Thursday, June 7, 2012

Horace Mann and the Pervasiveness of Sex Abuse in Schools

Posted By on Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 10:30 AM

Horace Mann.
  • Horace Mann.
Man, Amos Kamil's Times Magazine piece about sexual abuse at Horace Mann is tough to read. It details the years of abuse students suffered at the hands of pedophile teachers, and the ways in which the system made it very easy to cover up. This part particularly stuck with me:

Shortly after my arrival, a new friend walked me around the school, pointing out teachers to avoid.

“What do you mean? Like, they’re hard graders?”

“No. Perverts. Stay away from them. Trust me.”

I heard about some teachers who supposedly had a habit of groping female students and others who had their eyes on the boys.

This seems to be an almost universal feature of any system dealing with children. I didn't go to Horace Mann, I went to a giant Texas public school, and I graduated in the late 90s, not the early 80s, and yet, there were certain teachers that were just known. You stay away. He makes a valid point about homophobia:

It was juicy gossip, of course, but not all that different from what already swirls around the minds of sex-obsessed high-school students. Certainly it wasn’t that different from what swirled around the hallways of typically homophobic high schools at the time, when anyone who was a bit different was suspected of being gay and any teacher who was gay was suspected of being a pedophile.

I definitely had teachers that were gay and sort of out but not really because it was Texas. Certainly some kids had shitty things to say about them. But that general knowledge—that "don't get stuck in a classroom/locker room/practice space with Teacher X"—was different. I have no distinct memory of being told who to avoid and why, and yet I know that I knew from my very first weeks there. It was always a sort of subliminal thing. I never heard any student speaking from personal experience beyond shoulder massages or "weird" looks, but you could feel the implied threat, even if you couldn't face up to the reality of it: that students were being sexually abused by a person they are supposed to trust, and nobody was doing anything about the situation.

When the Penn State scandal came out last year, I kept getting tangled in the questions everyone else was getting tangled in: How does an institutional culture arise to condone, or at least ignore, something that, individually, every member knows is wrong? Andrew’s story came back to me in a rush. The questions of Penn State, I realized, are the questions of Horace Mann and perhaps every place that has been haunted by a similar history.

Those questions are the questions of every place, and I don't think the answers are as simple as Mr. Kamil makes them out to be. His essay was about a specific place and specific time—Horace Mann over the last 50 years or so—but the question at the heart of the piece is: if everybody knew something bad was happening, why didn't anybody do anything? And when they did, why was it not done openly, acknowledging the pain suffered? But isn't this question central to lives of children everywhere? Who, growing up, didn't know kids whose parents beat the shit out of them, whose relatives raped them, who were raped by other students, who were "caught" by the teachers everybody knew to avoid?

Of camp counselors known to be abusing kids for years before anyone does anything. Of priests raping kids, and the church trying its hardest to cover it up. Of tight-knit communities where abusers are shielded from prosecution. Even the brutal gang rape of an 11-year-old girl is not free of people trying to make excuses for the rapists, to cover up what happened. This is the world we live in. This is what rape culture is about. This isn't a Horace Mann problem, this is a cultural problem, and every day there is some kid being sexually abused by someone in power, and the people around him know, on some level, what is happening, but choose to ignore it because that is easier. I did it. We all did. Which is why Mr. Kamil's conclusion that things have changed feels very naive:

If Horace Mann’s current anti-abuse policies had been enforced back in Clark’s day, Mark Wright’s first physical examination might have been his last. But it seems that Clark handled Wright’s and Kops’s cases discreetly, without offering an explanation to the Horace Mann community or initiating a schoolwide discussion about the surrounding issues. A discussion like that might have encouraged E. B. or M. to speak up, decades before Ben Balter had his own painful experiences with Somary.

I'm glad he provided a voice for the survivors of abuse at Horace Mann. It's important for us to hear these stories, and to understand that these things happen even in "elite" institutions. But until we change our culture and collectively refuse to apologize and cover up for abusers, no amount of high school policy is going to make this the end of the story.

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