Eddie Fischer documentary What Haunts Us

A new documentary by a Porter-Gaud alumna addresses the crimes of Eddie Fischer, a former teacher at the private school who later confessed to sexually abusing at least 39 boys in the Charleston area. Paige Goldberg Tolmach/Provided

Provided

A new documentary by a Porter-Gaud School alumna delves into the tragic legacy of Eddie Fischer, who taught at the school from 1972 to 1982 and later confessed to sexually abusing at least 39 boys there and at other schools.

Director Paige Goldberg Tolmach is taking her film, "What Haunts Us," to the Austin Film Festival on Oct. 29 and Doc NYC in New York on Nov. 13. A Charleston-area screening has not been announced. 

Tolmach, who graduated from the high school in the mid-1980s, said she began looking more closely at her alma mater after becoming a parent in 2006 and reflecting on more recent sex abuse scandals, like that of coach Jerry Sandusky at Penn State University.

"I took a deep dive into my past and thought I should document it, so I started doing a documentary. And what I discovered blew my mind," Tolmach said in a phone interview Friday.

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A handcuffed Edward Fischer walks out of bond court in 1997. Fischer, a former teacher at Porter-Gaud confessed to sexually abusing at least 39 boys in the Charleston area. File/Staff

She started making calls to fellow alumni and realized that Fischer had hurt more people than she previously knew.

"The more people I talked to, the more I realized none of us really know the true story. None of us really know how terrible it was and how much was covered up by Porter-Gaud," Tolmach said.

Evidence presented in civil trials showed that Porter-Gaud officials were aware of Fischer's abuse at the time but helped him secure jobs at other schools anyway.

trailer for the film released Oct. 16 mentions that several men committed suicide after graduating from Porter-Gaud in the same era as Tolmach. 

Administrators at the 150-year-old private school have already begun responding to the documentary. They declined to let Tolmach film inside the school, with Head of School DuBose Egleston explaining that he wanted to protect current students. But if and when the film gets a screening in Charleston, Egleston said he wants to be part of an ongoing conversation about sex abuse prevention.

"We want to let our community know that we certainly want to be part of the conversation," he said. "It takes a lot of people to prevent this sort of thing from happening."

Egleston said officials at the school, which serves grades 1 through 12, have begun fielding questions and having age-appropriate conversations with small groups of students since the trailer's release. While Fischer's crimes received extensive media coverage after his arrest in 1997, Egleston said some current students were not familiar with what happened.

"Mainly, with younger kids, it’s helping them understand that we love them and care about them and they have someone they can talk to," he said.

Egleston and Porter-Gaud Board of Trustees Chair Hank Cheves sent a letter to parents and alumni last week acknowledging the film and its portrayal of "a very painful period in our long history and Charleston's history."

Their letter began by commending Tolmach for "her efforts to begin a national conversation on the vitally important topic of student safety." The letter also detailed the safeguards that the school has put in place since Fischer's crimes came to light, including investigative procedures and abuse prevention training through the group Darkness to Light.

The letter also announced that Porter-Gaud has begun partnering with T&M Protection Resources, a company that handles sexual misconduct investigations in schools.

"T&M will serve as an additional option through which students, parents, or alumni can privately report concerns related to sexual misconduct," they wrote.

Since Porter-Gaud's story received national attention in the late 1990s, other Charleston-area schools have dealt with sex abuse scandals, including that of former Citadel camp counselor Skip ReVille, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to sexually abusing 23 boys while working in local schools.

And nationally, former students at elite private high schools also have come forward with accusations of sexual abuse. A 2016 Boston Globe investigation revealed more than 200 victims across 67 private schools in New England.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.