“There is no book on how to handle a situation like this,” Steven Friedman, the chairman of the board of trustees for Horace Mann, told the school’s Alumni Council at a meeting in an auditorium at the school’s hallowed Riverdale campus last week.
Like Penn State and Poly Prep before it, Horace Mann was grappling with the aftermath of serious accusations of sex abuse made by its graduates against former faculty members, and Mr. Friedman and headmaster Tom Kelly had called the meeting to address the terrible matter that had brought the school much ignominy and negative press.
The impetus for this meeting had come in the form of a nearly 10,000-word New York Times Magazine cover story written by Horace Mann alum and playwright Amos Kamil that was published in June.
The story painted three popular teachers as sexual predators during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s: Johannes Somary, a former chair of the arts and music department, who was accused of molesting students in his car, in hotels during glee-club trips and during sojourns in Europe; Stan Kops, who resigned following strange behavior during a 7th grade orientation trip in 1983; and Mark Wright, who was described as “performing fellatio” on a young student inside an art studio in 1978.
In 1993, Horace Mann student Ben Balter sent a letter to then-headmaster Phil Foote about Mr. Somary’s “grossly inappropriate sexual advances” toward him, which had “persisted for several months now.” He added, “The purpose of a school such as Horace Mann is to provide a safe and comfortable learning environment. This goal is clearly made impossible by the inappropriate actions of teachers such as Mr. Somary.” Nonetheless, the teacher remained on staff at Horace Mann until he retired in 2002. Mr. Balter killed himself in 2009.
Now all three of the accused teachers are dead, one of the many complications the board was faced with when deciding on a course of action, Mr. Friedman told the Alumni Council.
Members of the two alumni organizations born out of Mr. Kamil’s article, the Horace Mann Action Coalition and the Horace Mann Survivors, did not think the matter was especially complicated: The school should finance an independent investigation similar to the one that produced Louis Freeh’s damning report on Penn State’s handling of football coach Jerry Sandusky, they said. And the school should also offer an unconditional apology, along with compensation, to its victims.
Perhaps displeased with the administration’s handling of the situation, the Horace Mann Survivors group hired Gloria Allred as its attorney last week, The Observer has learned. The Survivors deferred all interview requests to Ms. Allred, who declined to comment for this article.
Meanwhile, despite Mr. Friedman’s contention that there is no rule book for handling such situations, Horace Mann has no shortage of recent examples to follow.
The countless transgressions of predatory pedophile Sandusky single-handedly destroyed the legacy of once-legendary coach Joe Paterno and the public university that employed him. In his findings, Mr. Freeh blasted Penn State for its “total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders.”
At Poly Prep, former students sued the school and its top officials over the alleged sexual abuse of at least nine students between 1966 and the 1980s, damning the legacy of a popular football coach while also staining the seemingly indestructible image of the Brooklyn prep school. Attorneys for Poly Prep have filed a motion to dismiss the case.
At Syracuse University, two former ball boys for the men’s basketball team accused assistant coach Bernie Fine of molesting them. Both accusers are being represented by Ms. Allred, who recently called on state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate Syracuse’s handling of these allegations.
But at Horace Mann, the board of trustees was being slow and careful in its approach to the accusations, Mr. Friedman said in the meeting.
“They believe the rules apply to public institutions like Penn State, or less prestigious Brooklyn institutions like Poly Prep, but they don’t apply to us,” said Robert Boynton, the director of NYU’s Literary Reportage concentration and a 1981 graduate of Horace Mann. “That has always been the Horace Mann way.”
The school did take immediate steps following the publication of Mr. Kamil’s article. Horace Mann partnered with The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to “audit current administrative procedures and policies that encompass child protection issues,” among other new directives. It has met regularly with the Horace Mann Survivors
and the Horace Mann Action Coalition (CORRECTION: the Horace Mann Action Coalition wrote to say that it has not met regularly with the school). It has cooperated with the NYPD’s and the Bronx district attorney’s independent investigations into the allegations of sexual assault.
Meanwhile, in August, board member Joe Rose set up the Hilltop Cares Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to “assist those affected by the issues arising from allegations of abuse at the Horace Mann School and to study related issues in the broader community,” he wrote in an email to The New York Times. Hilltop Cares Foundation is believed to have raised $2 million already.
Some have knocked the Hilltop Cares Foundation as a ploy to protect the school from damaging litigation by creating a separate entity to compensate victims while legally insulating the institution itself, which can thereby avoid taking any direct responsibility for the crimes. As several observers noted, a similar structure was developed by the manufacturing company Johns Manville, which set up a trust in the 1980s to settle asbestos claims by former employees, successfully protecting the company from bankruptcy.
“What [Joe Rose] is doing is the school’s attempt at an arm’s-length solution,” said one former Horace Mann student who has been active in the discussions between the school and the new alumni organizations and who declined to be named for the article.
“It is our understanding that funds being raised are intended for therapy/counseling for self-described ‘survivors’ who report that they were abused by teachers who are no longer at the school,” a Horace Mann spokeswoman wrote in an email to The Observer. She stressed that the Hilltop Cares Foundation is “not affiliated with the school and have their own respective boards and counsel.”
“It provides Horace Mann deniability,” Mr. Boynton said.
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.
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.”