Points of view

Grading Horace Mann

Posted

year after The New York Times ran “Prep School Predators,” it remains odd to see Horace Mann School appear alongside Penn State, The Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church as synonymous with child sexual abuse. The revelations that began with the article and have continued during the past year have ended the decades-long silence of many victims but we, the Horace Mann “community,” are nowhere close to healing. As author of “Prep School Predators,” I have been in contact with a significant segment of alumni who remain engaged with the school. They grade their alma mater’s handling of the survivors’ initial claims — the general institutional silence — and the school’s overall approach to handling the scandal with an ‘F’.  Looking back over the last year, I agree. 

HM’s statement that the school was confronted by reports of sexual abuse in June of 2012 is laughable. Victims have been approaching administrators for decades. In my reporting, I encountered a code of silence from Horace Mann’s present leadership that would make a mobster envious. Marc Fisher, who wrote the New Yorker piece on Robert Berman, experienced similar treatment. 

As the extent of contemporaneous reporting and knowledge has become clear, HM’s institutional silence has re-traumatized many of the victims, alienated a large portion of the alumni base, and handed the monsters who perpetrated these acts another short-term victory. 

Horace Mann has touted its willingness to enter mediation and its settlements with many survivors as evidence of a warm and caring ethic. Yet HM lawyers shrewdly used New York State’s severe statute of limitations law to settle with some survivors for pennies on the dollar — “somewhere there are two Wall Street guys high-fiving each other,” one survivor cynically suggested. It was only after cutting these favorable monetary transactions that the school finally broke its silence with a lukewarm, carefully vetted apology that was reportedly required by the settlements. It is disheartening to see a school so rich in history, assets, leadership and pretensions do so little to take care of its own. But, then again, this whole business has always, it seems, been about business.

 

H

orace Mann is a non-profit institution and a school at that, but despite claims to the contrary by Headmaster Tom Kelly and Board Chair Steve Friedman, there is a different playbook. Rather than revealing the truth, demonstrating authentic remorse and asking for genuine forgiveness, HM cruelly rubbed salt in the wound by claiming the Orwellian mantle of the nurturing mother figure — literally alma mater

Instead of pursuing innovative models of community healing and restorative justice, HM drew a dividing line between past and present, current parents and alumni, and sought to control and conceal any discussion of its tragic past.  It is certainly understandable that current parents would want nothing more than for all this unpleasantness to go away. HM routinely lands atop Forbes Magazine’s list of top high schools and who would want to rock that boat? But in this era of statistical analysis, it is time for some new metrics. My progs — HM vernacular for progress reports — would include a flurry of red Fs for subjects like healing, leadership, communication, vision and integrity.

The administration has done everything in its power to portray those calling for the truth as a radical fringe — a long-haired hippie pitch-forked mob hell-bent on the school’s destruction. But those calling for this full accounting are the very same high-powered lawyers, doctors, professors, writers, artists, media moguls and Wall Street power broking graduates that Horace Mann proudly displays on the pages of the glossy magazines it uses to solicit annual gifts. 

If there is any light in this darkness, it’s that these same savvy HM grads will no longer take at face value that the institution that has known about, covered up, and in some cases dissuaded victims from seeking justice for close to 50 years can now magically transform itself into a self-policing and self-reporting safe haven. 

Many victims who had labored in silence for decades today find themselves part of a community of fellow survivors and truly nurturing alumni. And perhaps we’re a few steps closer to passing the Markey Bill, which would enable thousands of New York State child abuse victims to have their day in court.

 

C

ontrast this strategy with the responses from Deerfield Academy and Buckingham Browne & Nichols, two institutions recently hit with similar scandals, and you get a glimpse of the high road HM might have taken. In Deerfield’s case, the school offered an immediate apology, flew the headmistress out to meet the first victim in person, then reached out to the broader community to see if there were more victims. 

There are those who, for reasons I find hard to fathom, place Brand Horace Mann before the needs of the survivors. Whatever the reasons, their radically insensitive acts have only magnified the suffering.  And the place we once proudly boasted as our alma mater is now the subject of a University of Oregon research study on institutional revictimization.

For Horace Mann, the only way through the pain is through the pain. The time for apology was June 2012. If HM is to regain the trust of its own graduates, it needs to fully cooperate with Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder’s independent investigation. We are no longer in the dark. We now know, thanks to dozens of brave survivors, that “things happened.”  We now want to know the answer to a different question — namely who knew what when? Before reconciliation there must be truth, for as HM’s motto boldly proclaims, “Great is the truth and it prevails.” 

Or maybe it’s time to change the motto.

Amos Kamil is the author of the article “Prep School Predators” and is working with Sean Elder on a book about Horace Mann entitled Great Is the Truth. The Points of View column is open to all readers.

Comments