ROME, Ga. — For years, one man says he was on a mission to get administrators of a prestigious Georgia boarding school to acknowledge something had gone too far behind the confines of the campus gates.
They did. And the accusers keep coming forward.
No one in this story will tell you they got anything less than a stellar education on the picturesque grounds of the Darlington School.
But many will say there was an ugly secret that spanned more than a decade: Sexual abuse at the hands of a personable instructor named Roger Stifflemire.
"Most people who I've spoken with had never told anybody about it, but they've carried this around for years," New York psychotherapist Tim Lee told Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Nicole Carr.
Lee let go of his secret in 1999. That’s when he confronted Darlington about what he says Stifflemire had done a decade before.
“I think I fit his profile, you know. Coming from a single-family home, and you know, and I had very boyish looks,” Lee said.
Lee said he was first invited to Stifflemire’s campus apartment with other boys when he was 14.
“I remember he laid out some freshly made cornbread, which is really good, and we were all hanging out and talking and laughing,” Lee told Carr.
Lee said he began making regular visits to the instructor’s apartment, where cigarettes and porn were plentiful.
“I think like that’s where his grooming behaviors started was with this, with this nudity that he was showing … I would just leave his apartment whenever I felt like I’d stayed long enough to satisfy him,” Lee said.
Stifflemire would send him down the hall with a note to show faculty members after lights out.
He said faculty members never questioned him.
“They would just take the note, yeah, and again -- looking back, Nicole, it’s scary,” he said.
Stifflemire reminded Lee of his authority when Lee stopped going to his apartment. Lee was brought into a meeting with administrators about drug abuse. Stifflemire was in that meeting. And he was in the staircase when it was over.
“He said ‘Do you see what happens when you stop coming to my apartment?’ Those were his words. And then he walks off. And that shakes you to the bone right there,” Lee said.
In 1999, with the support of therapists and family, Lee went back to Darlington to tell an administrator who lived in the dorm at the time of the abuse.
“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘That’s hearsay,’” Lee said
Lee asked for an investigation and then went on with his life. But in 2014, he wondered if he really was the only one. He urged Darlington to send a letter to alumni. Three years later, the school did, outlining Lee’s claim.
“While these allegations do not include physical contact,” the letter said, “they do describe an uncomfortable and inappropriate experience” for the student.
“Essentially, they were alerting the alumni to that fact. Restating some of their basic core principles and promising to investigate and get to the bottom of it. And also they asked for any information that anyone might have about that kind of information,” said Darren Penn, Lee’s attorney.
After the letter went out, more former students came forward.
“I answered the phone and he goes, ‘Hi, this is Chris and I was sexually abused by Roger Stifflemire, too,’” Lee said.
Chris Gaba lives in Florida, but he traveled to Atlanta to tell his story.
“He used his authority as a teacher and a dorm parent to obtain my trust. He then exploited that trust and sexually abused me,” Gaba said.
Gaba hopes his story will compel lawmakers to strengthen the Hidden Predator Act, extending the statute of limitations for sexual assault victims and holding nonprofits and businesses accountable.
Gaba, Lee and several other former students are suing Stifflemire and Darlington School. The lawsuit says during his time at Darlington, Stifflemire sexually abused students in his apartment, his car and off campus, including trips to Lake Jordan in Alabama.
Time and time again, the lawsuit said, each boy thought he was the only one.
Stifflemire and Darlington have filed dismissal motions that will be heard in Floyd County next month.
Darlington says Stifflemire was acting outside the scope of his employment when any alleged sexual abuse occurred.
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