Cold Spring Harbor High School Class of 1982 graduates Lynda Cutbill and Susan Rule Sandler (formerly Susan Shanahan) filed complaints in the Islip federal courthouse today seeking to hold the Cold Spring Harbor School District and Board of Education accountable for enabling and emboldening the horrific and violent sexual abuse perpetrated against them by two teachers, whom the school knew to be dangerous predators of children.
According to the complaints, the District knew that Thomas Kohm, a venerated science teacher known for his Ivy League college connections, and art teacher William Kail, a talented artist in his own right who boasted about his connections in the art community and with art schools, had engaged in unchecked, predatory behavior toward its girl students for many years. Instead of firing these dangerous men or reporting their child sexual abuse crimes to the police, the District covered up the abuse.
Between 1978 and 1980, Thomas Kohm groomed, then horrifically and methodically abused, 14-year-old Susan Shanahan during her freshman and sophomore years. Kohm’s abuse included violently raping her during a school event—a 1980 Cotton Bowl Parade float competition in Dallas. Many of Kohm’s near-daily attacks occurred during the school day in a science classroom storage area.
In March of 1980, Susan reported the abuse to the District’s most powerful officials and warned them that she believed Kohm was also abusing his own children. The District made the cynical tactical decision not to report Kohm’s crimes to the police. It permitted Kohm to quietly resign. The District continued to grant Kohm access to the School after his resignation, enabling Kohm to relentlessly retaliate against Susan until her 1982 graduation. In 2003, Wade County in North Carolina convicted Kohm of the crime of indecent liberties with a child—he had sexually abused his granddaughters. He became a registered sex offender.
“I am coming forward today, not just for me, and not just for Mr. Kohm’s other victims, but also for the countless others who, like me, struggle throughout their lives to survive both the torture of being sexually abused and the paralyzing fear that asking for help, even from the adults that were charged with protecting children, would be futile and would instead be met with hostility and demeaning retaliation,” said Susan Rule Sandler. “For decades, the School District has kept what Mr. Kohm did to me in the back of my science classroom and in Dallas, along with the cruelty of how they treated me after his abuse came to light, a secret. No more. Filing this lawsuit is the next necessary step in the fight for accountability and justice.”
From 1979 through 1982, art teacher William Kail sexually abused Lynda Cutbill from the time she was in middle school until she graduated from high school. Kail used Lynda’s passion for art and ambition to be an artist to gain sexual access to her. Kail sexually abused her hundreds of times during the school day in his office and in an art storage area. The Complaint details that school administrators had been specifically told that Kail was abusing another high school girl. Instead of firing Kail, the District continued to grant him unsupervised access to the secluded areas within the school which he continued to use to abuse Lynda. The District chose silence over reporting Kail’s criminal behavior to the police or protecting Lynda.
“On an almost daily basis beginning in middle school and lasting through high school graduation, my art teacher, Mr. Kail, sexually abused me hundreds of times during my school day,” said Lynda Cutbill. “Mr. Kail weaponized my passion for art and talent as an artist by demanding that I submit to his relentless sexual assaults as a condition of him mentoring me to success as a college art student and career as an artist. Mr. Kail chose to make me his victim because he knew that my home life was tumultuous and that school officials, who had received prior reports that he sexually abused another student, would callously turn a blind eye to obvious sexual abuse danger signs. I am coming forward today because no child should ever have to endure what I did and no institution, no matter how powerful, should be permitted to benefit from their complicit silence by escaping justice.”
“I applaud Lynda and Susan for having the courage to come forward and demand accountability and justice,” said ECBAWM partner Debbie Greenberger, who, along with Pennsylvania attorney Andrew Shubin, represents the plaintiffs. “We know that they are not Kohm or Kail’s only victims. I shudder to think about how many other victims there are who have stayed silent for years, believing they were the only girl these trusted teachers abused. We encourage witnesses to contact us.”
Greenberger and Shubin credit the 2018 New York Child Victims Act, which reformed the statute of limitations to provide child sexual abuse survivors like Lynda and Susan with a window (which expires on August 14, 2021) to file civil claims and demand accountability. “All child sexual abuse victims should have access to justice,” said Greenberger, “no matter their age.”