Planet Princeton

Decades later, victims of a former Lawrenceville School housemaster’s sexual harassment share their stories

Escape

Brent McCowan fled his prep school about six weeks before graduation and didn’t return until 40 years later.

Back in 1978, when he was a boarding student living in McPherson House at the prestigious Lawrenceville School, he says his housemaster, Bruce Presley, summoned him to his apartment at 10 p.m. after lights out to punish him again for leaving the campus without permission.

Just a few months earlier, McCowan, then 17,  was caught off campus without permission. He said Presley, a physics teacher at the school at the time, told him he had a choice — either be reported to the school and likely be expelled given that he had previously been suspended for a week for playing a practical joke on a freshman, or meet him early in the morning for the next four days to do a series of  “calisthenics” as his punishment.

“I had no choice but to agree. The following morning Mr. Presley came into my room at 4 a.m. to wake me for the punishment,” he said. “My room was unique. It was a two-room suite with a private bathroom and shower at the far lower end of the house, away from all foot traffic. I had a roommate who took one of the bedrooms for himself.”

McCowan said Presley instructed him to get up and come as he was, in boxers with no shirt. He followed Presley into an abandoned common room in the house and was told to do 100 situps, 100 pushups and 100 jumping jacks. “I complied while he leered on, wearing his bathrobe,” he said. “ I felt very uncomfortable in this situation, sensing that this was somehow wrong and unethical.”

He did as many exercises as he could, and then he said Presley told him to hit the shower.

“As I turned to go back into my room and use my private bathroom he said ‘No, you will use the common shower upstairs.’ This also seemed very strange, as I had never use the common shower before and it made no sense. I complied and grabbed my towel, heading up the stairs,” McCowan said. “About three minutes into the shower, Mr. Presley appeared again in his robe. He instructed me to do another set of calisthenics while naked. I was shocked, appalled and embarrassed. I sat down on the tile floor with water running and proceeded to do situps. Mr. Presley’s face was unforgettable, like a knowing grin. My experience was so disturbing that I stopped after a dozen or so and told him I would not do anymore. He left the shower shortly thereafter and I returned to my room. The next day I was doubled over with stomach pain. It took the weekend to recover.”

When Presley summoned McCowan to his apartment late at night a few months later, he was afraid, given the past encounter, that things were going to escalate, and that the housemaster was going to force him to have sex with him.

“It was fight or flight, and I chose flight. It had been clear that the first occasion was sexual in nature and he wouldn’t hesitate to use his power again to achieve his desired result. All I could envision was a blatant sexual advance that I could and would not handle. I made the executive decision that I would not allow this to happen to me and that nothing could be worth that, including graduation and attending college,” he said. “I knew I had to be out before he became the wiser. I packed my bags, threw them out of my first story bedroom window, climbed out, and got my car. I was scared to death. I was having the first of many anxiety attacks in my life.”

He drove his 1974 Volkswagen Beetle to his family’s house in North Jersey, thought about how disappointed his parents would be, and says he considered ending things by driving head on into a telephone pole on the way home. He met with his father the next day and told him he had left Lawrenceville and was moving out of state. “I could not tell him why at the time. I saw him cry for the first time in my life,” he said.

He said he sent a letter to the headmaster of Lawrenceville in the fall of 1980 describing what happened, and received no response.

Even though he did not graduate from the Lawrenceville School, McCowan moved on and tried to forget his experience with Presley. “I totally buried it,” he said. He was admitted to New York University, later transferred to the University of California at San Diego, and eventually became an educational filmmaker. He says he went through periods of depression as an adult, suffering from feelings of self-hatred, a sense of powerlessness, and a belief that no one listened to him. Only recently, after learning about some of Presley’s other victims and talking with them, did he connect the dots.

A movement, a letter, and a newspaper story

A series of events unfolded this winter that led McCowan and other victims to speak up. The Me Too movement, revelations about the abuse of gymnasts, and other incidents of abuse and harassment that sparked public outrage gave them courage to tell their stories. The time seemed right. And then there was the latest letter from the school.

In December, Lawrenceville School Headmaster Stephen Murray sent a letter to the Lawrenceville community and alumni detailing the school’s recent efforts to bring to light any reports of adult-student sexual misconduct at the school,  past or present. The December letter reported back on what school representatives had learned so far.

Presley is not referred to by name in the letter. Murray reports that any incidents “did not involve physical contact with students, but clearly constituted serious harassment.” He added that the serious adult misconduct involved “a wholly inappropriate form of discipline, which was clearly harassment; we have no information that it involved any physical contact with students.”

