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The Horace Mann School's Secret History of Sexual Abuse
June 6, 2012 4:45 PM   Subscribe

When the Penn State scandal came out last year, I kept getting tangled in the questions everyone else was getting tangled in: How does an institutional culture arise to condone, or at least ignore, something that, individually, every member knows is wrong? An alumnus of Horace Mann School writes a shocking expose (NYT) of a culture of sexual abuse at the elite prep school, some at the hands of teachers who were allowed to remain for years after accusations were first made.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero (34 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I spent 6 years at HM. I am very saddened by the contents of this article.

I recall Ben Balter coming speak at an assembly about sexual orientation tolerance. He told us how difficult it was for him to come out at Horace Mann in the early 1990s. This was in 2002 or 2003, shortly after Johannes Somary, whom Balter accused of sexually abusing him, retired as a glorified figure at HM. I can only marvel that he was still reaching out to the school and its kids after he was treated so shamefully.
posted by knoyers at 4:59 PM on June 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Jeez, Horace Mann too? I'd heard about the scandal at Poly Prep. Wont be surprised when more allegations at other schools arise.

Looking back, I'm glad my indifferent attitude earned me do much bench time. But yeah, I can remember the crowd of boys that hung around "The Cage" when I was at Poly. I remember thinking Wow, Coach took those three guys to Florida over break. Wasn't that… generous.

And just think, how much does a year at those schools cost parents?
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 5:20 PM on June 6, 2012


At Horace Mann, students who spoke up at the time and saw quick action from the school seem to have suffered few, if any, ill effects.


That's the crux of the matter right there. If you are abused and the community protects you, it's much easier to heal. If your experience is invalidated (as it usually is), it is psychologically disastrous.

FWIW, I went to a nothing-special public school. I knew of several teachers who were having sex with current students. None of those teachers were ever brought to justice and are probably living well on their pensions now. This kind of abuse is far more common than anyone likes to think.
posted by gentian at 5:24 PM on June 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


Even today, witnesses with no current ties to the school have reasons not to speak. Those with school-age children worry about damaging their children’s chances at Horace Mann or other elite New York schools.

Oh what the fuck?! Is that really the kind of environment you want for your kids?

Others point to Horace Mann’s influence, real or perceived, and what it could do to their careers or social standings.


Oh what the fuck again!
posted by MikeMc at 5:58 PM on June 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


Sick, sick society.
posted by francesca too at 7:25 PM on June 6, 2012


If you are part of an institution that involves children and that doesn't have some process to make sure that children aren't abused, isn't this sort of thing inevitable?
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:37 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Reading this makes me grateful for my prep school experience. I have my issues with my alma mater, but they're not about inappropriate touching and worse. (Or maybe I missed it. I was a pretty damned oblivious teenager.)
posted by immlass at 7:49 PM on June 6, 2012


Reading the NYT article bought back some very uncomfortable memories about my time at a small boarding school in England.

The deputy headmaster of the school may still be there I believe, still waiting for the top job that he's been passed over for so many times. I was terrified of him then, now he seems like such a sad, angry and wretched little man.

Between the end of supper and dorm-time, boys would be summoned, singly, to his rooms - he lived in the school - for a private talk about their attitude or their disappointing grades or for breaking one of the rules. The school had a huge set of bizarre, arcane and secret rules that only seemed to be revealed when they were broken. It was a rite of passage handed down amongst pupils that no 'new-boys' be told the rules. It's only now that I think it odd that the 'rules' dictated that you should change into your PE kit (shorts, plimsoles, singlet) in order to be bullied by a red-faced, whisky-reeking man until you broke down. After he had reduced you to tears, he would hug you, stroke your legs and fondle you. It seems ridiculous to me now that I didn't tell someone. As a child I'm not even sure I realised this was wrong but I guess I had some awareness, because I know I felt shame. I knew I didn't like it but I couldn't tell anyone. I just thought this was how it all worked, another rule that must be obeyed.

