A 16-year-old Thetford Academy student has pleaded not guilty to seven felony counts of sexual assault against five different female classmates, according to documents filed in Orange Superior Court.
Conner Tatro, who officials said has been charged as an adult due to the seriousness of the allegations, is accused of sexually assaulting the 15- and 16-year-old girls in several different locations on campus, both during and after school hours, between spring 2016 and spring 2017.
The alleged assaults ranged from groping to forced sexual intercourse and took place in the bathroom, cafeteria, the hallways, the baseball field and in the woods near the school, among other places on campus, according to an Orange County Sheriff’s Department affidavit.
All seven charges allege Tatro “compelled the other person to participate in a sexual act without the consent of the other person.” The Post Mills teen was released into the custody of his mother, Stacie LaLonde, after his Wednesday arraignment.
Judge Timothy B. Tomasi ordered Tatro not to have contact with the alleged victims and not to have unsupervised contact with any girls under the age of 18.
“There are some very, very serious allegations,” his public defender, Catherine Dux, said at her office in Chelsea on Thursday. “But that is all they are.”
She declined further comment.
A telephone message left for LaLonde wasn’t returned.
Cases involving people under the age of 18 generally are handled behind closed doors in the juvenile justice system. But there are exceptions, according to Orange County Assistant State’s Attorney Dickson Corbett IV, who is prosecuting the case.
“The allegations of this case fit within an exception for serious offenses — these charges can be filed in the adult criminal division, where there is broader range of outcomes that can be tailored to meet the seriousness of the offense and the needs of justice,” Corbett wrote in an email on Thursday. “Each of the charges involved the allegation that the defendant approached a female acquaintance at school and coerced her into a sexual act without her consent.
“I’m sure that many are struggling to understand the nature of the allegations and what it all means,” Corbett wrote.
Orange County Sheriff’s Department Detective Lt. Scott Clouatre started working on the case on June 5, when he received five different complaints from the Vermont Department for Children and Families regarding allegations of sexual and physical assaults of five female students by the same male student, according to the Sherriff Department’s affidavit, which was written by Clouatre.
Two to three weeks earlier, in May, Thetford Academy Dean of Students Siobhan Lopez met with the girls and learned of the alleged incidents. The girls told Lopez that Tatro physically assaulted them “by either leaving bruises or choking them during both casual and sexual encounters,” some of which started out consensually but turned nonconsensual, the affidavit states.
Starting on June 5, each of the five victims met with a forensic interviewer at the Orange County Child Advocacy Center, during which they described the alleged assaults.
The girls told the investigator that Tatro got his way through physical coercion and, in some cases, trapping them in situations where it was difficult to escape, according to the affidavit. In one instance, Tatro is accused of pinning a victim against a wall because she wouldn’t have sex with him. In another instance, he is accused of choking a girl after she refused to perform oral sex, causing her to feel afraid and go “along with it.”
All of the girls told Lopez they had engaged in “sexting” with Tatro and said he tried to use those messages to coerce the girls into sex acts, the affidavit states.
The investigator asked the girls why they waited to come forward until the end of the spring 2017 semester when some of the alleged incidents dated back in 2016. One girl told the interviewer that they got together and made a collective choice to speak out.
At least three of the girls consented to have their electronic devices, such as cell phones, searched.
LaLonde, Tatro’s mother, told Clouatre that one of the girls had texted her son since the investigation had been launched and apologized, saying things were “blown out of proportion,” according to the affidavit.
The two Thetford Academy employees who were told about the alleged incidents, teacher Jane Chambers and dean Siobhan Lopez, were asked in separate interviews with Clouatre about their timeline for reporting the allegations.
Under state law, so-called “mandatory reporters,” which include school officials, are legally required to report to the Department for Children and Families within 24 hours if they suspect child abuse, according to DCF’s website.
“According to J. Chambers, she was told by the dean that she was ‘covered’ because the dean was using her name in her report,” Clouatre wrote in the affidavit. “J. Chambers further advised that there is no formal class or trainings for staff in regards to mandated reporters.”
Lopez told Clouatre that in April, she became aware of an alleged “consensual” sex act where Tatro allegedly also choked the girl, and she notified and sought advice from Thetford Police Chief Michael Evans, according to the affidavit.
It was the following month that Lopez was made aware of other allegations against Tatro and reported them to DCF.
“S. Lopez was further asked why she didn’t make any reports as she is, by statute, a mandated reporter. S. Lopez stated that she felt, at the time, that she was covered by asking chief Evans his thoughts,” the affidavit states.
Lopez told Clouatre that WISE was involved and a school counselor. She said she “didn’t think” of DCF, according to the affidavit.
“S. Lopez further mentioned that she has been unclear on when and what to report to DCF for being a mandated reporter,” the affidavit states.
In a telephone interview on Thursday, Clouatre said he couldn’t comment on whether officials did or did not follow proper reporting protocols.
Through email on Thursday, Thetford Academy Head of School William Bugg said he believes his staff acted in accordance with the law.
“We consulted with the police when we were first notified there was a cause for concern, and we reported all alleged incidents to DCF in accordance with our policies and mandatory reporting obligations,” Bugg wrote. “We review mandated reporter laws with faculty and staff every year. In addition, there are certain steps that we take at the beginning of each school year and throughout the year to make sure our community is safe and secure. These steps include a careful examination of all policies and procedures on campus.”
Lopez said Tatro has never been in any “serious trouble” while at the school, which he transferred to from the Rivendell School District in Orford, New Hampshire, according to the affidavit.
Chambers told Clouatre that there are times during and after school when the staff are not aware of students’ locations outside the classroom.
“J. Chambers confirmed that it would be ‘easy’ for kids to be in a ‘space’ that’s not supervised,” according to the affidavit.
Lopez also said that Tatro has been found “wandering” on school grounds when he should have been in a classroom.
Clouatre said he is looking into whether there are any allegations against Tatro from his time at Rivendell.
Tatro “has been not allowed to return to campus,” the affidavit states, and it is unclear whether he will return for the fall semester.
Bugg, the head of school, sent a letter to the school community on Tuesday informing parents that a male student has been charged with sexual assault.
“Please know that the alleged behavior is not compatible with what we teach and value at Thetford Academy, and it runs counter to our culture of caring — a culture in which we take great pride and on which our students depend,” Bugg wrote in the letter. “There are definitive steps that we will be taking to strengthen our school community here at Thetford Academy in the new school year. The first such step will be a thorough examination of our policies and procedures. In addition, we will be providing multiple opportunities throughout the school year for our students to participate in educational programming related to what it means to have healthy and responsible relationships.”
This story was originally published by the Valley News and is republished here under a partnership with the newspaper. Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3248.