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New misconduct claims emerge against former renowned Masterman chess coach

The latest allegations come after an Inquirer and Daily News report of three sex-abuse claims by former chess players at a North Philadelphia elementary school.

Chess Coach Stephen Shutt in 2013 at Masterman
Chess Coach Stephen Shutt in 2013 at MastermanRead moreED HILLE / File Photograph

Eleven former students at Philadelphia's Julia R. Masterman School say nationally acclaimed chess coach Stephen Shutt acted inappropriately around them, at times touching them or walking around naked or partially naked when they were in middle or high school in the late 1980s through the mid-2000s.

One said that during his middle-school years, he was routinely "spooned" by Shutt as they slept in the same bed during out-of-town tournaments and that Shutt rested his hand on top of the student's underwear for the night. The man, now 41, said he became so distraught by the unwanted attention that he intentionally tanked his grades so he would not be accepted into Masterman's top-ranked high school.

Another former middle-school chess team member said he and his parents complained to Masterman's principal in the 1990s about Shutt's gratuitous touching and frequent nudity in front of students in hotel rooms during chess tournaments.

And a former Bucks County resident said he was about 14 and living in Morrisville in the early 1970s when Shutt gave him alcohol, showed him pornography, and made a sexual advance toward him.

The latest allegations come in the wake of an Inquirer and Daily News report last month about sex-abuse claims made against Shutt by former chess players at Frederick Douglass Elementary School in North Philadelphia, where Shutt had initiated scholastic chess in the city in 1971 and taught math for two decades before transferring to Masterman.

Together, they suggest a decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct or grooming by a teacher and chess coach who led scores of Philadelphia public school students to state and national chess championships.

Shutt was removed from his position as chess coach at Masterman on Oct. 19, when the School District learned from a reporter of the former Douglass students' allegations. He had been coaching chess at the Spring Garden school as a volunteer after he retired in 2012 from teaching in the school's gifted program.

Shutt, 76, denied the accusations by the former Douglass students last month. He has since referred all questions to his lawyer, Lloyd Long. In an email responding to the new allegations, Long wrote: "We have only recently been made aware of these decades-old allegations against Mr. Shutt and have begun a careful investigation into the claims."

Lee Whack, a School District spokesperson, said the district had only one complaint on file for Shutt, related to a summer 2012 camping trip he took with Masterman graduates, and determined that no inappropriate conduct took place.

‘Life-changing’ opportunities

Shutt's sterling reputation as a chess coach and his devotion to his players opened new vistas to many student chess players. With him they traveled widely — across the country and some even to Iceland — to compete in chess tournaments or matches.

The former middle-school student who tanked his grades, and who attended Masterman in the late 1980s to early 1990s, recalled traveling with the chess team to Dearborn, Mich., where the team won a national championship. On the return trip, he said, he met then-Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham at the airport and they talked for hours.

"For me, that was life-changing," he said.

And for at least a while, he tolerated his coach. During such trips, Shutt's misconduct emerged in stages, the man said. Shutt started off by telling dirty jokes, then his arm would linger longer over a boy's shoulder, then he would pat a boy's chest, the man said.

During out-of-town chess tournaments, Shutt routinely shared a room with three chess players in a bid to save money, former students said. With two beds to a room, the coach would share a bed with one of the boys. The now 41-year-old man said he was "chosen" by Shutt to sleep in his bed.

He, like other former students, spoke on condition of anonymity. The Inquirer and Daily News do not identify possible sex-abuse victims without their consent.

Another man said he was about 13 in the mid-1990s when he went on a summer camping trip to Yosemite National Park with Shutt and current or former team members. In a hotel room before the trip, Shutt got into a sleeping bag to try it out, he said.

"He looked right at me and he said, 'Why don't you get in?' " the man recalled. "It became clear to me at that age that he was making an advance. I said, 'No, I'm not getting in.' "

Another former student said that when he was 16 or 17 in the mid-2000s, Shutt "sort of crawled over to me" after having a couple of drinks and started hugging him while he was trying to fall asleep. He recalled shrugging uncomfortably, and Shutt then going to his bed. The man said that when he was in his early 20s, Shutt made a sexual advance toward him, but he rebuffed the attempt.

And another chess team member from the late 1990s to early 2000s said he shared a bed with Shutt during out-of-town tournaments. He said he couldn't recall if the coach improperly touched him, but said: "I think he probably did. For years as an adult, I had a nightmare where I would wake up in a dark room. A voice would whisper in my ear and someone would be touching me inappropriately. And in my dream I just knew it was Steve Shutt."

