The Wall Street Journal
Years of Abuse at Brooklyn School Alleged
Nearly a Dozen Women Say a Former Teacher at Now-Closed Woodward School Sexually Abused a Succession of Girls
By SOPHIA HOLLANDER CONNECT
June 4, 2014 12:01 a.m. ET
Mr. Rusch’s accusers include, right to left, former Woodward students Sara Smahl, her sister Nancy, Lisa Young, Jane Bedell and Wendy Hooker. Erin Patrice O’Brien for The Wall Street Journal
In the late 1960s, Bob Rusch cut a striking figure at Woodward School, a small, progressive private school housed inside a brownstone mansion in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
Where most of the other teachers were older and stuck in 1950s fashion, former students say, Mr. Rusch was young, tall and cool, striding through halls with his thick reddish beard and colorful African dashikis over jeans and sandals.
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His classes achieved a cultlike status. He took his seventh- and eighth-grade students to events such as a civil-rights trial, an antiwar protest in Washington, D.C., and a show at the Apollo Theater. He read them “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” after lunch and hosted jazz jam sessions in class and at his house, which was just around the corner. Every summer, he and his wife led a cross-country road trip that students begged their parents to join.
“He was just like this god to us,” said former student Julie Levine.
But Mr. Rusch also harbored a dark distinction, according to nearly a dozen former students. They say he sexually abused a succession of girls, some as young as 12 years old. The allegations range from touching and kissing on school grounds to sexual intercourse on summer class trips.
The women’s stories, told over a period of months to The Wall Street Journal, convey outrage, guilt and shame over those long-ago events. In many ways, their accounts mirror allegations made against teachers and schools elsewhere in the country. Many alleged victims expect to be haunted the rest of their lives by what they say happened, but those in New York face a particular hurdle as the state’s laws limit what, if anything, they can do about it now.
Bob Rusch at a Philadelphia jazz event in 2009 Ken Weiss
In several phone interviews with The Wall Street Journal from his home in upstate New York, Mr. Rusch acknowledged that he had sex with multiple young students, while declining to comment on some allegations and denying others.
“I accept involvement in some of the things that went on, not all of them, and to that extent I am embarrassed and remorseful and I have been for the better part of 41 years,” said Mr. Rusch, who is now 71 years old. “I carry a lot of guilt.”
Mr. Rusch said he is willing to meet with his accusers whenever they want to discuss the past. “Any involvement that would seem odd today or very questionable today, I’d be very apologetic for,” he said.
Mr. Rusch, who founded a jazz magazine and produced records after leaving Woodward in 1973, said he is now semiretired and in ill health. He said he considered himself an ethical person, and that former students have called him to say he was the best teacher they ever had.
“I tried to open their minds to various things,” he said. “But in this one area I seem to have gone completely amoral or immoral.”
Mr. Rusch was fired in 1973, partially because of his inappropriate relationships with students, he said.
Student illustration for a graduation program, showing Mr. Rusch at far right
One parent and former students said families weren’t informed of the reason for his midyear dismissal and that Mr. Rusch conducted his cross-country trip as usual that summer, where they say he had sex with multiple underage students.
Woodward, later known as the Woodward Park School, was dissolved in the mid-1990s. The head of school at the time of Mr. Rusch’s tenure, Gertrude Goldstein, died in 2000.
Mr. Rusch’s students said they have a variety of reasons for discussing their experiences now.
Former students said they felt emboldened by the recent stream of accounts about alleged sexual abuse at private schools and elsewhere, and said they hoped to inspire others to feel comfortable talking about their experiences. Seven women are represented by the lawyers Gloria Allred and Mariann Wang, although the statute of limitations for both criminal and civil actions has expired in New York.
States across the country are reconsidering their statute-of-limitations laws after a spate of recent scandals. Allegations of sexual abuse have arisen at more than 20 private schools around the country in recent years, according to an analysis commissioned by the Horace Mann Action Coalition, an alumni group formed after the elite Bronx school’s own abuse scandal. Last May, the school apologized in a letter posted on its website for “unconscionable betrayals of trust.”
New York has one of the shortest windows in the country for people to file civil claims, requiring people abused as minors to come forward by age 23. For nearly a decade, legislators in New York have been working to change the law.
Sara Smahl and her younger sister Nancy in 1968, the summer before they enrolled at Woodward.
