The Horace Mann School's Secret History of Sexual Abuse
From the elevated platform of the No. 1 train's last stop at 242nd Street, you can just about see the lush 18-acre campus of the Horace Mann School. The walk from the station is short, but it traverses worlds. Leaving the cluttered din of Broadway, you enter the leafy splendor of Fieldston, an enclave of mansions and flowering trees that feels more like a wealthy Westchester suburb than the Bronx. Head up the steep hill, turn left, then walk a bit farther, past the headmaster's house. From the stone wall that runs along Tibbett Avenue, you can see practically the whole school: Pforzheimer Hall, Mullady Hall, the auditorium, the gymnasium and, right in the center, the manicured green expanse of the baseball field, home of the Lions, pride of the school.
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It was this field that drew me to Horace Mann 33 years ago, pulling me out of Junior High School 141 in the Bronx, with its gray-green walls and metal-caged windows. At 141, my friends' résumés read like a crime blotter: Jimmy stole a pizza truck and dropped out after ninth grade; Eggy was done with 141 after he smashed the principal's glasses with a right hook; Ish liked to pelt the Mister Softee truck with rocks; Bend-Over Bob OD'd and lived; Frankie was not so lucky. My future would have tracked swiftly in the same direction but for one factor: baseball. By 14, I had a sweet swing, with the arm, hands and game smarts to match.
That's what brought me to the attention of R. Inslee Clark Jr., then headmaster of Horace Mann, a private school so elite that most students at 141 had never even heard of it. Inky Clark, a tireless scout of baseball talent, started showing up at my games, and he was not someone you could easily miss. He was a big guy with a powerful handshake, bright blue eyes and a booming voice. In his loud pink cardigans and madras pants, he always looked as if he came straight off the Kennedy compound or the bow of a yacht. He drove a bright orange Cadillac convertible, its rear bumper covered with Yankees stickers.
Clark was a legendary reformer. As dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale in the 1960s, he broke that institution's habit of simply accepting students from fancy boarding schools, whatever their academic standing; instead, he started scouring the country for the most talented, highest-achieving students from any school and any background. "You will laugh," William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in 1967, "but it is true that a Mexican-American from El Paso High with identical scores on the achievement test and identically ardent recommendations from the headmaster, has a better chance of being admitted to Yale than Jonathan Edwards the Sixteenth from Saint Paul's School." As more minorities started appearing in the freshman classes, the university's alumni and trustees did not laugh. But the rest of the Ivy League followed Clark's bold lead, forever altering the history of the American meritocracy.
He brought that same crusading spirit to Horace Mann, where he welcomed girls to what had long been a proudly all-boys school. And he used his passion for baseball, the sport he coached, as a Trojan horse to bring promising students from rough schools to a campus otherwise reserved for the city's most privileged children.
Clark could work a room like a politician, zeroing in on whomever he was speaking to, making him feel like he was the most interesting person in the world. He started calling me "the Mouse," as my friends at 141 did, and he suggested I might find a home at Horace Mann. Touched, as was everyone who met him, by his tremendous personal charisma, I took it as a thrilling compliment. My parents saw the bigger picture: the opportunities that a Horace Mann education could bring, the ways it could change a kid's life.
So in September 1979, I stood in the glassed-in breezeway through which students entered campus, wearing the pink Lacoste shirt my brother had somewhat optimistically insisted would help me fit in. All around me, the natives swarmed past — to the classrooms, to the science labs, to the brilliant futures they had been born to assume.
I was an outsider, but I was one of Inky's boys and, as I quickly learned, that counted for a lot. I gathered with my new teachers and classmates in the auditorium and proudly sang Horace Mann's alma mater: "Great is the truth and it prevails; mighty the youth the morrow hails./Lives come and go; stars cease to glow; but great is the truth and it prevails."
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. I heard that Mark Wright, an assistant football coach, had recently left the school under mysterious circumstances. I was warned to avoid Stan Kops, the burly, bearded history teacher known widely as "the Bear," who had some unusual pedagogical methods. Even Clark came in for some snickering: he had no family of his own, and he had a noticeably closer-than-average relationship to the Bear, another confirmed bachelor.
