Riot in Riverdale: Will a New Foundation Insulate Horace Mann from Costly Molestation Suits?

How to infuriate alumni and alienate victims

The Horace Mann board of trustees is made up of several members who attended or graduated from the school around the same time as Mr. Kamil, including Mr. Rose, secretary of the board Robert Heidenberg and Regina Kulik Scully. Mrs. Scully, a 1981 graduate, executive produced the 2008 documentary Boyhood Shadows, which detailed the lasting effects of child molestation on male victims. One victim featured in the documentary was Glenn Kulik, Mrs. Scully’s brother.
Mrs. Scully did not respond to an email requesting comment. Phone calls to several members on the board of trustees, including Mr. Rose, were not returned.

On June 14, the school set up a hot line to Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson’s office to report any inappropriate behavior by Horace Mann staff members. That hot line has since received “at least 20” reports from former students, according to a spokesman for the Bronx District Attorney’s Office.

posterplaque 3 e1345589034504 Riot in Riverdale: Will a New Foundation Insulate Horace Mann from Costly Molestation Suits?

The Horace Mann Action Coalition protesting outside Horace Mann during the Alumni Council Meeting (photo credit: Peter Brooks)

Questions remain: Can victims claim that the school, having been made aware of allegations against Mr. Somary, engaged in a coverup by letting him stay on staff for another nine years? And if so, is Horace Mann potentially looking at a cascade of lawsuits that do lasting damage to the institution?

Whether police are investigating the possibility of a coverup could not be determined. Questions to Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Paul Browne were not answered. An interview request with Deputy Chief Michael Osgood, commander of the NYPD’s Special Victims Unit, was denied.

As for the independent investigation, Mr. Friedman said in the meeting that the board was opposed to it for several reasons:The firm theoretically hired to handle the independent investigation would not have subpoena power. And the cost of such an investigation, in the ballpark of the $12 million price tag for Louis Freeh’s Penn State report, would be prohibitive.

When asked if a more affordable option could be pursued, Mr. Friedman told those in attendance that the Freeh report was the gold standard and anything less would be inadequate, according to a person who was present at the meeting.
Horace Mann’s recent troubles mirrored those of St. Paul’s, the New Hampshire prep school that was slapped with allegations of sexual abuse by way of a 2006 Vanity Fair article written by Alex Shoumatoff, a former student there.
A St. Paul’s alumni group led by Arizona attorney Alexis Johnson presented the board with more than 10 instances of sexual misconduct by former faculty members, a report that was initiated after one former student reported that a teacher had exposed himself to her.

The purpose of the report, said Mr. Johnson, was not to pursue legal action, but to bring these allegations to a “recalcitrant private institution” that had been perceived as more interested in safeguarding its image than in addressing serious violations.

“People hate to think about child abuse when they are trying to raise money for a library,” said Mr. Johnson. St. Paul’s class of 1975 would eventually give a sizable donation to the school, one that provided, among other things, “boundary” training to teachers.

Back at the Alumni Council meeting, Mr. Friedman refuted rumors that board members were “lawyering up.” Addressing the idea of an apology letter, one member of the Alumni Council brought up a 2008 letter sent to students at the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, a private school in Cambridge, Mass., by headmaster Rebecca Upham. In that letter, Ms. Upham apologized for the school’s handling of a teacher who was fired in 1987 for sexually inappropriate behavior, adding that even 20 years later the school “failed to respond to those awful events in an appropriate way.”
“Dr. Kelly has communicated with his peers at [Buckingham Browne & Nichols] and other schools, who have given insights and advice on what worked and what didn’t work when they went through similar situations,” said one attendee at the Alumni Council meeting.

Buckingham Browne & Nichols paid out $70,000 to settle a civil suit, and in 2009 was threatened with $1 million suit by a 1989 graduate of the school.

While New York State’s statute of limitations and the deaths of the accused teachers limit the possibility for any criminal charges, one attorney with experience handling similar cases said that the statute of limitations should not thwart those claiming to be victims from pursuing legal action.

“What’s happening in this case is that the schools are basically concealing from kids information that they have regarding sex predators amongst the schools’ faculty,” said the attorney, who spoke about sexual abuse in schools in general and who asked not to be named.

“They’re concealing this information they should be revealing, and then they are hiding behind the statute of limitations, saying, ‘Oh, you should have sued us,’” the attorney added. “It’s an absurd and asinine construction, asking kids who could not possibly have any idea that the school had knowledge of this activity to have to sue the school by a certain time, while the school is still fervently engaged in a coverup to minimize its own culpability and its own knowledge,” the lawyer added.

“It’s so incredibly draconian, it’s not even funny.”

drosen@observer.com