Sara Smahl and her younger sister Nancy, today. Erin Patrice O’Brien for The Wall Street Journal
The former Woodward students say Mr. Rusch identified vulnerable targets–including girls estranged from their parents and struggling with siblings–through journals he had them write in class.
“He would agree with you whenever you were saying something that was negative about your parents,” said Jane Bedell, now 57. When she complained about “typical teenage stuff,” such as her curfew or cleaning her room, he would “foster an increase in the distance,” she said.
Mr. Rusch denied that he used the journals to target students or that he encouraged them to be distant from their families.
He zeroed in on areas where the middle school girls felt most self-conscious–the size of their noses, chubby cheeks, body odor–and teased them about it, the women say.
“I’m a terrible tease,” Mr. Rusch said. “I would have commented on anything–boys, girls, animals, inanimate objects, you name it.”
“He really damaged my self-esteem because you’re always looking for his approval and then not meeting his standards,” said Allison Bell Terry, who said she was 13 when he kissed and groped her during a trip with classmates to his family’s house in Connecticut. “I felt like I’d made it to the A-team,” she said of his advances.
He noted developing girls and tickled exposed bellies, his hands sometimes wandering higher or lower, several former students said.
It was a sexually-charged classroom, many remembered, where Mr. Rusch told them he was treating them like adults. One time, he announced there was no such thing as rape because women need to be aroused to have sex, several said they remembered.
“I distinctly remember him going into how a woman needs to have enough lubrication, therefore it was physically impossible for those rapes to have occurred,” said former male student Leo Hannenberg, now 55 years old. “I think we were all just fearful of being humiliated. We didn’t know enough about sex to want to take him on and say you’re wrong.”
Mr. Rusch denied making the comment.
“He really would tell us girls that our worth was in our attractiveness –in our sexual attractiveness and what we would do for guys,” said former student Wendy Hooker, who said Mr. Rusch groped her when she was 11 and 12 years old, but they never had sex.
She said he told them, “No man wanted a virgin and that he could give us a gift of getting rid of it–he would do us that favor.”
Mr. Rusch said he didn’t remember making such comments, unless he was playing devil’s advocate. “That’s certainly the way I like to think it was,” he said.
Peer pressure was intense, former students recalled. Ms. Levine said she objected when Mr. Rusch felt her breasts the summer after eighth grade. She said that after rebuffing him she felt ostracized by her friends. They “were kind of in this clique of having slept with him.”
Former student Molly Shearer-Gabel remembered students bragging about their experiences.
They were “brainwashed,” she said. “They believed that what they were doing made them mature,” said Ms. Shearer-Gabel, who said she didn’t have sex with him. “He was very, very definite on that–that if you’re 11 years old and you’re not having sex, there’s something wrong with you.”
Mr. Rusch denied making such comments.
He became a presence in their lives outside the classroom. Mr. Rusch hired female students as baby sitters for his children, asked their parents to let them sleep over and then invited them to take off their clothes and share a bed with him and his now-deceased wife, Kathy, several students said.
Ms. Bedell began baby-sitting for the couple and sleeping over when she was 12, she said. They didn’t have sex then, but the three were “in the bed together naked and fondling,” she said.
Looking back, she is aghast, she said. But Mr. Rusch and his wife made it seem like a natural progression, she said.
Lisa Young in 1971, on one of the summer cross-country road trips Mr. Rusch hosted for students.
Lisa Young, now. Erin Patrice O’Brien for The Wall Street Journal
“I was flattered that anybody was paying attention and I was flattered to have somebody notice–particularly Mr. Cool Guy,” said Ms. Bedell, who said Mr. Rusch had sex with her just before her 13th birthday. “So I have some memories of feeling uncomfortable, but the being-flattered part took precedence.”
Lisa Young began baby-sitting for the Rusches at the end of seventh grade and “at some point I was invited into their bedroom.” Sometimes Ms. Bedell joined and all four would be naked in bed together, Ms. Young and Ms. Bedell said.
“It was kind of, I don’t know how to put it, harem-y,” Ms. Young said.
Mr. Rusch declined to comment.
On the cross-country trips, multiple women said he selected several female students to sleep in the tent with him and his wife. He regularly rotated sexual partners while other students couldn’t avoid listening, they said.
“Let them have their say, I’m not going to get into a pissing match,” Mr. Rusch said when asked about this allegation.
