My heart sank as I read Amos Kamil’s story in the New York Times Magazine last June. Trusted teachers and administrators had violated students in their care. It weighed heavily upon me.
The broad Horace Mann community now bore a solemn responsibility. Ensuing discussions among alumni convinced me that Mr. Kamil’s article had only scratched the surface. As the past year’s revelations have now confirmed, this tragic history is far more shocking and saddening than even the most cynical observers could initially have imagined.
Of course we shouldn’t have been as shocked. Though we rarely stop to ponder it, one in six children is a victim of sexual abuse.
Silence about sexual abuse harms us all. Victims suffer in silence, go unheard, or, worse, try and fail to find help.
Those who should and could help are also frequently paralyzed into silence by shame and fear. We must lift the veil of silence and learn to openly address sexual abuse of children.
My alma mater, Horace Mann — a leader in progressive education, blessed with engaged, caring and successful alumni and substantial financial resources — will now forever be part of that dialogue. Despite the bleak statistics and horror of learning what befell some of my fellow alumni, I entered last summer with a feeling of hope.
My hope was shaped by the school’s motto, “great is the truth it prevails,” my belief that HM viewed itself as a leader and the response of my fellow alumni who announced themselves ready to help victims, work with the community and set an example for future institutions.
This led me to one simple question: What would it look like if for once the response of adults to reports of sexual abuse was to lift the shroud of silence and speak openly, honestly and caringly?
This seemingly simple question requires challenging and complex actions. In the case of HM, I believe lifting the veil of silence would have meant a prompt and heartfelt apology and offer of assistance to any and all who were harmed, the creation of a safe and confidential space for victims to come forward and a transparent examination of mistakes so we could learn from them. All of this would have to be done through open communication unmarked by fear and shame.
HM has failed in this regard. The school asked for patience. But sexual abuse proved too scary to talk about, much less investigate. Its suggestion that a “report” comprise of victims’ statements, without any information from the school or others, put the burden of speech on those most silenced by the pain of sexual abuse — the survivors themselves. Horace Mann will only speak of sexual abuse through victims, never for itself.
I remain stunned not only at Horace Mann’s unwillingness to openly address the sexual abuse committed by its teachers and top administrators but how the school has fractured its own community to preserve its silence.
These issues are endemic of the dynamics that enables a society in which sexual abuse thrives.
Institutions confronted with a past history of sexual abuse simply must break silence and speak openly about what happened.
Though I believe HM has squandered an opportunity to lead, I remain hopeful a year after Mr. Kamil’s article.
The alumni community is filled with strong and caring individuals, including survivors, who have come together and worked over the past year to assist survivors in their healing and to break the silence that surrounds sexual abuse.
Along with the bravery of the survivors who first broke their silence, my former classmates have demonstrated with word and deed that no matter how awkward and painful addressing sexual abuse can be, speaking and acting is always a good thing.
I am proud to be part of a community that is working toward a day where no child (or adult) will feel the need to live silently with shame and fear and all who have been harmed will feel safe enough to ask for help.
Perhaps HM taught us well after all.
We know that somewhere there’s a child living silently with shame and fear, who is watching and listening to how we, as adults, react to these reports. What that child hears will impact whether or not he or she feels safe enough to ask an adult for help.
Maybe Horace Mann will join that conversation in the future. In the meantime, the broader Horace Mann community continues to work toward a better future on its own.
Ben Field is a 1989 alumnus of the Horace Mann School. The Points of View column is open to all readers.