Twelve women who attended a celebrated school for the deaf claim a housemaster abused them for years, and the school did nothing to prevent it.
CreditCreditCaitlin Ochs for The New York Times
During the last few years, the world has received a thorough education in the psychology of sexual abuse victims — the challenges of coming to terms with trauma, of erasing shame and doubt, of summoning the courage to come forward.
But what if the act of speaking your truth seemed impossible in the most literal sense? What if your abuse amounted to a re-silencing because a twist of genetic fate left you unable to hear or speak, and your silence had confined you all along?
On Wednesday morning, 12 women, all of them students at the New York School for the Deaf during the 1960s and ’70s, filed a suit against it in New York State Supreme Court in Westchester County.
Making use of the Child Victims Act passed by the state Legislature this year, one of more than 700 cases to do so, they claim that they were sexually abused by the dormitory housemaster, a man long since dead, who molested multiple girls on a daily basis, leaving them to struggle with the attendant agonies for decades.
Steve Straus, a lawyer representing the school, said in response that the New York School for the Deaf “exists to educate deaf and hearing-impaired children and provide the tools needed for lifelong success. As this matter is in suit, I am unable to comment other than to say that the claims allege conduct occurring about 50 years ago.”
Also called Fanwood, the New York School for the Deaf is more than 200 years old. It had celebrated benefactors from the beginning. DeWitt Clinton was a trustee and served as the first board president.
For decades Fanwood operated as a boarding school. Parents would send children, some of them toddlers, to live there during the week on the theory that deaf children required a lot of work to catch up to their hearing peers.
One of the plaintiffs in the suit, Damita Jo Damiano, was 4 years old when she arrived at the campus in Westchester in 1964. Ms. Damiano came from a multigenerational deaf family in the Bronx; her father went to Fanwood, and her brother was a student as well.
Her initial time there coincided roughly with the appointment of a man named Joseph Casucci to the school’s supervisory staff. Mr. Casucci had been brought in as a housemaster, a role that left him presiding over the dormitory life of very young girls.