Horace Mann Should Heed Its Motto: “Great is the Truth and it Prevails”

June 25, 2012

The New York Times Magazine earlier this month published a story alleging that 30 years ago, sexual abuse was not only rampant, but also well known and tolerated by the administration of Horace Mann, one of the nation’s most prestigious preparatory schools.
The institution’s response so far to these damning allegations is not exactly what one would expect from a school that boldly brandishes the motto Magna est Veritas et Praevalet (“Great is the Truth and it Prevails”).  In this instance, it seems the quest for truth appears to have been relegated to statements issued by the school’s PR firm.

The writer of the article, Amos Kamil, is not a crusading investigative reporter looking to make a name and launch a journalism career.  Rather, he’s a 1982 Horace Mann graduate who had attended on a baseball scholarship.  Despite what took place, he remains positive toward the school, posting on Twitter earlier this month that Horace Mann “was an incredible place which is what makes it all so confusing.”

Kamil reportedly spent six months trying to reach Horace Mann Headmaster Tom Kelly, as well as nearly two-dozen members of the school’s board of trustees, imploring them to hear the stories of former students who claimed they had been abused.  Kelly and the trustees seemingly ignored the pleas and instead countered with a statement issued by a PR firm saying, in part, “the current administration is not in a position to comment on events involving former and, in some cases, now-deceased faculty members that are said to have occurred years before we assumed leadership at the school.”

Stripped of its legalese and its PR-speak, the statement telegraphed that the school’s current leadership has no sense of responsibility or accountability for events that took place under a previous administration.  The statement’s clipped wording does the alleged victims an additional disservice by suggesting that their claims, even if valid, are nevertheless inconsequential because a number of the staff members at whom their fingers are pointing have since died.

That defense was further weakened on Sunday when the Times reported that Tek Young Lin, a former Horace Mann English teacher who is still very much alive, admitted to having sex with “maybe three” students. The school again hid behind its PR spokesperson, who said that if Lin’s statements are “true,” his conduct was “appalling.”

When it comes to Horace Mann’s code of ethics, it seems to be a case of “Do as we say, not as we do.”  Students are expected to show “respect, care, and concern for all members of the Horace Mann community,” which, presumably, includes the school’s alumni (who, ironically, are now being hit up for donations for the school’s 125th anniversary celebration).  It also says that students must “take responsibility for their actions and accept the intended and unintended consequences of those actions.”  Is not the school itself a rather important element of that community?  Is it not to be held accountable for its alleged transgressions?  The administration’s role as stewards of the Horace Mann legacy should be to ensure its compliance with the standards set for students, past and present.

Shamefully, some alumni and readers have rushed to Horace Mann’s defense, claiming the school has been unfairly victimized.  “We feel the school has been prosecuted,” a recently graduated Horace Mann student told the Times.  Said one vitriolic Times reader: “Kamil and the cowardly anonymous accusers have acted as vigilante prosecution and judge, making you all a vigilante jury.”

If the finger accusing cowardice should be pointed anywhere, it is in the direction of Horace Mann’s administration and trustees for their wholesale dismissal of former students claiming sexual misconduct by their teachers.  Like the mighty lion that serves as the school’s mascot, the truth about Horace Mann’s history is roaring to be heard.  The task shouldn’t be delegated to the media, the Bronx DA, and, quite possibly, class action attorneys.  In the wake of its own scandal, Penn State tapped former FBI director Louis Freeh to investigate child sex-abuse allegations at that institution; that inquiry is going as far back as 1975.

Admittedly, Horace Mann isn’t the only preparatory school that met accusations of sexual improprieties with a morally questionable response.  Former Poly Prep football coach Phil Foglietta has been accused of sexually abusing students and the school; last Friday, an attorney for the victims accused the school of withholding documents. Sadly, I understand from a prominent attorney involved in an unrelated, high-profile sexual abuse case that another major school will soon know first-hand the scandal that such allegations bring.

Without question, it is incredibly difficult and painful on many levels for a school to publicly admit that sexual predators were once allowed to run rampant.  But shedding light on the truth, regardless of the potential risk, can be an occasion for their finest hour to prevail.

Magna est Veritas et Praevalet indeed.