Ray Dackerman remembers the first night in the Scoutmaster’s tent, a swirl of whispers, darting flashlights, and rustlings in the sleeping bags, of pretending to sleep. Of arriving home the next day, smelling of smoke, closing the door of his bedroom, breaking into sobs. “All I wanted to do was go camping,” he said.
Ray Dackerman was 12. “The clock stopped for all us,” he says.
Decades later and 700 miles removed, the Gastonia man finds himself at the center of a sexual-assault scandal rocking a venerable prep school in one of America’s wealthiest towns.
The Pingry School of Short Hills, N.J., announced Tuesday that three of its faculty members assaulted dozens of students in a pattern of sexual abuse that stretched across decades. Officials of the 166-year-old school says Ted Alton, an assistant principal, teacher and coach, singlehandedly molested at least 27 students during the 1970s.
Ray Dackerman among them. Another of Alton’s former targets lives in York County. Steve Crew, an Oregon attorney whose firm was hired by the victims to investigate the scandal, says Alton’s confirmed victims at Pingry alone number almost 50.
“It’s clear that these children did not know what to do, did not know what was happening, did not know it was even wrong given all the roles this guy played. He permeated their lives,” said Crew, a specialist in abuse cases.
I always had this skewed view: ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ... I’m not going to have any peace until my story is told
Ray Dackerman of Gastonia
On Friday, Dackerman, who “never had anyone to talk to,” said he’s speaking up for himself, the other Pingry students, and abuse victims everywhere who have not stepped forward.
Friday night, he then will try to explain what happened to his young son.
For most of his life, Dackerman said he tried to suppress the memories of the two years of Alton’s abuse – which took place in Alton’s office, his car, a locker room, and at Alton’s home where Dackerman says he babysat for his abuser’s daughter. Around Pingry, he was known as one of “Ted’s kids.”
Ground Zero was “Ted’s Tent,” which Dackerman says Alton set up on camping trips or in his own backyard. Dackerman says as a seventh-grader, he was invited to sleep in the tent with four or five other boys on Alton’s initial Boy Scout trip. That makes him one of the first Pingry students known to have been molested.
On another instance, town police dropped by the tent in Alton’s backyard and asked if everything was OK. Alton said it was, and the police left. Dackerman, who also was in the tent, thought for a fleeting moment that Alton at last would be stopped.
Last year, a group of Alton’s victims, who call themselves the Pingry Survivors, came forward to report Alton’s abuse. The probe by the group’s lawyers is credited with persuading the 166-year-old school to launch its own investigation a year ago this month. The school’s report, released this week, details years of assaults by Alton, who 45 years ago was one of the school’s most beloved teachers, coaches and administrators.
“We were heartsick to learn the extent of his pattern of abuse,” the school said in a release.
Today, according to published reports, Alton is a registered sex offender living in New York. The Pingry report named two other former faculty members were implicated.
Pingry, which was founded around the start of the Civil War, is one of New Jersey’s most prestigious schools in what Time Magazine called in 2014 the “richest town in America.” Pingry was also at the center of a tight-knit educational community in which titans of New York’s business circles often held seats on the school’s board of directors, Dackerman says.
A school board member learned of Alton’s activities in 1979. But Pingry acknowledged this week that it never shared the information with its faculty, alumni or the family of its students.
Dackerman and the other Pingry Survivors say their school knew what was going on, allegations Pingry leaders today say are untrue.
Pingry is the latest private school to find itself enveloped by scandals in which faculty or other employees assaulted students over an extended period. Charlotte attorney Seth Langson, who has handled numerous cases of abuse, says children are more likely to be abused by teachers, coaches or some other authority figure than they are at home.
Small schools and churches, Langson says, can give rise to a “cult of secrecy” fueled by shame and threats. Victims often step forward only after they learn of other targets – “when it becomes ‘us’ not ‘me,’ ” Langson said.
Dackerman says it was the longtime dream of his working-class father that his son would attend the Pingry School. Both of Dackerman’s parents are dead. He says he never told them his secret.
Tonight, Dackerman plans to tell his son.
The boy turned 14 last week. Dackerman says he’s been pondering over what he will try to say.
He said he will try to convey that when he was not much younger than his son, he and a bunch of other small kids were molested by an adult they trusted, and that the memories of those events still make him sad.
He will try to explain how his shame commanded his silence, but that he no longer thinks he was to blame, and that he is speaking out now so other children might be spared from what he endured on his own.
Before he finishes, Dackerman says he will also ask his son to make a promise: that he will always speak up “if anybody tries to do something like this to him,” and that his parents will do everything they can to protect him.
Ray Dackerman’s secret ends now.