Sarah Lawrence College for years has promoted itself as an experimental and progressive haven, a leafy enclave where students design curriculums and believe in what its president has called “the underlying goodness of others.”
“You are different. So are we” was a slogan the school used. Some students saw it as a declaration that they would be understood and valued.
Now former students are accusing the college of betraying them by allowing a 50-year-old ex-con to roam its Westchester County campus; spend nights in a dormitory where his daughter lived; and form relationships with students whom he went on to abuse.
That man, Lawrence V. Ray, was convicted in 2022 of extortion, sex trafficking and racketeering conspiracy after a trial in Manhattan. Federal prosecutors said that he used cult-leader tactics for a decade while indoctrinating and exploiting young people.
Four roommates of his daughter, Talia Ray, fell under Mr. Ray’s control. One, Isabella Pollok, became his “trusted lieutenant,” prosecutors said, and was sentenced to prison. Now, the other three are saying in legal papers and interviews that the school bears responsibility for their suffering.
Claudia Drury, who testified during Mr. Ray’s trial that he forced her into prostitution, said she was speaking up to hold Sarah Lawrence administrators accountable after students were exposed to a figure who, she once wrote, delighted in “psychological, physical, spiritual and sexual abuses.”
“They failed us so badly,” Ms. Drury said. “There was a predator living in our dorm and they did nothing.”
Two former students, Daniel Levin and Santos Rosario, filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Nov. 21 seeking unspecified damages and saying Mr. Ray had abused them emotionally, physically and sexually. They claim that the school was negligent and violated a federal law meant to combat human trafficking.
Sarah Lawrence has long said that it had no knowledge of Mr. Ray’s activities. In a statement after the suit was filed, the school said that Mr. Ray had committed “heinous crimes for which he properly has been held responsible, convicted and sentenced,” and added that the college had deep sympathy for his victims and hoped his sentencing had brought them resolution.
“We will not comment on any aspect of this litigation, beyond noting that we believe the facts will tell a different story than the unproven allegations made in the complaint that has been filed,” the college said.
One of the enduring mysteries of the Ray case is how a man with a criminal history was able to escape meaningful scrutiny while spending nights on campus among students less than half his age.
Abigail Boyer, the associate executive director of the Clery Center, a nonprofit group that works to create safer campuses, said most schools aimed to balance students’ nascent independence with a desire to maintain a safe environment. The responsibility of school authorities for what occurs on campus is often determined by what they are aware of, she added.
“Who knew and what did they know?” Ms. Boyer said. “What type of information was shared?”
In 2010, Mr. Ray began spending nights in a dormitory called Slonim Woods 9 after a prison stint in New Jersey stemming from child custody charges. Over time, he studied cults and mind control, isolated his victims — who came to include young people who did not attend Sarah Lawrence — from their parents and intimidated them with threats and assaults. Several former followers testified that Mr. Ray coerced them into falsely confessing they had harmed him, and two said he directed them to have sex with strangers. Ms. Drury testified that she turned over $2.5 million in prostitution proceeds to Mr. Ray.
Mr. Ray was charged in 2020 after a 2019 story in New York magazine detailed his predations. He was sentenced last year to six decades in prison.
Cristle Collins Judd, the president of Sarah Lawrence, wrote in 2020 that Mr. Ray’s indictment raised “serious and troubling questions,” including “what interventions might have been possible.” Mr. Ray had stayed in Slonim Woods 9 “in a clear violation of the college’s written policy,” she wrote in a message on the school’s website.
More than 85 percent of Sarah Lawrence’s 1,700 students live at the school, where annual tuition is $63,128. Student organizations include a group that helps animal shelters, a literary magazine called Love & Squalor and a Shakespeare troupe composed of women and nonbinary students. The college prioritizes small classes and instead of pursuing traditional majors, students create programs of study with the help of advisers referred to as “dons.”
