replied: “Maybe he’s just missing being a father figure.”
He said he would speak to Vahey but did not. He concluded the student had got home “well and safe” and “that was the end of the matter”.
On another trip a teacher briefed all staff, including Vahey, not to alter accommodation, but that did not stop the predator. Once the trip had begun, a student became unwell at night and Vahey told the other teachers “to go to bed and that he would keep an eye [on the student]”.
Vahey was “adamant” and “aggressive” and the teacher was so worried that they tried to reach the deputy head by phone. Unable to do so, they decided to stay up all night to keep watch on Vahey.
Back at school the teacher, who was “quite shaky” as a result of Vahey’s behaviour, went to see the deputy head, who did nothing, Davies found.
“Given the facts and the real level of concern of the reporting teachers, I find the conclusions of the deputy principal and outcome extraordinary,” Davies said.
After Vahey’s suicide, a litany of other disturbing behaviour emerged from staff. On one trip, he “suggested to students a wholly inappropriate game of a sexual nature” and insisted on having keys to the children’s rooms and administering medication.
Scotland Yard has established the game was made known to another teacher, but it was never reported to the school management.
Around the time of a trip another teacher witnessed him give “a highly explicit and inappropriate sex education class”, including a graphic account of male homosexual sex, but this again was not reported.
After his death, students told a teacher Vahey had regularly slapped their backsides and kept a key to all their rooms, and that they had joked about him being a paedophile. They also told a teacher Vahey tickled students to wake them up, whipped sheets off their beds and insisted they sleep in just their underpants, Davies found. This again was not reported to school management.
When one student became unwell, Vahey altered the accommodation arrangements and an adult not working for the school was observed leaving a student’s room. A member of school staff on the trip is believed to have witnessed this, but once again, it was not reported.
It was, Davies concludes, “a deeply disturbing but distinctive pattern of events”.
Davies said students and parents had suffered emotions “of an enduring and damaging nature” and that decision-makers at the school, looking back on signs that were not identified or reported, were “traumatised by their roles”.
“The inspirational teacher, with an idiosyncratic approach to lessons and proven ability to organise adventurous foreign trips, was in fact an accomplished and cynical criminal,” he concluded.The parents’ reaction
When news broke in April that William Vahey had been abusing children at the Southbank International school in London, it plunged parents and children into a terrible dilemma.
Vahey’s criminal method involved knocking his victims out with sedatives before molesting them and photographing them for his own record. Some would later recall feeling unwell before bedtime, others would feel unwell in the morning, but there was no evidence that anyone ever recalled the abuse itself. The question for families was “should we find out?”.
Scotland Yard detectives working with the FBI on what became an international investigation established from images on Vahey’s computer that about 60 boys from the school were identifiable as victims. The police and social workers made themselves available to anyone who wanted to find out if they were affected.
“Even if they find my son in the photos, I would rather not find out and just forget about it,” one mother said in April.
Since then, according to sources among the families, the “vast majority” of those whose children may have been abused have opted out of discovering if that was indeed the case.
The parent of one boy said: “He doesn’t want to meet the police. He’s not sure what they will tell him, and there is another thing where [some boys] are worried about whether they were targetted because Vahey thought they were gay.”
“It seems very few families have opted in,” the parent said. “They are thinking we have gone this long, in some cases four years, without knowing so why find out now?”
Another source familiar with the families’ reactions said: “Part of the psychological reaction to such a terrible crime has been to try and make it go away … Many seemed to be saying ‘stop telling us about it, the man is dead’. Rather than ‘let’s find out what happened’, the intuitive reaction was to say ‘well, the boys didn’t know it happened’.”
The unwillingness to confront the question of who has been victimised is partly down to the fact that “Vahey groomed the parents as much as he groomed the children,” one well-placed source said.
He ran meetings for the parents before the trips which built up trust.
“The parents are struggling as much as the children,” the source said. “He seemed very confident and there were slideshows when the kids came back. “There was an air of openness. We assumed the vetting had been done. We were duped.”