The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An extraordinary story of alleged sex abuse of students at elite private school over decades

John Seiger, a former student of elite New York City preparatory academy Horace Mann School, sits beside a picture of himself during a news conference in New York on April 22, 2013. A group of Horace Mann alumni, including Seiger, have alleged they were sexually abused while attending the school. (Reuters/Mike Segar)

A new report commissioned by concerned alumni of Horace Mann School, an elite private school in New York City, tells an extraordinary story of the sexual abuse of scores of students over decades by teachers, coaches, department heads, a headmaster, a school chaplain and a dean of guidance.

The findings build on revelations made public in recent years about sex abuse at Horace Mann, which was founded by Columbia University on its campus in 1887 but has long been an independent school in the Bronx, now with 1,782 students from nursery school through 12th grade. It costs $41,900 a year in tuition and fees for students. The school is currently co-ed but for many of the years in which the sexual abuse occurred, it was a school for boys.

The New York Times published revelations about the abuse in June 2012, and a few months later, the Horace Mann Alumni Council passed a resolution asking the Board of Trustees to launch an independent investigation. The board did not do so then, or after  The New Yorker published a story in 2013 on the subject by Marc Fisher, an alumnus of the school and a Washington Post reporter. In fact, it never launched such a probe. It did ultimately agree to pay several million dollars in financial settlements with some sex abuse survivors — but not before trying to get them to agree not to talk in public about their ordeals. (You can read the report here but be aware that it includes graphic material.)

The details of the abuse alleged in the report are shocking: One teacher collected students and lived with three of his acolytes for decades after they finished high school; another teacher continued to abuse students long after his victims and their parents complained to school authorities. In a third case, a teacher defended having sexual relations with students, saying the relationships were “beautiful.”

Several of the abused students committed suicide or attempted to do so; in at least two cases, victims wrote about the impact of the teachers’ abuse on their decisions to end their lives. In many of the cases, the survivors have led severely damaged lives, riddled with broken relationships, checkered careers and dysfunctional families.

The new report says that the investigation — overseen by attorney and former judge Leslie Crocker Snyder  –“uncovered credible reports that 64 students had been sexually abused by 22 Horace Mann staff members from the 1960s through the 1990s.”  It identifies the alleged abusers and provides details about how they sexually abused children in their care, with separate “sets” of abusers active in different decades “despite changes in headmasters and some administration.”

It also details an institutional culture and identifies policies and procedures at Horace Mann that had allowed for the continued sexual abuse of children, including one policy that “compelled administrators to side with teachers” in the absence of eyewitness testimony. Attached to the report is a 10-point guide on how members of school communities can determine if their school has policies and procedures like Horace Mann had that allowed continued sexual abuse of children. At least one survivor killed himself years later, and many are still dealing with what happened to them as children.

In an e-mail to alumni announcing the report, HMAC member Peter Brooks wrote:

The intent of the report is not to assess blame or indict.  It is rather solely to examine and through that examination glean lessons that can make kids across the country and around the world safer.   I hope you can all take consolation in the fact that though the crimes that occurred at Horace Mann were grievous and can never be fully recompensed, the lessons learned through this report will serve to insure that others are spared.

Today on the Horace Mann Web site, there are letters to the community that were sent by school officials in years past about the scandal, which you can see here.

Here’s how the report starts:

