Elite School Faces Claims of Sexual Abuse by Headmaster

NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – A detailed federal complaint filed Thursday accuses the former headmaster of a prestigious Upper East Side private school of having sexually assaulted a Brooklyn teenager who was living with him in the 1980s and helping around the house in exchange for free tuition.

J.S., as the alleged victim is identified, brought the suit in New Jersey with the law firm Cuti Hecker Wang. She by says the abuse took place over several months in 1986 at headmaster Gardner Dunnan’s Manhattan home and New Jersey beach house.

A child of divorce who witnessed domestic abuse, J.S. says her father’s then-girlfriend arranged for her to meet Dunnan in 1986 at his summer home in Putnam County, New York.

Dunnan, now 78, allegedly offered the 14-year-old tuition-free admission to the elite school in exchange for her service as live-in babysitter and domestic worker.

During the period of time she attended the Dalton School, according to the complaint, the plaintiff’s parents transferred full-time power of guardianship to the school. Dunnan was her caretaker at home.

The lawsuit alleges that Dunnan assaulted the teenager on four separate occasions between September 1986 and January 1987.

“In the course of these various assaults, Dunnan repeatedly touched J.S. without her consent, fondling her breasts, sticking his tongue in her mouth, disrobing and groping her, laying on top of her, and thrusting his genitals against her,” the complaint states.

The complaint recounts J.S. waking up on the couch at Dunnan’s New Jersey beach house to find the headmaster allegedly lying on top of her, fondling her breasts.

According to the complaint, the Dalton School, which is named as a co-defendant, paid or reimbursed Dunnan for some or all of his expenses related to his trips to the beach house.

J.S. aims to hold the school accountable for Dunnan’s alleged abuses.

“Dalton knew or should have known that Dunnan engaged in acts of inappropriate, abusive, and/or harmful behavior toward individuals over whom he had power or control and/or provided Dunnan unreasonable, unfettered, and unsupervised discretion such that it knew or should have known that Dunnan would engage in such acts or behavior,” the complaint asserts.

Dunnan’s wife ordered the live-in student to move out after nearly catching her husband dry-humping the 14-year-old in the dark at his Manhattan apartment, according to the lawsuit.

J.S. says she found herself unable to continue her education at the Dalton School after the alleged assaults and transferred to another school soon after.

“She walked the halls feeling simultaneously disgusted and as if she herself had no value. She also feared that at any moment she might come face to face with Dunnan, who plainly believed that, as headmaster, he could do anything to her, at any time,” the complaint states.

Under New York’s statute of limitations, the former Dalton student missed the chance to file a criminal or civil claim against the headmaster after she turned 23. In New Jersey, however, the statutes of limitations are more flexible.

According to the complaint, after decades of silence, J.S. began to consider the dynamics of her abuse after numerous women came forward in the fall of 2016 to publicly accuse then-GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump of sexual harassment.

In addition to representing J.S.,  Cuti Hecker Wang is currently representing former “Apprentice” contestant Summer Zervos in defamation claims against Trump, whom she alleges kissed and groped her over a decade ago.

Mariann Wang, an attorney for J.S., said in a statement Thursday: “Survivors of sex abuse often spend decades convinced it was their fault or overwhelmed with shame. The #metoo movement has shifted the ground beneath all our feet. It has allowed our client to begin at last to confront and begin to address what happened to her.”

Dunnan was the headmaster of the Dalton School from 1975 to 1997, when he resigned after it was revealed that he had engaged in a romantic and sexual affair with a married female teacher he supervised at the school.

Alumni of the prestigious school alumni include Chevy Chase, Sean Lennon, Anderson Cooper and Claire Danes. Dalton was also featured as Mariel Hemingway’s school in the 1979 Woody Allen film “Manhattan.”

“Dalton first received news of these allegations this morning,” the school said in a statement Friday. “We take these issues very seriously and support any victim of sexual abuse.”

Dunnan could not be reached for comment.

J.S. seeks compensatory and punitive damages for alleged violation of the New Jersey Child Sexual Abuse Act, battery, infliction of emotional distress and negligent hiring, retention and supervision.

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