The dormitory where Mr. Ray showed up is among a cluster of two-story brick structures near the edge of Sarah Lawrence’s 44-acre campus. Each of Slonim Woods’ 11 buildings has its own entrance — a feature that Ms. Judd suggested could have helped conceal Mr. Ray.
“No reports about this parent’s presence on campus during that semester, formal or informal, were lodged by students sharing that small living space, by their student neighbors or by anyone else,” she wrote in her 2020 message.
But Mr. Levin and Mr. Rosario’s lawsuit says that several unnamed “students, community members and parents” contacted college officials to complain about Mr. Ray’s behavior.
Despite signs that “something was awry,” Sarah Lawrence failed to intervene or even notice, the lawsuit said.
Ms. Drury’s mother, Christian Drury, said that she spoke with Allen Green, Sarah Lawrence’s dean of studies and student life at the time, after hearing from her daughter that Mr. Ray was spending nights in the dormitory and had appeared to have begun a sexual relationship with one student.
“The whole thing made me very, very scared,” Ms. Drury said in a telephone interview. “He was trying to make his group, his little cult.”
She said that she asked that Mr. Ray be barred from the dormitory, but that Mr. Green replied that there was little he could do because Mr. Ray had a right to see his daughter.
Mr. Green, who is retired, has referred questions about Mr. Ray to Sarah Lawrence. He did not respond to email and phone messages describing Ms. Drury’s account.
Claudia Drury testified during Mr. Ray’s trial that she had complained to a philosophy professor, Nancy Baker, about Mr. Ray in 2010, saying he was sleeping inside Ms. Pollok’s room.
Ms. Baker, an emeritus faculty member, said in an interview that Ms. Drury had expressed only vague concerns about Ms. Pollok.
“She did not tell me there was a man sleeping in Isabella’s room,” Ms. Baker said. “Absolutely not.”
Ms. Drury also testified that in 2011 Mr. Ray forced her to send an email she likened to “a hostage letter” to Ms. Baker and Mr. Green. According to a copy provided by Ms. Drury, she disavowed statements she claimed to have made saying that Mr. Ray was “a bad, dangerous, manipulative and sexually deviant man.”
She also wrote that Mr. Ray had been “imprisoned unjustly,” that his ex-wife had persuaded her to lie about him and that she had made false allegations about him to police officers.
Although Mr. Green spoke with her briefly, Ms. Drury said, the references to sexual behavior and manipulation combined with her zealous defense of Mr. Ray and talk of an elaborate conspiracy should have prompted a thorough investigation.
Mr. Ray was then no longer on campus, but an intervention could still have spared students from being abused, Ms. Drury said, adding: “It wouldn’t have been too late for me.”
In her 2020 message, Ms. Judd wrote that “colleges cannot and do not act in loco parentis,” tightly regulating student behavior as many schools once did. She also noted that Mr. Ray’s charged crimes occurred after he stopped staying at Sarah Lawrence.
But, Ms. Drury said, those crimes became possible only because Mr. Ray had lived for months in Slonim Woods 9 in violation of existing rules. Mr. Levin and Mr. Rosario said in their lawsuit that Mr. Ray subjected them to manipulation, sexual abuse, food deprivation and sleep deprivation at the dorm.
Mr. Ray cooked dinners there, discussing philosophy and regaling students with fantastical, sometimes paranoid, tales about his life. His presence was hardly clandestine, former students said. Once, Ms. Drury said, Mr. Ray burned a steak, setting off a smoke alarm that brought firefighters and school security. And, she said, he walked through the campus openly.
“No skulking,” Ms. Drury said. “No attempt to hide that I could see.”
Another former student, Gabriel Chazanov, who lived in Slonim Woods 9 but did not fall under Mr. Ray’s influence, said college officials once told Talia Ray that her cat, Tiger, was living at the dorm in violation of the rules.
“If they’re paying enough attention to kick out a cat,” Mr. Chazanov said. “One would think they’d also notice the strange dude staying there.”