Alumni group says Horace Mann ignored abuse


Horace Mann School faculty received and failed to act on at least a dozen reports of sexual abuse between 1970 and 2011, according to an alumni group.

No personnel reported the instances to police prior to June 2012, when a New York Times Magazine article first reported allegations of decades of sexual abuse at the school, according to the Horace Mann Action Coalition, an alumni group.

“It turns out people have been complaining since 1969, like all the time, pretty much every year in between,” said Charles Balter, who lost his brother to suicide in 2009 after he said their families’ complaints of abuse at the hands of a particular teacher were dismissed. The complaints he referred to were about Johannes Somary, a deceased Riverdalian who taught music in the school from 1959 to 2002, and who represents the starkest example of the school’s alleged failure to act. 

There were at least four occasions that school faculty were alerted to his behavior, according to the coalition.

According to his brother, Benjamin Balter went as far as to send a letter in 1993 to the now-deceased headmaster Phil Foote, saying that a teacher made “grossly inappropriate advances” toward him for months. Benjamin Balter’s mother, who taught at the school, also tried to intervene but was silenced and intimidated by the school.  

“If these people took responsibility, would it have reached this point in the first place?” Charles Balter asked. 

“I see what could fairly be termed depraved indifference. They’ve intimidated people or told people who reported to forget about it. What’s the message for potential victims today?” said Peter Brooks, an HMAC member.

Around 1970, Mark Finkel said his friend reported an incident involving Mr. Somary and another student to Harry Allison, the head of the lower school at the time. According to a letter Mr. Finkel posted on a website dedicated to Horace Mann survivors, Mr. Allison “pooh-poohed” the graphic report. This left his friend, who was allegedly abused by former English teacher Robert Berman, “visibly shaken by lack of validation,” he said. The unnamed alleged whistle blower has also since committed suicide.

A lawsuit filed against the school on March 21 alleges that Horace Mann should have prevented Mr. Somary from abusing an unnamed New Jersey man approximately 450 times between 1973 and 1977. The suit also argues the school failed to act on a 1970 report alleging that Mr. Somary abused a student.  

Mr. Brooks said two others had reported Mr. Somary to the school by spring 2011. 

Others identified as perpetrators were reported multiple times as well. 

Robert Berman, an English teacher who worked at Horace Mann until 1979, was the subject of a March 22 New Yorker article in which three former students accused the teacher of abuse and which characterized Mr. Berman’s relationship with students as cult-like brainwashing. The family of a fourth alleged victim told the New Yorker that his son later committed suicide.

Victims and their relatives reported Mr. Berman’s alleged abuse to school faculty members and trustees at least five times, according to the article by alumnus Marc Fisher. Most recently, an alleged victim said he met with two trustees in 2005 as part of a long-overdue healing process and was told, “It’s not Horace Mann’s bill to pay.”

Mark Wright, a now-deceased football coach and art professor at Horace Mann, who was accused in a New York Times’ article of giving athletes invasive physicals and performing oral sex on a 13-year-old boy, was fired around 1979, according to the coalition, but that was only after the school received a fourth report about his alleged misconduct. 

And Tek Young Lin, an English department chair who told The Times he slept with students, was reported to Mr. Somary, who spoke to Mr. Lin, but not the administration about the misconduct, the coalition said. Mr. Lin retired in 1986.

Current Headmaster Thomas Kelly and Board of Trustees Chair Stephen Friedman did not return several requests for comment.

A barrage of fresh allegations have surfaced during settlement talks between the school and alleged victims, including a personal narrative published on the Horace Mann Action Coalition’s website that accuses former school headmaster and president, R. Inslee Clark, of initiating a 14-year-old into a pattern of abuse by getting him drunk and paying male prostitutes to rape him. 

A group of alleged survivors have sent letters to the Trustees urging them to support a private investigation into abuse allegations. To date, the board has opted not to do so. Mr. Freidman warned the board an investigation would make the school vulnerable to litigation, according to HMAC. 

The alumni coalition, which formed after  The Times’ article by alumnus Amos Kamil was printed, views the school’s reactions to allegations as a signal to current students that reports will not be taken seriously. That’s partially why HMAC has been urging Horace Mann to acknowledge the alleged abused, apologize for it and organize an independent group to investigate what transpired.

The coalition plans to finance an investigation, with or without the school’s support. Mr. Brooks said the organization has received about $100,000 in pledges and interviewed several potential investigators. 

 “It’s as inevitable as gravity,” he said. “We will conduct an investigation and there are people who are willing to speak the truth.”

Settlement talks started around March 9 and lasted about two weeks, according to a source familiar with the matter. About 35 former students have accused former educators of sexual abuse, according to the Horace Mann Action Coalition. The school is believed to have already reached agreements with about 27 of them.

Mr. Balter, a 1984 alumnus, said he thinks the school should’ve set up a “massive” compensation fund for victims and publicly apologized when reports of abuse began to pile up. 

The statute of limitations in New York prevents victims of sexual abuse from filing civil lawsuits after they turn 23. A bill by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey proposes eliminating such limitations in criminal and civil cases. Mr. Balter and HMAC members have offered support for the measure.

“If any good is to come, I wish that kids could feel comfortable –– if there is an adult behaving irresponsibly or abusively towards them  –– and tell a teacher or the school about it and that proper action will be taken and something will be done to break up these power networks like the Catholic church and these powerful boards that can just shift these predators around and protect them,” Mr. Balter said of the measure.