The revelations published June 6 in a New York Times article about sexual abuse at Horace Mann, the ultra-competitive private school in the Bronx which charges tuition of $40,000 a year, has set off a firestorm in the school’s well-heeled alumni community.
Based on interviews of some victims, author Amos Kamil, a 1982 Horace Mann alum, alleges that several well-regarded longtime teachers sexually abused numerous students 20 to 30 years ago, and the school did nothing about it.
More than 1,000 people, many of them graduates of the school, have written to the newspaper either recounting their own awful experiences (“I am one of the people who went through this at HM,” a commenter writes), attacking Kamil’s story, denying they saw anything questionable, or expressing support for the victims.
More than 2,000 alums have joined a closed Facebook page to express their views on the scandal. Some of the posters say they will stop donating to the school. Two people who say they were abused at Horace Mann have started a website called “HoraceMannSurvivor.org.” The conversation has also moved into other areas, such as the arrogance of teachers and administrators at the school, and psychological abuse of students.
The article contains the heartbreaking tale of Horace Mann class of 1994 student Ben Balter, who alleged he was abused by a teacher named Johannes Somary, and the experience was so traumatizing that he attempted suicide in high school, fell into substance abuse and depression, and finally killed himself with alcohol and anti-depressants in 2009. Most disturbingly, perhaps, Balter’s mother wrote a letter to the school about the abuse, and confronted Somary, but nothing happened. (Somary died in February, 2011.)
A host of bold-faced names attended Horace Mann, which was founded in 1887. The school routinely wins awards as one of the best prep schools in the country, and has an endowment estimated at $346 million. (Mann’s image is at right.)
The school’s response, meanwhile, has been interesting. Educators, like police officers, child welfare workers and medical professionals, are mandated reporters, which means they are required by law to report any instances of physical or sexual abuse. If they don’t, they can be prosecuted. No doubt there must have been complaints over the years, and yet, according to the article, the school never contacted the police. Not even once.
When Kamil asked for comment, the school referred him to a public relations firm which didn’t answer questions, just provided him with a statement. The statement just says the school is “deeply concerned if allegations of abuse are raised,” and declines to comment on what happened a long time ago before the current administration was leading the school. It also pointed out that the school has fired teachers for “inappropriate conduct.”
The school issued a second statement to Kamil in which it said, “The article contains allegations dating back, in some instances, 30 years,” and that makes it hard to respond. The school also blamed a 1984 fire which destroyed “some records.”
The school’s headmaster, Thomas Kelly, posted a letter in which he declared that the school could not answer questions about specific allegations “for privacy reasons and based on the advice of counsel.” In a separate letter to the alumni, many of whom contribute generously to the exceedingly wealthy school, Kelly called the allegations “troubling,” and refers vaguely to the need for “time to research and discuss a well-thought-out process.”
In other words, there’s no answer to the most troubling questions: What did school administrators know, when did they know it, and what did they do about it? And there’s no indication that the school is going to undertake its own investigation to find that out. Not sure if that’s going to be enough to quell the criticism.
The author of an anti-Somary website posted this view of the school’s reaction: “I found it to be a sad little attempt to pretend that the school has no responsibility for its outrageous negligence back then. It staggers my mind that Somary was allowed to keep teaching for 10 years after the school was formally notified of his sexual advances on students. The notice had no hint of apology, no trace of caring about the students whose lives were so terribly damaged.”
Adds a commenter to the Times: “The Administration at Horace Mann must address these incidents with its current and former student bodies. Getting lawyered up and remaining silent would be the wrong approach.”
Kamil, speaking after the article came out, said this: “They (the school) won’t talk to me. I have people who say they had been abused writing to me every day. I have alumni at the school who were never abused but are outraged writing to me. Five or six people have contacted me privately to say that they were also sexually abused at Horace Mann. They have said that other teachers were involved. But I haven’t heard from anyone at the school.”
In another development yesterday, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn sent a letter to Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, asking him to review the allegations in the article.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 12, 2012