Horace Mann signals change in tone over abuse scandal


Horace Mann appears to be distancing itself from a man accused of intimidating an alleged victim of sexual abuse.

On May 9, Horace Mann School removed Michael Hess’ name from a list of trustee emeriti on the school’s website.

Mr. Hess was on the Horace Mann Board of Trustees in 1993, when Benjamin Balter, in a letter to the administration, reported that art department chair Johannes Somary had made inappropriate advances toward him.

Mr. Hess, then acting as an attorney for the school, convened a conference with several trustees and Mr. Balter’s mother, a teacher at the school, in which he told her the school wouldn’t investigate the allegations without recorded evidence of impropriety, according to Benjamin’s brother, Charles Balter.

In 1994, Mr. Hess became chair of the Board of Trustees, a position he held until 2001. Mr. Somary, a now-deceased Riverdalian, went on to abuse at least one other student, according to the Horace Mann Action Coalition. Benjamin Balter committed suicide in 2009.

Charles Balter said the school’s attorneys informed him in February that Horace Mann would strip the “trustee emeritus” status from Mr. Hess. Mr. Balter said he regularly visited Horace Mann’s website to see if Mr. Hess’ name was still listed and was disappointed each time he saw that it still was.

Mr. Hess’ name regularly appeared in newspapers in the early 2000s, when he worked as an attorney for a mosignuier accused of sexually abusing boys in Long Island.

On May 1, The Riverdale Press reported that Mr. Hess’ name appeared on a class of 1958 55th year reunion invitation. The invitation asked guests to join Head of School Thomas Kelly, Mr. Hess and Richard Traum, both members of the reunion committee, on Saturday, May 11, for brunch at Mr. Kelly’s home and for cocktails and drinks at the Waldorf Astoria.

Mr. Hess, Mr. Kelly and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Steven Friedman did not immediately respond to inquiries about Mr. Hess’ current relationship with Horace Mann.

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"Significant shift"? Hardly. "Change in tone." Possibly. HM has botched its response to this crisis from day one. Hess, like Friedman, and many trustees are all about expedience, not ethics. To them, HM is just another investment in their portfolios. The concept of "making it right" doesn't enter into their thinking. Kelly is merely their tool. He can make all the cosmetic changes he wants, such as removing the names of abusers from campus buildings and classrooms or removing Hess' name from the school roll. He can proclaim his support for the Markey Bill, but the fact remains he as headmaster, the face of school, has yet to issue an official apology or authorize an independent investigation of how the abuse could have taken place and persisted for so long. He's an errand boy for the board, nothing more. I'm ashamed to say I'm a Horace Mann graduate.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The concentration of such a number of abusers at one school for such a period may be unprecedented in American education. It may also be unprecedented to have multiple reports of a school headmaster (Inky Clark) raping minors as young as 14. Alumni have documented at least 18 abuse reports being made to past administrations and/or trustees, without an indication that the school responded appropriately. The trustees who were supposed to be responsible for supervising Clark in the '70's and '80's turned a blind eye to obvious issues, and a least some board members of the '90's and 2000's consciously continued that approach. In light of all those facts, it is an understatement to say that, if anyone now on HM's board of trustees has somehow convinced himself or herself that the school can navigate the current situation without an unqualified apology and without making full disclosures to an independent investigator about "who know what when," such a board member would be mistaken. As for Dr. Kelly, the other poster's "errand boy" assessment appears, sadly, to be accurate. If the school is to flourish in the future, it must now have the courage to publicly confront the truth about itself, and to decisively discontinue decades of cover-ups, once and for all. Unless and until it does those things, the school can, at best, just limp along.

Monday, May 13, 2013