Forward Thinking

Horace Mann Says Sorry — and Stumbles

By Sarah Seltzer

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Horace Mann alumni like me got emails in our in-boxes a few days ago and soon thereafter, the news was splashed everywhere: our alma mater had officially apologized. The school apologized for the many instances of child abuse, sexual assault and worse that journalists have revealed as occurring in its classrooms, hallways and teacher’s homes.

One thing the administration didn’t do? Commission the investigation sought after by survivors.

This latter failure isn’t surprising. As I noted when the story first broke, institutions — unless pressed extremely hard — always close ranks and do the bare minimum needed to concede wrongdoing. And schools are particularly funny as institutions go. They purportedly exist to serve students, but students move through them, out of them, away.

After this transient population moves on, what’s left is the “good name” of the institution, the institution’s staff and leadership, and most importantly its money. Even the buildings don’t always remain, at least not on the campuses of New York private schools, which have raced to outbuild each other in absurd ways. Private education can be great, but it has a bottom line.

And the bottom line means that the stewards of places like Horace Mann will be invested in brushing off the taint of scandal, of criminality. They are always looking to return the focus to their students’ impressive Ivy League acceptance rates, well-equipped classrooms and gleaming buildings.

Hence, the apology without an investigation, sent out on the Friday before a holiday weekend, when it would have the least-possible impact.

This is a shame. What made Horace Mann different from your average academically impressive high school was the way people cared. We had assemblies to talk about some sort of routine issue and inevitably students and faculty would line up to comment at the open mics all the way to the back of the echoing room, passionately defending their points of view, often just loving the sound of their own voices, offering points and counterparts. But that’s okay.

Horace Mann had lots of problems, and I’m sure during my time as a student leader there I decried apathy. But now I see it was among the least apathetic communities I have ever been a part of, really. I treasure that memory.

So it’s no surprise that students educated by Horace Mann have been the main activists in calling it to task, demanding action in response to the appalling revelations about sexual assault, as Beth Kissileff noted in her previous Forward piece comparing Horace Mann to Yeshiva University.

The most crucial thing Horace Mann did for me, for us, was teach us to think critically, to never take things at face value. It would be fitting if the institution were likewise willing to take an unbiased and critical look at itself, at its past, at its role in hurting so many who passed through its doors. But I’m not holding my breath.


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