According to the letter, a number of people interviewed by school representatives during the investigation into any possible misconduct had secondhand information about the housemaster, “who, in the words of one alumnus, engaged in an ‘abuse of power’ and ‘sexual harassment.’”

“According to the reports, students who had broken a school rule could avoid detention or other discipline by agreeing to perform pushups fully unclothed, while the teacher in question watched,” reads the letter. “At the time, the administration conducted some level of review, but it is not known whether any follow-up action was taken. The housemaster left Lawrenceville to pursue a second career and does not appear to have returned to teaching. As part of our due diligence process, counsel attempted to contact the former faculty member for comment, but received no reply.”

Some alumni who had endured the naked exercises read the December letter and contacted Murray to share information. Others questioned whether the school had done a thorough enough investigation into Presley and the incidents, and reached out to Murray.

Two years earlier, alumnus Guy Dorgan of Robbinsville, who was also a member of McCowan’s class, searched the name Bruce Presley on the internet and was surprised to read a piece from 2013 in the South Florida Gay News that “glowingly” described Presley’s life as a prominent gay entrepreneur, philanthropist, and documentarian. The former headmaster told the reporter for the story that he had lived “a charmed life.” Presley founded Lawrenceville Press, a company that made computer textbooks for students. He later sold the Pennington business and moved on to a new venture in South Florida. In 2016, Dorgan posted a comment on the bottom of the story that was critical of Presley, but the only other commenters in response were supporters of Presley in Florida.

Dorgan contacted the editor of the newspaper in December of 2017 after Murray’s letter went out, and asked him if he would do a story. Other victims also searched Presley’s name online and a few posted comments as well. Classmate John Watkin, another Presley victim, was one of the commenters. He gave the editor names of other potential victims like McCowan. Six alleged victims talked to the reporter.

The story in the South Florida Gay News came out on Jan. 31. More than a half dozen additional men from the class of 1978 have reached out to Watkin and their classmates since then to say that they too were victims. On Feb. 2, the Lawrenceville School  wrote up a press statement about the accusations in response to the story. School officials declined to comment to Planet Princeton beyond the statement.

“Mr. Presley’s conduct towards our former students is abhorrent, unacceptable, and contrary to all the values of Lawrenceville,” reads the statement. “We offer our heartfelt sympathy and apologies to those affected by his behavior. We are in contact with several victims, and are committed to working with them and any others who may come forward to address their mistreatment by Mr. Presley.”

Bruce Presley

Presley, now 79, worked at the school from 1960 to 1984. So far he has not responded to requests from the South Florida Gay News, reporters from other media outlets, or the school to respond to the allegations.

In the press statement from the school, officials said Lawrenceville remains committed to eliciting any new information about Mr. Presley, or any other incidents at the school.

“Based on this new information, we have retained independent investigators who are experienced in working with victims in matters like these, to learn the extent of Mr. Presley’s misconduct and examine the school administration’s response to his behavior,” reads the statement. “We will also again reach out to our alumni to see if they have any further information about Mr. Presley. We will update the community when we have new information to share and will report on the investigation when it is complete.”

A meeting

Lawrenceville School representatives wanted to interview the victims from McCowan’s class who had come forward. The men preferred meeting as a group at the school, and Lawrenceville paid all the expenses for them to travel to the campus last week to talk to school officials and lawyers about the incidents. Two of the men from the class live in the Tri-State area, and three were flown in for the meeting. One victim did not want to participate.

Last Wednesday, McCowan visited the Lawrenceville School for the first time since that senior year, his classmates by his side. “It was strange, walking down those hallways again,” he said.

He and others who attended the meeting said they felt supported by school leaders. “It was a good meeting,“ he said. “The headmaster said he believed us and so did the board.”

McCowan hopes the school will take measures to be proactive in addition to offering to pay for counseling to the victims who feel they need it. The school could make a donation to a local organization that helps teens as a gesture, for example, or starting an initiative to to build an online curriculum for students, faculty and staff to raise awareness about sexual harassment, abuse of power and potential school culture issues.

Dorgan said the group did not know what to expect from Lawrenceville officials at the meeting and the men were nervous. He made it clear that no one wanted to sue the school. The men wanted to tell their stories, wanted the school to locate other victims, and offer them help in the form of counseling if they need it. Officials tried to assure them and make them feel comfortable, Dorgan  said. “At that meeting we felt that Lawrenceville had our backs,” he said. “The school was helping us because people believed us. It made us feel better.”

Dorgan said he was never a huge fan of the Lawrenceville School when he went there or after he graduated. But he said he came out of the meeting with the headmaster last week feeling much better about the school than he ever had.

This story is the first in a two-part series about the Lawrenceville School’s efforts to investigate any potential abuse at the school, past or present. 

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Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

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