'This is wrong': Students recall Jeffrey Epstein's conduct with teen girls at New York private school

Eight former students said US financier Jeffrey Epstein's short tenure at their school left an impression due to his conduct with teenage girls.
Eight former students said US financier Jeffrey Epstein's short tenure at their school left an impression due to his conduct with teenage girls.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - In the mid-1970s, students at one of New York's most esteemed prep schools were surprised to encounter a new teacher who pushed the limits on the school's strict dress code, wandering the halls in a fur coat, gold chains and an open shirt that exposed his chest.

The teacher, Jeffrey Epstein, would decades later face allegations that he coerced and trafficked teenagers for sex.

At the Dalton School on the Upper East Side, some students saw Epstein as an unusual and unsettling figure, willing to violate the norms in his encounters with girls.

Eight former students who attended the prestigious school during Epstein's short tenure there said his conduct with teenage girls left an impression that lingered for decades.

One former student recalled him showing up at a party where students were drinking, while most remembered his persistent attention on the girls in hallways and classrooms.

"I can remember thinking at the time, 'This is wrong,'" said Scott Spizer, who graduated from Dalton in 1976.

None of the female students who spoke to The New York Times in recent days remembered Epstein making unwanted physical contact with them, and he has not been accused of any crimes related to his time at the school.

But a few students said they had been discomfited by a close relationship he had with one of their female peers, a concern that had escalated so much that one of them had raised the issue then to a school administrator.

Dalton has long been known for its rigorous academics, repeatedly ranking among the nation's best private schools while drawing the sons and daughters of New York titans of finance, media and art. Among the alumni are CNN journalist Anderson Cooper, actress Claire Danes and comedian Chevy Chase.

Epstein's time at Dalton was brief, and an administrator said it ended in a dismissal.

While Epstein later developed a reputation in the world of finance as a man of brilliance - "He was a Brooklyn guy with a motor for a brain," New York magazine wrote in a 2002 profile - the administrator told The Times that he had dismissed Epstein for poor performance.

But the accounts offer a window into Epstein's early adulthood, before he developed extensive private wealth that allowed him to acquire a US$56 million (S$76 million) mansion just a mile south of the Dalton School.

It was there, prosecutors said this week, that Epstein and his employees paid "numerous" underage girls to engage in sex acts with him.

 
 
 
 

Federal prosecutors in New York on Monday (July 8) charged Epstein, 66, with sex trafficking. He has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Officials with the Dalton School also did not respond to requests for comment, but news of the charges have led alumni to reconnect and swap memories of a young teacher who sometimes seemed to defy the expectations of behaviour for an authority figure.

A SCHOOL IN TURMOIL

Like much of the rest of the country, the Dalton School in the 1970s was in the midst of an culture war.

The school, which had been a progressive haven for the children of artists and writers, was undergoing a shift under a new headmaster. Donald Barr, the father of Attorney General William Barr, came in as a disciplinarian, focused on beefing up the academics of the school and enforcing a strict code of conduct.

In a school known for creativity, administrators prohibited denim jeans and "bizarre and eccentric costumes".

If Barr caught students using marijuana, he would often send them to therapy as a condition of staying in the school. He himself described his leadership style as "by em ukase /em ," using the Imperial Russian term for an edict from the czar.

Staff members would sometimes turn students away from their morning classes: girls for skirts that were too short, and boys for hair that was too long.

Some students and parents balked against the constraints. Still, the school continued to draw past and future families of fame. Around the years of Epstein's tenure, records show the student roster included Prudence Murdoch, the daughter of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch; fashion designer Jill Stuart; and several future actresses, including Jennifer Grey, Tracy Pollan and Maggie Wheeler.

While Barr was strict on the school culture, he made it a point to hire teachers from unconventional backgrounds, recalled Susan Semel, a social studies teacher at Dalton from the 1960s to 1980s who later wrote a book on the history of the school.

"Barr didn't care about credentials as long as you were interesting and knew your stuff," Semel said.

Epstein, from Brooklyn, was still in his early 20s when he was hired at Dalton, arriving without a college degree. The New York magazine profile reported that Epstein worked at the school starting in 1973, but the school's yearbooks do not show him as a teacher until the 1974-75 academic year.

In February 1974, Barr announced he was resigning as headmaster, protesting the meddling by the board of trustees.

A year after Barr's departure, under the leadership of Gardner Dunnan, the school tentatively explored a rollback of some of the strict rules. Dunnan announced a policy in early 1975 that would allow denim inside the building. But students still had to wear clothes that were neat and clean.

In the years since, however, Dunnan has faced his own allegations of inappropriate conduct. A former Dalton student said in a lawsuit that she was invited to live with Dunnan at age 14 and suffered repeated sexual assaults under his care. Dunnan denies the allegations. The lawsuit was dropped, but the woman's lawyers said they intended to refile it.

'EVERYONE TALKED ABOUT IT'

At Dalton, Epstein was known as a charismatic, young teacher who at times acted more like a friend than an authority figure to students.

The urban school inside a brick building did not have outdoor spaces to congregate, so the students gathered in halls and rooms that spanned the building's many stories. That included lab rooms dedicated to various subjects, providing a more informal and intimate setting for students to get help outside of class from their teachers.

It was in one of these lab rooms that Leslie Kitziger, who graduated from Dalton in 1978, first met Epstein.

Kitziger remembered him as a flamboyant dresser and lively jokester. "He was goofy and like a kid himself," she recalled.

Kitziger said she became close to Epstein at a time when she was struggling at home with her parent's divorce. She confided in him, and remembered him as caring and attentive.

"He listened," Kitziger recalled. "I was a 14-year-old and he helped me through a time when there wasn't anybody else to talk to. I felt like he really cared that I was having a rough go." She stressed that Epstein was always professional with her.

But other students, including Millicent Young, a graduate of the school's 1976 class, saw things differently. She never had Epstein as a teacher, but the school was small enough that she would spend time around him. She recalled observing Epstein flirting with the girls at the school, which drew her attention because it was so different from how other teachers behaved.

"There was a real clarity of the inappropriateness of the behaviour - that this isn't how adult male teachers conduct themselves," Young said.

Spizer, the fellow student who graduated the same year, said he had a clear recollection of disliking Epstein because he was spending so much time with girls in the school.

Some other students spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution from Epstein. One recalled him making efforts to get her to spend time with him outside of school, and she recalled raising concerns about Epstein's conduct with another student to Dunnan. An attorney for Dunnan said the former headmaster was not aware of any concerns about Epstein's conduct at the school.

Another student, who also requested anonymity, fearing reprisals from Epstein, recalled seeing Epstein at a high school party in an apartment on the Upper East Side where students were drinking and socializing. Epstein was the only teacher there, which raised eyebrows among the students.

"It was weird," said another former student, Paul Grossman, a 1978 graduate who did not attend the party but remembered talking to students about it. "Everyone talked about it."

Peter Thomas Roth, who graduated from Dalton in 1975 and later founded a cosmetics and skin care company with his name, said Epstein was such a "brilliant" teacher that his father later hired him to tutor Roth in statistics.

Roth said he never heard of any rumours about misconduct at the school.

"He was like your friend, you know?" Roth said.