I hated that place, but didn't dare tell my parents that I didn't want to go to the expensive, prestigious school that they had sacrificed so much (so I thought) to send me to. That was his main leverage against me, that I would be expelled for any petty misdemeanour or failing grade, something that I feared because 'how could I let my parents down like that?' but something that I also desperately wanted. I was a lonely, miserable, 8 year old child who wanted nothing more from a schoolday than to not be noticed and to not break any more secret rules. The only adults I could trust were my parents, but they weren't around and I didn't really trust them anyway, after all they had sent me away to this confusing, alien and unfriendly place.

I only suffered emotional abuse and inappropriate touching, I don't know if any of my fellow students suffered worse - it wasn't discussed. I would never send my children to a boarding school and definitely not at such a young age
posted by JustAsItSounds at 7:53 PM on June 6, 2012 [13 favorites]


Thinking back to my Poly years, there was that skeezy tennis instructor with the Porsche w/ a whale-tail who wore nothing but track suits like he was some junior Mob hitman or something.

I mean, I had a old History teacher who taught nothing all semester long, and a week out from the end gave us two questions, told us to write two essays answering them... and the rest of the year was stories about how many Nazis he killed ("THOUSANDS!").

Respected teachers get away with a lot.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:03 PM on June 6, 2012


JustAsItSounds, that sounds terrible. Thanks for sharing.
posted by Flashman at 8:21 PM on June 6, 2012


I went to a prestigious Quaker private high school. The sex scandals were strictly between students.
posted by bardic at 9:05 PM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


ThePinkSuperhero: "How does an institutional culture arise to condone, or at least ignore, something that, individually, every member knows is wrong? A"


How? Money, prestige, and more money.
In the end it isn't just the institutional culture. That would be a cop out. The culture didn't condone the problem. It can't. Only those individual members can willfully and explicitly condone and allow such behavior to occur and occur and occur again.
Many people knew what was going on. Paterno, Spanier, and others felt that the benefits of the football team outweighed what was done to some kids. I imagine it was made easy since they were poor kids without connection to themselves.

In some ways Paterno and the rest were worse than Sandusky.
posted by 2manyusernames at 9:10 PM on June 6, 2012


Nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to schools. I kept picking up the damn paper and finding out that every other year some teacher from the junior hih I attended had been arrested for having child porn. One was my 8th grade science teacher. These guys coached some kind of sport involving little boys. There were at least two teachers from my high school having sexual relationships with students.
posted by discopolo at 9:23 PM on June 6, 2012


You know, all these other kids got steak dinners or gin and tonics, or little gifts, when they got fucked at elite boarding schools. When a teacher or an old boy fucked me at an elite boarding school, all i got was mediocre hand jobs and pain so severe i couldn't sit down.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:49 PM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not joking, I found the teacher who gave those medicore handjobs this year, head mastering in a school in Malawi. I went back to old teachers, old students, old head masters, and no one acknowledged that anything happened. There was other abuse--spanking, verbal harassment, the tearing down and the not building up, but even this is not acknowledged as abusive. I am impressed that the conversations even happened.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:54 PM on June 6, 2012


This culture arises by blaming the victim.

In many sexual assault cases it seems the idea of "innocent until proven guilty" is perverted to the point of simple, "innocent". If anything is even proven to have occurred, it's put on the victim.

If the victim doesn't tell someone right away...like, moments after the event....well...maybe it didn't happen at all!

If the victim had been assaulted more than once...well....if they didn't report it after the first assault, what did they expect? They probably actually liked it.

If the victim is wearing "inappropriate clothing" they're asking for it (seriously...people defending the gang-rape of an 11-year-old? Seriously?).

If the victim has ever had consensual sex before, well, they're pretty slutty anyway, right?

Our ENTIRE culture condones things that we "know" are wrong - especially when it comes to sexual assaults (when it's so easy to argue it's just a perspective thing). It's unsurprising this occurs at the institutional level as well, especially when private institutions are given the idea that they are exempt from certain laws.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 11:02 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Way back when I was 12, I became extremely fearful of the junior high principal and assistant. They liked bending boys over their desks and beating them with a paddle. Except it was creepy to me. So I ran from them in fear. So instead of a beating or whatever they had in mind, I ended up in juvie for being 'incorrigible'.

