How Far Should Schools Go To Investigate Past Abuse?

The latest twist in the saga of past student sex abuse at the prestigious Horace Mann School took another turn on Friday when the school for the first time issued a public apology to the victims.  The school also said that it would end the position of trustee emeritus on its board, thus eliminating some of the people who conceivably could have known (or some may say should have known) of the abuse at the time that it was happening.

But what is causing some consternation among victims and alumni is what Horace Mann said it wouldn’t do—that is conduct an independent inquiring into the abuses, much as what happened at Penn State.  To be clear, Horace Mann has come to monetary settlements with some of the victims, cooperated with an investigation by the Bronx District Attorney’s Office and has established an advisory board on student safety, which will include at least one victim, to make policy recommendations to the board.

I come at this story as a parent, an education writer and the chair of a board that has had to deal with the arrest of an employee on child pornography charges.  So, I understand that no one — neither an institution’s managers, like its Head of School, or its board, is prepared to deal with this sort of thing.  I also understand, although I do not accept, the natural human impulse to guard the school, shield it from potential further bad publicity, and “let sleeping dogs lie” between former students that haven’t come forward and employees who are likely now dead or infirm (which some may use as justification for keeping quiet, because their molestation days are likely behind us).

And yet.  To borrow a phrase from the recovery movement: we are only as sick as our secrets.  Given the strength of Horace Mann’s reputation and its alumni network, its unlikely that whatever comes out will fatally damage the school. I imagine that the very worse that could happen would be to uncover that abusers still work there, or the unveiling of other instances of abuse that are occurring now and are not yet known.  While the statute of limitations has been exceeded for the cases that the school settled, some 25 victims have still retained Gloria Allred, and are working with a former judge to conduct an independent investigation (which I assume the school will not cooperate with).

I understand that the natural reaction of trustees, which may be to do all that is necessary to do by law, and no more, without exposing the school to potential further liability. I can imagine too, that there must be some who have argued for the independent investigation, but their colleagues deemed it far too risky and probably argued for ironclad procedures going forward that will make it highly unlikely that such scandals could ever occur again.  But if there is one thing that institutions like the Catholic Church have taught us it is this — when you have crimes against children committed on a mass scale and it is either ignored or actively covered up, it is even more important that you expose it, and continue to expose it, lest you lose that reputation that you were trying so hard to protect.

Here’s another phrase, this time from journalism: sunshine is the best disinfectant.  Horace Mann’s launching an independent investigation may well turn over something very unpleasant under a few rocks. Which still might be better than waiting for the next shoe to drop.

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One thought on “How Far Should Schools Go To Investigate Past Abuse?

  1. The independent investigation requested by many, including national abuse prevention organizations, concerned alumni, victims and even the school’s own Alumni Council, is commissioned by alumni who formed the Horace Mann Action Coalition and the not-for-profit HMAC Support Fund, Inc. in response to the sexual, emotional and physical abuse inflicted by multiple teachers on our fellow alumni when they were students at the Horace Mann School. We want to know how and why the abuse was allowed to go on for so long against so many despite reports that the school received. We are grateful the survivors have agreed to cooperate. Any “report” that would ignore “who knew what and when” among the school administrators and board members who knew about the abuse but did nothing to stop it or who actively threatened children or their families to keep the reports and abuse hidden would be as empty as suggesting that the child in the shower at Penn State was all there is to know. Do we put the burden once again on the victim to speak out or with the institution to demonstrate to other victims that reporting is welcome, safe and not a dead letter?

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