On November 5, 2011 Jerry Sandusky, a football coach at Pennsylvania State University, was arrested and charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse of young boys. After the story broke, Amos Kamil, a 1982 graduate of the Horace Mann School, a private co-educational college preparatory day school in the Bronx, New York, got in touch with a former classmate who had once shared that as a child he had been sexually abracused by a Horace Mann teacher. “He said he wasn’t doing very well because of [the Sandusky revelations]. And he also said, ‘I wish someone would write about what went on at Horace Mann,” implying that there were other children who had been abused.
On June 6, 2012 — just two weeks before Sandusky was convicted — Kamil published a New York Times Magazine story detailing former Horace Mann students’ claims of sexual assault and abuse they suffered while attending Horace Mann. The stories were horrific, all the more so as Kamil revealed that the abuse spanned nearly 40 years and was perpetrated by multiple teachers and administrators.
Following the article, The Bronx District Attorney’s (DA) office set up a hotline to the Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Bureau and encouraged victims to report allegations of abuse. Over a period of 10 ½ months, the hotline received 30 calls and an investigation involving the DA, the New York Police Department and the Bronx Special Victim’s Squad was initiated. On May 1, 2013, the DA announced the results of the investigation:
This joint effort resulted in over 60 separate interviews to date, over 25 of which were with victims of alleged abuse. . .. The interviews . . . reveal a systemic pattern of alleged abuse beyond what was outlined in the original New York Times Magazine article. In total, we received direct information regarding at least 12 separate alleged abusers. The reported abuse ranges from what may be characterized as inappropriate behavior to child
endangerment, actual instances of sexual contact, sexual intercourse and criminal sexual acts. The earliest instance of abuse that was reported to us occurred in 1962. While the majority of the abuse was said to have occurred in the 1970s, additional instances of abuse were reported from the 1980s and 1990s. The last reported occurrence of abuse was in 1996.
Soon after Kamil’s article was published, a group of concerned Horace Mann alumni formed the Horace Mann Action Coalition (HMAC), a nonprofit organization, to advocate for the victims. By March 2013, HMAC’s review uncovered credible reports that 64 students had been sexually abused by 22 Horace Mann staff members from the 1960s through the 1990s. Among the abusers — both men and women — were a headmaster, coaches, teachers, a school chaplain, a dean of guidance, and department heads.
HMAC identified distinct sets of serial abusers, beginning with four in the 1960s who continued to molest students for more than a decade. Four more serial predators abused students in the 1970s and some were aware of the criminal acts of others. A third set of abusers were active in the 1980s, despite changes in headmasters and some administration.

Horace Mann is, of course, not the only school where students have been sexually abused by their teachers and coaches, but there are questions about what made Horace Mann such a fertile ground for so much abuse. How did this keep happening, decade after decade, with nobody forcing the issue into the public? I asked Marc Fisher, who said:

The school, which was all-male until 1975, was, like many independent schools in that era, something of a refuge for gay teachers who could not find work in the public schools. Most of the gay teachers behaved entirely appropriately, but a few succumbed to their attraction to some of the boys on campus. The Seventies were a time when sexual rules fell away in New York, and some teachers took advantage of the new freedoms, often inviting boys to spend weekends at their homes under the guise of providing intensive tutoring, piano lessons, art classes or biology help. The new freedom was innocently liberating for many, but a few pedophiles abused the liberalized atmosphere to wield their authority over boys who were struggling to find themselves in a period without clear rules.

In 2013, he wrote in The New Yorker that students long shared stories about some teachers and other adults at the school having unusual relationships:

Like many Horace Mann graduates, I spent years telling anecdotes about my school’s teachers. From the earliest days of college, I found that stories about the teacher who massaged boys’ necks as he lectured on the corruption of Tammany Hall, or the teacher who urged boys to swim naked in the school pool, were guaranteed to amaze and appall.

But, he wrote, most students couldn’t fathom what was actually going on and only came to realize it years after leaving the school:

Horace Mann was, and remains, one of New York’s most rigorous and respected private schools, with the power to lift students from one world to another. In the decades before the nineteen-eighties, when the school’s base of families became markedly wealthier, a Horace Mann education could make children of immigrants eligible to enter Ivy League colleges, or join white-shoe law firms and Wall Street banks and brokerage houses. William Clinton, a history teacher for more than three decades, and for much of that time the dean of guidance, often spelled out for us a preferred path: “Harvard, maybe a Rhodes, read law, make partner.”
Our parents paid steep tuition bills, because of the intensive curriculum and the stellar record of college placement, but also because the classes were small and the teachers inspiring. “I loved the kids—they were so bright and funny that every day held big, enlightening surprises,” Richard Warren, an English teacher at the school from 1965 to 1979, said. “The faculty were left to do whatever they wanted, within subject limits, in the classroom.” To students, the teachers were like gods: amusing, imperious, sometimes strangely punitive. We were forever being ordered to take laps around the field or to sit on “the green bench,” an imaginary seat along the wall that tormented our leg muscles. And yet we loved these men, even when they assigned us four hours a night of biology homework or required us to memorize hundreds of facts about the Cleveland Administration. For most of us, the notion that some of our teachers might be monsters simply never crossed our minds.

The report ends like this:

Between the fall of 2012 and August 2013, nine of 35 Horace Mann trustees had resigned from the board. Four were reported to have left specifically because of concerns over the school’s handling of the scandal…. On March 13, 2015, after nine years as board chair, [board Chairman Steve] Friedman announced his retirement. In his farewell letter to the Horace Mann community, he noted that while he had found his role exhilarating and challenging, it had also been also “deeply satisfying”:
I believe we have “left it on the field” in terms of initiatives in curriculum and program development, in arts, athletics, diversity, community service, and sustainability, to name but a few, while creating the financial strength to help those in need . . . and to try to help heal the wounds in our community created decades ago.