Sara Smahl and her younger sister, Nancy, enrolled at Woodward in 1968. Sara had struggled in a rigid public-school environment and her parents pinned their hopes on Woodward, she said, where teachers sang songs, held discussions in circles and didn’t give grades.
Initially, Sara “loved it,” she said. “They didn’t take math all that seriously, which I liked because I didn’t like math.”
She was fascinated by the books they read in Mr. Rusch’s class, including “Manchild in the Promised Land,” she said, but cringed when he teased her about being voluptuous. She said he kissed and fondled her in his house and in the photography darkroom the next year.
“I was confused,” she said. “I was afraid to say no.”
Mr. Rusch confirmed he taught photography, but denied that he abused students in the darkroom and said he had no memory of such inappropriate contact with students in his home.
Sara’s sister Nancy entered his class the next year, and joined his cross-country trip the following summer as an 13-year-old. There he raped her, Nancy said.
“I was not happy. I was saying no. It was very painful. I was crying,” Nancy said.
Lisa Young held her hand while it happened, Nancy and Ms. Young said.
Another former student, Lisa Lerner, said she listened in silence. Even now, the memory gives her pause. “It was bad,” Ms. Lerner said. “It was bad.”
Nancy said she contracted a bladder infection, but they continued having sex.
“I was still taken by this whole scene of being part of the Rusch family,” she said, shaking her head.
Mr. Rusch said that he had “no knowledge of anybody being raped by anybody. And should that have been true, I’m not saying it is, I don’t think it is. But if it is, I would be more remorseful about that than any of the things in my life.”
He convinced Nancy not to tell Sara that they had sex, Nancy said. But her sister noticed a difference. Whenever their father, an affectionate man, moved to hug Nancy, she recoiled. “That made me angry,” Sara said. “I could see she was hurting dad’s feelings.”
Years later, after she was married, Nancy mustered the courage to tell her parents.
“It’s hard for me to completely feel like I wasn’t responsible,” she said. “I know that I was a baby, I know that I didn’t have any ability to make this decision on my own.”
Still, she worried that her parents would think it was her fault.
“I never thought that at all,” said her mother Marcia Smahl, now 85. “My reaction was that a monster had got hold of my child.”
Not every woman got the chance for such a conversation. Some of their parents are dead, leaving the women to wonder just how much – if anything – was suspected. Ms. Hooker was pulled out of school abruptly, she said. She never learned why.
Some continued to see Mr. Rusch and his family after they graduated. Ms. Young dropped out of two high schools and often stayed with the family, with Mr. Rusch as her tutor, she said.
Photos of Mr. Rusch from a school trip
Mr. Rusch said he continued to see some students after they graduated, but declined to comment on whether the relationships were sexual.
Mr. Rusch and his wife presented a respectable front, Ms. Young said. He was against drugs and alcohol, said Ms. Young, which parents appreciated. “They were very seductive in a lot of ways,” she said.
“It sounds weird, but I really loved Kathy, his wife,” Ms. Young said, noting that they did art projects together.
But Mr. Rusch became “really controlling,” she said, wanting to know where she was at all times. He objected when she decided to take a trip out west with her family.
When she finally ended the relationship after around four years, he punched her in the stomach, she said. Kathy ran into the room, screaming, and stopped him, she said.
Mr. Rusch called the incident an anomaly, saying “I was remorseful from the minute it happened.”
Decades later, after the women reconnected through an alumni page on Facebook, they say they were shocked to find so many people with the same experiences. The stories poured out.
Psychiatrists say it can sometimes take decades for people who were sexually abused as children to acknowledge and discuss the experience. Fallout can include undermined relationships, addiction or depression that derails lives long after the abuse ends.
“It’s like you kind of go back and forth between yourself now and then and it’s very – it’s like some kind of a crazy ride,” said Ms. Young, who said she has been on psychiatric disability since 1995 and unable to work in large part because of the experience.
“I feel like someone who survived a cult,” she said.
Many were also struck anew after watching their own daughters, nieces and friends’ children turn 12.
“It suddenly hit me,” Ms. Hooker said. “I had told myself that we were adults then and that we kind of consented and I mean that’s kind of what he used with us–you said yes.”
Some have shaken off the experiences and forged successful lives, with husbands and children. Others, such as Ms. Young, say they have found themselves unable to work or sustain relationships. Some have achieved distinguished careers but struggled in their personal lives, still trapped by shame.
“I am somewhat haunted by it all,” Ms. Young said. “I want to find justice.”
Write to Sophia Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org