Billboard spurs look at claims of sexual assault decades ago at 2 Berkshire County schools
The cases stem from a billboard message, posted this month, encouraging people to report assaults that might have occurred at the former Sheffield Center School.
The sign was placed by the mother of one of the four people who have come forward with similar stories of being assaulted in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District. Two people are making allegations of abuse at the Sheffield Center School; two others allege abuse in New Marlborough.
Police refer to it as "the billboard case."
"We want to solve this thing if we can," said Sheffield Police Chief Eric Munson III, whose department has been contacted by the four victims.
The billboard asks, "Did something happen to you in the Janitor's Room at Sheffield Center School?" It unleashed a flurry of questions and comments on Facebook, in which some former students recounted stories that they or friends had been molested.
Since the sign went up Jan. 2 on State Road (Route 7), The Eagle has received calls from former students in the five-town district who say they were sexually assaulted and photographed.
The allegations describe incidents that typically took place in janitor's rooms at the Sheffield Center and New Marlborough schools, but sometimes elsewhere on school grounds, from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. The allegations involve several former employees.
The district is investigating allegations made by a man and a woman who say they were raped, molested and photographed in the janitor's room at the former Sheffield Center School, which is now the Bushnell Sage Library.
As part of his job as Title IX officer at the school district, Peter Dufresne investigates claims of sexual assault and has been in contact with the two former students. He referred all questions to Superintendent Beth Regulbuto, who said in an email that Dufresne will vet any allegations, "past or present," and that the district takes these "types of allegations very seriously."
"Our hopes are that the alleged victims are able to be heard and find closure in the months ahead," she added.
Both former students also have reported the events to Sheffield Police, who say they are continuing to gather information that might lead to a formal investigation. Munson said that if more people come forward to corroborate the allegations, it is possible that, despite so many years having passed, criminal charges could be filed. He said this would require consultation with the Berkshire District Attorney's Office.
Two other women, also prompted by the billboard, have reported to police that they were assaulted in the New Marlborough Central School.
Munson said they filed complaints alleging molestation in the janitor's room and elsewhere at the school. Those complaints are being addressed and will be handed over to New Marlborough Police, Munson said. It is unclear whether the women also reported these allegations to the district.
Munson noted that Officer Jacob Gonska, the department's lead sexual assault investigator, also is working with other law enforcement agencies. Munson said that, given the complex nature of the case, Gonska might require assistance.
The Eagle interviewed the mother and son, as well as the other women who have since come forward, but is withholding names because of the nature of the case and since no charges have been filed.
The woman who paid for the billboard told The Eagle that her son recently recovered repressed memories of being assaulted in the janitor's room at the former Sheffield school. She said the trauma has led to drug and alcohol abuse as well as relationship problems.
She said Dufresne offered her an opportunity to meet so the district could investigate her son's claims.
The son was the first to file a complaint with Sheffield Police. Munson confirmed to The Eagle that the investigation in that case, with no corroborating witnesses or substantive evidence, reached a dead end. The age of the case also made it difficult to prosecute.
The billboard that prompted the recent reports will be moved farther north on Route 7 on Feb. 4, for another four weeks. The monthly rate for the 11-foot-by-23-foot sign is $2,390, according to Lamar Advertising.
Munson said the billboard appears to be having an impact.
"It's stirred some stuff up ... I think it's opening some doors," he said. "The more people that say, `This happened to me and happened to my friend' — it goes down the line."
He said it is important for people to come forward.
"And we can come see them," he said. "We have cars; we'll travel."
Munson said it will take time.
"We'll just have to wait and see," he said. "It may not happen quickly."
He praised the district for taking action.
"No one is blaming the current school board or administration," he said of the allegations. "And I think the school is doing the right thing by opening up their own investigation."
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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