Horace Mann School on Trial in the Press

"Something there is that doesn't like a wall," wrote the poet Robert Frost almost a hundred years ago; and now it seems that there are some people who don't like the fine institution that gave them a great beginning in their educational careers. How else to explain the groups of "activists" described in today's NY Times and in the Wall Street Journal  who seem hell-bent - for whatever motives to drive a truly great school to grovel before them and to force its leaders to plead mea culpa, mea maxima culpa to alleged activities that took place many years before they were ever part of its administration.

The school in question is Horace Mann, in Riverdale, New York, arguably the nation's finest independent preparatory day school. It is one I graduated, was a parent of a student attending during the period in question, served as Class Representative and an Alumni Trustee, and am the husband of a teacher who concluded her 50-year career with 17 years on the Horace Mann faculty.

I think it is fair to say that I have more than a little experience with and knowledge of the school - including a personal acquaintance with every single Headmaster, save one, since 1948 through the present.

The events in question, sexual misconduct with students, which are alleged without one single shred of evidence other than gossip, hearsay, rumor, and uncorroborated accusations, took place, if they ever did, over thirty years ago. All the supposed perpetrators, save one, are dead and cannot defend themselves; and the one survivor, a frail 88-year-old who hasn't been at the school since 1986, was hunted down by the Times in his retirement in California and hounded to admit that he twice or so had consensual sex with students.

In the only case in which it appears that the administration had knowledge of alleged sexual misconduct, not the one above mentioned, the then administration swiftly dismissed the teacher in question (he died some years later).

As far as I can tell from press reports, almost all of them in the New York Times, which seems to have been pursuing some sort of vendetta against the school, beginning with a lengthy and scurrilous article in its Sunday Magazine section published last June - written by an ingrate who spent only three years at the school after being plucked from a Bronx public Junior High and given both a tuition scholarship and financial aid for living expenses (he himself laid no claim to abuse of any sort - merely repeating what he claimed unnamed sources had told him). The Times followed up their original story with a continual drumbeat of smaller articles enlarging and elaborating on the original claims, but still without production of any evidence that would be even admitted in a court of law. In fact, as has been acknowledged frequently, even if there were any evidence of the alleged wrongdoing, the New York State statutes of limitations would preclude and legal action whatsoever.

While the Times kept up its drumbeat of coverage over a number of weeks, other New York papers pretty much ignored the story altogether, giving it scant, if any coverage. The Wall Street Journal, for example, settle for a relatively short wire service squib and nothing more.

According to press reports following the original Times accusations the current school administration released public statements indicating that none of the present leadership had been working at the school during the years when the alleged misconduct had taken place; that a 1984 fire in an area where records were kept had destroyed any paper trail that might have existed; and that in more recent decades, giving the growing sensitivity to such matters in our society, plans and programs had been put into place to ensure that such kinds of behavior could no longer occur unseen or unpunished.

That should have marked the "case" closed for any reasonable people. Unsupported allegations of improper behavior some 30+ years ago had been made. The school's administration noted that, even if true, none had been on their watch; and that the school was a different place now - decades past the Woodstock years - where extensive systems were in place to prevent any such thing from happening now or in the future.

Not, enough, it seems, to satisfy some people. The Times now reports, with a similar article in the Wall Street Journal,  that a couple of groups have been formed to harass the school into what one spokesperson was quoted as saying, had to be, "that the Horace Mann School administration and board of trustees honor our request for an apology, compensation and an independent investigation." In other words, it is demanded that the school abase itself, risk legal problems by offering "compensation," and subject itself to a witch hunt by outsiders -- all over matters which may or may not have happened decades ago and certainly in no way involved the current faculty or administration.

Interestingly, the leadership of these groups, such as Josh Mannheimer '77, and Eleanor Hamburger '83, do not, according to the Journal, claim that they were sexual abuse victims.  Also reported by the WSJ is that several of the alleged victims have been seeking advice from Kevin Mulhearn, an attorney who is apparently experienced in such matters, as he is representing a dozen former students of Brooklyn private school Poly Prep Country Day School, who claim they were victims of abuse at that school.

So, why is this essentially dead horse still being beaten -- even by alumni who make no claim to mistreatment?  Of course, the mention of a lawyer immediately suggests the scent of money; but the vehemence with which the school is being pursued makes that seem unlikely as a major motivation. I and many alumni friends who have discussed this with me remain puzzled. Here is a school which treated its students well, provided them an excellent education, and assisted them in gaining entry into many of the top colleges of the nation.

In those colleges, I am sure that many discovered, as I did that the quality (not necessarily the level) of instruction received at Horace Mann made what was offered at even a Yale or Princeton seem quite inferior by comparison. I even remember an older cousin who attended the University of Pennsylvania years ago telling me how "those guys from Horace Mann get great grades and never seem to have to study half as hard as the rest of us." And he was a graduate of the exclusive selective Brooklyn Tech high school.

The only explanation I can imagine for this ongoing attack on such a fine school, and the excellent administrators and faculty of today and recent years, is a resentment harbored by some against their own alma maters for reasons not apparent to me. Mrs. Obama's stated feelings towards Princeton seem to reflect some of those kinds of feelings. In other cases, it comes to mind that an Alumni Council study, conducting during the time I served on that body, revealed that students who had been scholarship recipients were far less likely to become donors to the school in later life when their education had led them to some degree of success and prosperity than were those alumni who had received no scholarship aid. There seems to be some sort of resentment factor operative here.

Anecdotally, I can report, as Class Agent for many years, that some of my fellow alumni, even classmates who were well-liked and seemed to thrive during their Horace Mann years, deliberately cut themselves off from the school after graduation, some even demanding to be removed from all mailing lists and other venues of alumni communication. I will never understand their attitude, but I am impelled to wonder if something along the same lines isn't at work here among the current "barbarians at the gates."

Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of Horace Mann alumni appreciate the fine education, in many aspects, that they received at HM, excellent lessons in citizenship, and superb mentoring; and they form a large and enthusiastic support group, many of whom choose to send their own children to study at the school.

Other than as mentioned above, and as a contributor to annual fundraising, I have no direct ties with Horace Mann any longer and haven't for over a decade. Nevertheless, I resent those who would unfairly tarnish the image of the school that gave me some of the best years of my life, and, by slinging mud, ensuring that a certain amount will cling to other alumni, students present and future, parents, faculty, and administrators. They ought to shut up and go away.

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