There is no justice for such things. None offered, none received. The course of my entire life was twisted by this event.

But you know what? It wasn't but a few years latter when other men were in my life, having sex with me. These men saved my life. Yet they would be considered 'criminals' and that principal was a fine upstanding member of the community.
posted by Goofyy at 11:09 PM on June 6, 2012


The comments on the article have been closed and hidden within the past ~10 minutes (between when I read the article and now). The ones I read were nothing particularly salacious or problematic, so this is intriguing.
posted by naturalog at 6:43 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


The comments on the article have been closed and hidden within the past ~10 minutes (between when I read the article and now). The ones I read were nothing particularly salacious or problematic, so this is intriguing.

I remember reading quite a few which recounted other stories of abuse, both at Horace Mann and in other schools / environments. It was disturbing to see to see how prevalent this behavior is and how often victims are too afraid to say anything.
posted by beisny at 6:56 AM on June 7, 2012


I remember reading something Kevin Killian wrote about the rampant sex abuse that went on in his Catholic High School. He, and other gay kids were into it, and thought they had the power, that is until he got dumped. Then it was on to the next teacher.

A friend was at the same school, told me how some teachers, who did not bathe regularly, would make you lie on their lap for a spanking in class, seemingly at a whim for a minor infraction, and if you got an erection they would make you come to their office. He was seriously freaked out by it all and avoided getting sexually abused, but got hit a lot, that was allowed.

He told his parents about the sex, and they did not believe any of it.
posted by snaparapans at 8:26 AM on June 7, 2012


I went to a boarding school in the late 90s and I remember even there were rumors about one of the teachers sleeping with female students. The joke was made that it was how the student was keeping up her grades in his class. I didn't hear any other rumors about any of the other teachers though. I'd like to think that this represents the effect of changes in policy from the era that the writer was talking about, but I can't be sure.

I spent a couple of years teaching at a boarding school later. There were some incredibly clear rules about open doors and not being alone with students. Of course, there were times when students stopped by the common room to talk after lights out when I was sitting there on duty. So while there is still the potential for this sort of thing, I think that having an institutional blindness to it is less.
posted by Hactar at 8:42 AM on June 7, 2012


I pretty much assume anyone high up at an elite school is a perv unless proven otherwise.

Until decent people are willing to put as much energy into creating systems to protect and empower children as abusers are willing to put into grooming, molesting and silencing them, this is going to keep happening.

But why would any decent person put that much energy into it? They're not getting their rocks off.
posted by Scram at 8:55 AM on June 7, 2012


I've always wondered how any adult can stand to spend forty hours a week (often more) with kids. It's becoming clearer to me now. If this trend continues, I expect there will be crisis-level shortages of teachers in the coming years.
posted by Jestocost at 9:17 AM on June 7, 2012


Even today, witnesses with no current ties to the school have reasons not to speak. Those with school-age children worry about damaging their children’s chances at Horace Mann or other elite New York schools.

Oh what the fuck?! Is that really the kind of environment you want for your kids?


The article doesn't say anything about the school's current environment. It's not surprising that whatever alumni the author is referring to, from the '70s, '80s or '90s, don't necessarily want to be involved. Do they have any legitimate reason to think that their children might be blacklisted from schools if they talked on the record about abuse in the past? Probably not, but I guess they still don't want to be associated, or they don't think the benefit of coming forth is worth compromising their privacy.

Those who are open now, as adults, about past sexual abuse within an institution are being brave. They are not necessarily confronting consequences so much as indifference to iniquity.

If you are part of an institution that involves children and that doesn't have some process to make sure that children aren't abused, isn't this sort of thing inevitable?
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:37 PM on June 6


What can a school really do, other than to hire people who are, in fact, good, and to foster a culture where inappropriate conduct with children is stopped?

