Valley Forge Military Academy and College in Radnor, a premier training ground for the nation's military elite, is in turmoil.
Allegations of student assaults and grade-changing have rocked the school, which has produced such notable alumni as Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of Operation Desert Storm, and Adm. Gary Roughead, the new chief of naval operations.
Enrollment is down. Finances have worsened. There has been an exodus of faculty and staff, and many alumni and former parents are riled on many fronts. But the grade-changing allegations trump all.
"It has the potential to be extremely damaging," said Michael O'Rourke, a 1970 alumnus. "It makes our little gripes about this tradition or that tradition being overlooked or ignored seem rather trivial. We're talking about whether our diplomas or degrees are worth anything."
Much of the uproar follows the July 2005 installation of Tony McGeorge, a health and marketing executive, as the school's first civilian president.
Several longtime alumni who have criticized McGeorge's administration have received "persona non grata" letters barring them from parts of campus.
Enrollment, which five years ago totaled 690 seventh graders through second-year college students and was 542 last fall, has slipped to 482. The school blames the alumni critics for the decline.
Valley Forge, which reported a surplus of $1.46 million in the financial year ending June 30, 2004, had a deficit of $953,214 on June 30, 2006, according to the school's latest tax filing as a nonprofit.
Valley Forge says all of the allegations are baseless and part of a campaign by a small group of alumni upset that Valley Forge College began admitting women last fall.
"In our viewpoint, this is all, by and large, a gender-bias issue by this group," said John Miller, a public-relations expert retained by Valley Forge. "They have been furious since females were allowed in as cadets. They have been upset with the appointment of some females to the faculty, and that has been the basis of everything. . . . This little faction has stirred the pot as best they can."
Since McGeorge arrived, more than 41 faculty and staff members have left, according to an alumni-maintained list. The school contends that only 27 have left, and that most departed because they could not meet tough, new academic requirements.
Several former employees have sued, saying they were improperly forced out. The plaintiffs include former president Peter A.C. Long, a retired rear admiral whose federal suit alleges that he was removed in the fall of 2004 on trumped-up sexual harassment charges after he tangled with top trustees.
"I have hope for the future, but I don't know how we are going to get through this struggle," said Michael Kinslow, a California lawyer and a 1983 alumnus. "It appears that the vocal majority of the board of trustees is enamored with Mr. McGeorge's approach."
Some worried alumni and parents of former students say that approach involves trying to turn the military school into a prep school and compromising Valley Forge's standards and principles.
"We have to save the school. These private institutions today really help kids," said Jeffrey Winans, an archaeologist in Riddick, Fla., and a 1966 graduate.
Told of Miller's allegation that the dispute stems from the admission of women, alumnus O'Rourke, a former industrial sales manager who lives in Tucson, Ariz., was momentarily speechless.
"Initially, there was an uproar by some of the alumni, but it was mostly because the administration didn't handle it correctly," O'Rourke said. "Ever since, I think, most alumni see that the females are an excellent addition to the academy. To use this as a reason to cover up the Valley Forge Academy administration's scandals is beneath contempt."
Kinslow said a few women were enrolled in Valley Forge's junior college when he was there in the 1980s.
"This guy Miller is a stranger," he said, "and unless he can lay a foundation for how a cheating scandal and the allegations of . . . physical assault are related to concerns of gender, it lacks credibility."
Created in 1928 as a private, all-male college-prep boarding school that fosters leadership, Valley Forge Military Academy and College is not operated by the military. Its two-year college, however, offers one of the five early-commissioning programs in the country. Students who complete the two-year Senior ROTC program are commissioned second lieutenants in the Army, and some head to one of the service academies.
Valley Forge College admitted women at the urging of the coed service academies and at the prospect of losing federal funding for the Senior ROTC program.
But alumni and former Valley Forge parents who have expressed concerns say they are upset by what they view as the erosion of discipline and tradition since McGeorge, a former consultant to the school, was appointed its 10th president.
Robert K. Wrede, a Los Angeles lawyer who recently resigned as a trustee because serving consumed too much time, said he supported McGeorge. Noting the school's tough financial position, Wrede, a 1957 graduate, said, "I believe that Tony McGeorge is not only up to meeting the challenges but is making progress."
But other alumni vented - sometimes in profane language - on a Web site called CanMcGeorge.com. The site was shut down after McGeorge threatened to sue the operator.
The alumni, who have since created a site called "Save Valley Forge," contend they were galvanized in September when they heard about the grade-changing. They were troubled when they learned about the assault charges.