For the 41-year-old man — the one who traveled to Michigan for the tournament — the nightmares were vivid.

"I had to literally sleep next to this man with his arm around me for years," he said. Shutt's hand would then drift to his genital area and stay there through the night, he said.

"There are times when I never slept," the man recalled. "I'm literally trying to reconcile, 'How did I get here? How did I get chosen?' "

"My only escape, I felt, was to flunk out of Masterman, to get out of there as fast as possible," he said. He didn't fail out, he said, but made sure his grades weren't good enough to get into Masterman High School, ranked among the best public schools in Pennsylvania, just so he could get away from its chess coach.

Although he has succeeded as an entrepreneur in Philadelphia, he said, "I always wonder: If I stayed at Masterman, where could I have gone?' "

Complaints were made

Ten of the former Masterman students described times when Shutt would be naked or partly naked with students in the shower area of a sports club, in a hot tub, or in a hotel room after a shower. Some said that made them uncomfortable.

One former student said he was in middle school when he and his father met with then-principal Barbara Bravo in the 1990s and complained about Shutt's nudity in front of students as well as his long hugs and back and shoulder rubbing.

According to the man's father, Bravo said their complaint would be noted in Shutt's personnel file but expunged if no other concern about his behavior arose within a specific time period.

Bravo retired in 2004 after 15 years as Masterman principal. Reached by phone last month, she initially did not recall meeting with the father and son, and said no complaints were raised about Shutt during her tenure. In a subsequent interview, however, she said she remembered the meeting and their complaint, but contended the father and son "never" asserted inappropriate touching or frequent nudity by Shutt.

She recalled their mentioning just one incident — Shutt's towel dropping after he got out of a hotel room shower while students were around.

Bravo also told the Inquirer and Daily News that after that complaint, she spoke with Shutt and wrote him a letter advising him not to dress in front of students. She said she did not recall saying anything at the meeting about the possibility of the complaint being expunged.

Whack, the School District spokesperson, said district officials could find no record of that complaint in Shutt's Masterman file. In an email, Whack said the only complaint about Shutt stemmed from a 2012 non-school-sanctioned summer camping trip the coach took with then-Masterman graduates.

"The student raising the concern was not on the trip," which he said included skinny-dipping. "The District looked into the matter, including talking to the graduates and Mr. Shutt. … The graduates attending the camping trip told the District that no inappropriate conduct took place."

Marjorie Neff, who served as principal from 2006 to 2014, confirmed that the skinny-dipping incident was the only complaint raised about Shutt during her tenure.

The district did not have records from Shutt's days at Douglass. The school has since been taken over by two successive charter-school companies.

‘He would latch on to kids’

The allegations, however, stretch back to the start of Shutt's tenure as a teacher.

Richard Woolf, 60, said Shutt targeted him in the early 1970s after Shutt had started teaching in Philadelphia and they both lived in Morrisville, Bucks County. He said Shutt first hung out with Woolf's older brothers when they were in their early teens.

"He would latch on to kids around 13 or 14 years old," Woolf said.

Woolf was about 14, he said, when Shutt, then about 29, brought him back to Shutt's apartment. There, Woolf said, Shutt gave him alcohol, played a pornographic film, began masturbating, then took a back scratcher and rubbed it on Woolf's pants.

He "kept asking me to take my pants off, and I wouldn't do it," Woolf recalled. "Finally, he got frustrated, shut the film off, and took me home."

Woolf said he never reported it to anyone at the time. He reached out to the Inquirer and Daily News after reading last month's article about the former Douglass students' allegations.

"I just want to make sure nothing like this ever happens to another kid," Woolf said.

Also as a result of the article, Philadelphia police have launched an investigation into the accusations by the former Douglass students — one who said he was 11 when he alleges Shutt performed oral sex on him and two others who said they witnessed the chess coach doing the same to other boys, all in Shutt's Fairmount home in the 1980s.

"We recognize the serious nature of the allegations that have been brought to our attention," the School District's Whack said of the former Douglass and Masterman students' accusations. "All of the allegations, if true, reveal conduct that is inappropriate and unacceptable by a District employee or volunteer. We continue to encourage anyone with knowledge of this type of conduct to contact the Philadelphia Police Department."