Reading this makes me grateful for my prep school experience. I have my issues with my alma mater, but they're not about inappropriate touching and worse. (Or maybe I missed it. I was a pretty damned oblivious teenager.)
posted by immlass at 7:49 PM on June 6


Same here

Thinking back to my Poly years, there was that skeezy tennis instructor with the Porsche w/ a whale-tail who wore nothing but track suits like he was some junior Mob hitman or something.

I had gym teachers who wore track suits too and it wasn't even Brooklyn

The comments on the article have been closed and hidden within the past ~10 minutes (between when I read the article and now). The ones I read were nothing particularly salacious or problematic, so this is intriguing.
posted by naturalog at 6:43 AM on June 7 [1 favorite +]


Comments are back

I pretty much assume anyone high up at an elite school is a perv unless proven otherwise.

This makes me feel like, maybe I wasn't cute?

I don't think that this type of thing is more prevalent in elite schools than elsewhere.
posted by knoyers at 9:53 AM on June 7, 2012


What can a school really do, other than to hire people who are, in fact, good, and to foster a culture where inappropriate conduct with children is stopped?

Exactly, you do a thorough background check when hiring, you make sure everyone understands not only their obligation to report any allegations, but also create a structure to handle the investigation of allegations and making sure that whistle blowers are not retaliated against. You also create procedures involving open door policies, discipline of students, etc... I'm sure you can't completely stop things, but you can create an environment that doesn't encourage the problem.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:13 PM on June 7, 2012


Great is the truth, and it prevails: a personal reflection from someone who was a student at Horace Mann during the abusive events detailed in the article.
What I’m left with is a feeling that we all find it easy to turn away, willing to find some excuse not to see something so difficult. Does the truth prevail? Sometimes. And sometimes only when it’s too late.
posted by Nelson at 7:23 AM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oddly enough, I was never abused at my private school, and I have never abused anyone in my twenty-some years of teaching. Just thought I'd add that to the testimonials :)

See, it's not all that hard to do something about it. You just have to be RUDE. Over and over again. People don't like being rude. It's hard on the system. As department chair, I had one young teacher who persistently closed his door when he had two or three students working with him, for whatever reason, even though I told him several times not to. So whenever I passed by his room, I opened the door and left it open. I'm not saying he ever did anything, or was even tempted to do so, but it didn't do any harm to me to be blandly and obliviously discourteous. You can't look the other way. My husband was abused, but not at school--he was abused by a neighbor/friend of his parents, who looked the other way.

Not that adults just do it to kids. I was the harassment counselor at a place I worked, and I was often astonished to find out how grown people will treat one another without thinking twice.
posted by Peach at 7:28 AM on June 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


> See, it's not all that hard to do something about it. You just have to be RUDE.

That's the point. If there's one thing that an expensive public school teaches you —and I went to one in Scotland — is not to be rude. So it makes it even harder to bring up allegations against the abuser.
posted by scruss at 7:55 AM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Similar thing also happened at Upper Canada College. A former teacher was jailed, and the college had to sell off some of its art collection to cover the cost of the lawsuit.
posted by scruss at 8:07 AM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


My advice to be rude was not to kids -- they are not responsible -- but to the adults who so often look the other way.
posted by Peach at 6:47 PM on June 10, 2012


Bronx Prosecutor Seeks Reports of Past Abuse at Horace Mann
posted by rtha at 8:24 AM on June 12, 2012


After Prep School Sexual Abuse, Facebook Offers Catharsis -- "Thousands of older Horace Mann alumni shared personal stories in a private Facebook group when The New York Times exposed decades of sexual abuse at the school."
posted by ericb at 11:45 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ugh: Retired Horace Mann Teacher Admits to Sex With Students
posted by lalex at 10:18 PM on June 23, 2012


Alumni Criticism Grows Over Horace Mann’s Response to Reports of Sexual Abuse
posted by rtha at 10:20 AM on July 5, 2012


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