At first it was just a rumor at the prestigious boarding school: A 15-year-old sophomore was having a sexual affair with the 25-year-old music teacher.

Both denied a relationship, and administrators could prove nothing.

Months later, the girl's mother found evidence of the affair, including letters from the teacher to her daughter.

What happened next could offer a glimpse into the past culture at the Solebury School, now the subject of a criminal investigation, accused of tolerating sexual abuse of students or misconduct by staff over decades.

After hearing the rumor in the mid-1990s, administrators never called the police. The teacher, David Chadwick, was allowed to move quietly from the school's rural campus near New Hope and resume teaching elsewhere. The girl left the school, too. And when her parents asked for their deposit back for the next academic year, Solebury refused.

Two years passed before the teenager and her mother contacted Solebury Township police, and Chadwick was arrested. He was later convicted and jailed.

The school's handling of the allegations against Chadwick are detailed in depositions taken in 1998 for a civil suit that Solebury later settled with the family for about $700,000.

In the documents, reviewed by The Inquirer, the progressive, close-knit school was described as a place where teachers were encouraged to spend time with students outside the classroom. And it was not uncommon for students to visit teachers in their on-campus apartments or to take weekend trips together.

"I realized what I was doing was wrong, but I would have realized that wherever I was," Chadwick testified. "I think that I thought that . . . within the context of the way that Solebury functioned on a day-to-day basis, it's very conceivable to get away with it."

Until this summer, Chadwick's case was the only publicly known instance of abuse at the 89-year-old private school.

Since then, Solebury officials have apologized online and in letters to alumni for abuse of students they say occurred between the 1950s and 1970s. They also revealed one of its dead founders as an abuser.

The Bucks County District Attorney's Office launched an investigation and since has expanded the scrutiny of the school into the 2000s.

Tom Wilschutz, Solebury's current headmaster, was not at the school then, but he said Chadwick's abuse was inexcusable and illegal. "In my administration, we have sought to be open and transparent and to respond with care and concern to the needs of our students - past and present," Wilschutz said Friday.

Chadwick, who public records suggest still lives in the Philadelphia area, did not respond to an e-mail from The Inquirer. His former student declined to comment. (The Inquirer does not name victims of sex abuse without their permission.) Her mother also declined to comment.

Their lawyer for the civil suit, Paul Perlstein, said that Solebury at the time lacked clearly defined boundaries between students and teachers. Top administrators "were clueless," he said.

John Brown, the school's former headmaster, did not return a phone call seeking comment last week. The Inquirer could not reach Geoff Tilden, a former assistant headmaster at the school.

Jeffrey Quinn, the lawyer who represented Solebury in the civil matter, declined to comment.

The records show Chadwick's relationship with the teen began in 1993, his second year as a music and drama teacher at the school and her first as a boarding student.

That winter, a student had told Solebury's nurse that Chadwick and the girl were sleeping together. Officials confronted them, but both denied the rumor "categorically," Brown said in his deposition.

Brown and Tilden testified that they were unaware at the time that a sexual relationship involving a 15-year-old student was illegal. They also did not consider calling police or consulting a lawyer. The rumor came from one student, which was not enough, they said.

The administrators forbade Chadwick and the teen from spending private time together. Another teacher became her adviser, but the girl remained in Chadwick's classes.

Still, Brown and Tilden admitted that they put in place no system to monitor Chadwick and the girl. The administrators' strategy was to ask staff to watch and listen for more "scuttlebutt" from students, one testified.

The affair continued, with Chadwick and the girl meeting in the school's music building at 4 a.m. or making clandestine trips to New Jersey motels. That April, Solebury's administrators offered to renew Chadwick's teaching contract.

Said Tilden: "We decided that we didn't have any proof that the relationship had been going on and that at that point, he had followed all the restrictions, as far as we knew, and he had been a good teacher all along, so we would issue him a new contract."

Chadwick declined. When the school year ended in June, he prepared to leave, and the girl returned home. That's when her mother discovered her diary and Chadwick's letters detailing the relationship.

The mother called the school.

Brown said he did not remember if the mother asked him to call police. But he said she asked him several times "to please make sure [Chadwick] would never work again."

The mother told Tilden that Chadwick had confessed the relationship, both later testified. But Tilden said that the mother "wouldn't bring [her daughter] to us. She wouldn't show us the letters. She wouldn't cooperate with us anymore, and there was nothing we could do at that point."

Tilden said he wanted to report the matter to Bucks County's Children and Youth Services Agency. But he said the mother asked him not to - and the school's lawyers said he didn't have to.

The girl's parents asked Solebury to refund their deposit for the next school year. Solebury declined, stating such payments were nonrefundable.

Chadwick said Brown told him to move out "immediately." So he moved to North Jersey and got another teaching job.

The ending did not surprise Chadwick.

In his deposition, he testified that he had heard from other Solebury staffers about teachers who had been asked to leave - but not fired - after having inappropriate contact with students, including a man who had sexual relations with "several" girls.

Chadwick was also asked if he was ever confused over how the school might respond if he got caught.

"Yeah," Chadwick said. "For a while it seemed more like because of what happened in the past . . . that it was less likely that the school would prosecute or maybe even fire me so much as just like, you know, they would make me leave."

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