Horace Mann, one of New York City's most prestigious high schools, has an idyllic 18-acre campus in the Bronx, a hefty list of influential alumni including Robert Caro and Eliot Spitzer, and — according to this weekend's New York Times Magazine cover story — a long, secret history of sexual abuse.
The piece reads like a Dickens novel: innocent teenage boys — some, like the author of the article, Amos Kamil, plucked from poor neighborhoods to be placed among the elite — are groomed by larger-than-life coaches and teachers who come off as eccentric and impassioned but are at best creepy and at worst predators.
There's Mark Wright, the assistant football coach and art teacher who was "the ultimate Horace Mann success story" — he had graduated from the school and was described as "a Picasso in cleats" at Princeton — who would paint portraits and hold "physical examinations" that were really just excuses to molest students. One man told Kamil about his own portrait session:
"He told me to bring a bathing suit, but when I got there he said not to bother putting it on. I was really uncomfortable but did it anyway since he was across the room. I remember exactly what he said: that he needed to see the connection between my legs. The next thing I knew, he had my penis in his hand. I was so scared. He was a pretty intimidating guy. He began performing fellatio and masturbating," Andrew said, now breathing with effort.
Finally, one of Wright's examination subjects spoke up, and Wright left the school. But the students and their families never received any explanation as to why he was suddenly gone, and his victims were not invited to discuss their experiences. No one wanted to talk about what had happened.
Then, there's Stan Kops, a history teacher who made kids uncomfortable whether he was punishing or rewarding them: he once penalized a student by making him take his shirt off in class and stand next to the window, and he would sometimes cancel class for "frolic" time, during which all of the kids — and Kops — would run around and, well, frolic in the classroom. "I was new in seventh grade and remember thinking that this was a different kind of school where a teacher was physically ‘handling' me," one man remembered. "I can remember him being kind of red and breathless after particularly vigorous frolicking."
It took a while for Kops to resign, since many students felt loyal to the man who "made students feel that he cared deeply about their education and their well-being. In return, a pretty sophisticated student body chose to view his behavior as merely odd when, in many other contexts, it would have been deemed outrageous or even threatening." He finally left after a student reported a camping trip incident — Kops pressed against him in the dark and then took him aside the next morning, grabbed his own crotch, and said "What were you doing last night?" — but went on to another private school, where officials said no one from Horace Mann indicated he would be anything other than a "safe bet." When that job didn't work out, he killed himself.
Multiple students were also abused by Johannes Sommary, the head of the arts-and-music department. "He was a hero to me," said one man, "But he was also a monster." Another former student, M, who told Kamil that what happened with Sommary drove him to drink and shoot up heroin later on in life, described their relationship:
Somary took him on glee-club trips and then on solo trips to Europe, M. said: "We stayed at the best hotels, I met with the great classical musicians of the time and ate at the finest restaurants. I was expected to have sex with him and did even though it repulsed me every time. It was all very confusing. At one point I told my parents I no longer wanted to sleep in the same room with him on the European trips." When Somary found out, he "drove to my house and sat in my living room like a jilted lover, begging me to stay in the same room with him," M. said. "Right in front of my father." M.'s mother, who confirmed his story, said she and her husband didn't understand the nature of their son's discomfort. They thought he was just being a teenager, preferring the company of his peers. He couldn't bring himself to tell his parents the truth.
Decades later, in 1994, Somary was still teaching at Horace Mann and still abusing students. One boy, Ben, sent a letter to Phil Foote, then Horace Mann's headmaster, accusing Somary of "grossly inappropriate sexual advances," and Ben's mother confronted Somary (who was also her coworker) as well:
"Ben kissed me first," she says he told her. When she demanded, "How dare you put your tongue down my son's mouth!" his reply, she says, was, "That's how we Swiss kiss."
A lawyer warned the family that there was nothing they could do unless they had evidence of the abuse on tape. Eventually, Ben's mother dropped the case. 15 years later, Ben committed suicide.
The article has somewhat of a positive ending; Kamil says there's no way such rampant abuse could persist these days, thanks to social media and recent scandals that have put child molestation in the spotlight. He also mentions that the students who spoke up saw quick action from the school and went on to live normal lives. But, given that very few victims speak out, the piece is a sobering reminder of what happens to people who are sexually assaulted and deal with the trauma for decades after. Since it's extremely difficult for people who have been abused by authority figures to come forward, it's imperative that administrations take responsibility for even the most scandalous, unspeakable events.
That seems obvious — but just think about Penn State, or the Boy Scouts, or the Catholic Church. Are things really more transparent nowadays?
Prep-School Predators [NYT Magazine]