Two parents say they did not send their sons back to Valley Forge this fall because other students had attacked the boys and the school ignored their complaints. The alleged perpetrators were not disciplined, the parents say.
Radnor police and the Delaware County District Attorney's Office are investigating the assault on Inge Christiansen's 16-year-old son, who suffered four fractures near an eye and a fracture on the side of his head when two older students knocked him to the ground and kicked him in his barracks in mid-May.
After being treated in the school's infirmary, Christiansen said, her son was driven by campus security to Bryn Mawr Hospital. During surgery, a metal plate was screwed into the bones. Christiansen reported the assault to Radnor police.
She said her son had been attacked after breaking up a fight that evening. Sources at the school allege Christiansen's son precipitated the attack. The alleged perpetrators were permitted to graduate.
"It is not a reform school," Christiansen said. "I really wanted to send him to get a good military start. . . . I am so sorry that the school has changed so much that it is not as good as it was."
Her son now attends a public high school near their home in Southern California.
Caroline Kiracofe said that her 13-year-old son had been repeatedly tormented, including being kicked while doing push-ups, and that one of his arms had been branded with a five-pointed star during the spring semester.
She said her happy eighth grader, who had wanted to go to the Naval Academy, was now in therapy to deal with the trauma he had experienced in the barracks.
The mother, from Hollywood, Fla., said school officials had said her son agreed to be branded. "A 13-year-old who has been pummeled for weeks does not consent to a branding," she said.
Miller, the school spokesman, said he could not comment on the allegations because of privacy laws.
The grade-changing allegations surfaced in August when Richard Robitaille, who had been at Valley Forge for a decade and had been associate dean at the college, declined the post of interim dean. In a letter to McGeorge on Aug. 26, Robitaille said he had refused, in part, because Katherine Anderson, the top academic administrator, allegedly had changed several students' grades.
In his letter, Robitaille, who has a doctorate in education, outlined nine allegations of grade changes. In one case, he said, a student with 14 unauthorized absences got a B after his father complained to school officials about the original F.
In another, Robitaille said, Anderson allowed a student who had done no course work to withdraw on the last day of class because, she said, an F would ruin his career. And Robitaille alleged that a history teacher who had caught a cadet cheating in class had been ordered not to fail the student and to allow him to return to class.
McGeorge reportedly responded to Robitaille's letter, promising to look into the matter. After three weeks passed without anything happening, Robitaille sent the letter to the trustees.
Trustees, who said they would conduct an independent investigation, appointed Frederick Breitenfeld, a respected educator, a former head of WHYY, and a former Valley Forge trustee, to lead it. Breitenfeld did not return a call for comment.
In a letter to parents last week, McGeorge wrote that the investigation had determined "that the claims alleged by Mr. Robitaille were without merit. A week ago, the executive committee of the board of trustees reviewed the investigation and was satisfied with its findings."
Robitaille, who is working at another educational institution in New Jersey, declined to comment other than to indicate he was not contacted during the investigation.
Miller, the school spokesman, confirmed that Breitenfeld had not called Robitaille because the allegations were straightforward.
Valley Forge has been seeking to discredit Robitaille in the last few weeks, and Miller yesterday described him as "not credible." Miller said the former associate dean had resigned by e-mail July 19 and did not mention the grade-changing allegations until he sent a four-page "diatribe about perceived injustices."
Pat Picone, who is copresident of the parents' association with his wife, Patsy, said his family had had no concerns about the academics or safety of his son, who is in his fifth year at Valley Forge.
"We are really happy with the school," he said.
But David Eyler, whose son graduated from the academy in the spring after four years, said he was among those who had come to believe that military schools should not be run by civilians. "I have had three of my sons go to military schools," Eyler said. "It is a lot about tradition, and those guys [alumni] don't want to see those traditions die."
O'Rourke put it like this: "The alumni only wish to restore our alma mater to a state of its former greatness and reputation."
Valley Forge Military Academy & College
Location: 1001 Eagle Rd., Radnor.
Valley Forge Military Academy
All-male boarding and day school for seventh through 12th grades.
Charges: $32,476 for high school, $30,977 for middle school, $18,500 for day school.
Enrollment: 301, including six day students (279 high school, 22 middle school).
Valley Forge Military College
Coed, two-year college, one of five early-commissioning programs in the country.
SOURCE: Valley Forge Military Academy and CollegeEndText
For a slide show of cadet drills at the academy, visit http://go.philly.com/vfmaEndText