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 didn't pay much attention. I was more focused on the important teenage business of losing my Bronx accent and my virginity. Over the next few years I studied Spanish and calculus and took Clark's class, urban studies; I went to parties in my classmates' lavish apartments, drank their liquor and snorted their cocaine. And I played baseball. Junior year, the Lions went 22-1.
When I was a senior, a family emergency took my mother abroad for several weeks, and my siblings and I were left to take care of ourselves. Clark invited me and my 12-year-old brother out for dinner, along with my friend Eric. On the designated night, we walked up the steps to the headmaster's house, where Inky greeted us at the door. Photos of Horace Mann athletes lined the walls of the foyer, as they did the walls of his office. In the living room, by the fire, sat Stan Kops — the Bear — nursing a cocktail.
"Can I offer you boys a drink?" Inky called out from behind the bar. This certainly didn't happen every day, but the suggestion didn't sound so jarring in 1982, when the state drinking age was just being changed from 18 to 19. Like any self-respecting 17-year-olds, Eric and I said sure, as we all kidded my little brother about being left out of the fun. Gin and tonics were poured, consumed and refilled. Talk loosened up. Still, something about sharing fireside cocktails with Stan Kops was making me uncomfortable. I pointedly asked when we were going to dinner.
Boys in one vehicle, teachers in another, we swerved to the Riverdale Steak House. As Eric climbed out from behind the wheel of his blue van, he muttered a line that we still repeat to this day: "I'm not taking any shit from the Bear." Then we stumbled into the restaurant, where we consumed steaks and many more gin and tonics.
At the end of dinner, Eric and I uttered some prearranged exit line, thanked our hosts, grabbed my brother and drove off drunk into the night, leaving the two grown men to pay the bill and finish out the evening as they might.
"Do you remember Mr. Wright, the football coach?"
Ten years after graduation, four Horace Mann friends and I decided to go on a camping trip. We had been close in high school but later scattered across the country. And we all sensed that the next 10 years — careers, marriages, families — would pull us even farther apart. So we tied our sleeping bags to our backpacks and headed up to the Sierra Nevada for a week of hiking and bonding.
One night after a particularly grueling hike, we sat around the campfire, eating some burned vegetarian meal and enjoying that pleasing quiet that falls between exhaustion and sleep.
Then one friend cleared his throat. (Like many people in this article, my friend asked me not to use his full name, because of the sensitivity of the subject matter and the fact that these events took place when he was a minor. I'll call him by his middle name, Andrew.) "Guys, I have to tell you something that happened to me when we were at H.M. Do you remember Mr. Wright, the football coach?" Our metal utensils ceased clanking.
Speaking calmly and staring into the flames, he told us that when he was in eighth grade, Wright sexually assaulted him. "And not just me," he added. "There were others." First Wright befriended him, he said. Then he molested him. Then he pretended nothing happened.
No one knew what to say, at least at first. But then slowly, the rest of us started telling stories, too. One of the guys talked about a teacher who took him on a field trip, and then invited him into his bed in the hotel room they were sharing. (My friend fled, walking in the rain for hours until the coast seemed clear.) Another told a story about a teacher who got him drunk and naked; that time, no one fled. We talked about the steakhouse dinner, which was a far cry from abuse, but an example of how easy it can be for boundaries to blur and how hard it can be, in the moment, for students to get their bearings. Finally, we all went to sleep.
Then we went home, and another 20 years slid by.
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.
I called Andrew. He was thinking about Horace Mann, too — about his own experiences and those of his classmates. And about Mark Wright.
In many ways, Wright was the ultimate Horace Mann success story. People who knew him remember him as tall and extroverted, with an easy smile and a huge laugh. He graduated in 1972, a time when African-American students like him were a rarity, then went to Princeton, where he majored in art and archaeology and played right tackle for the football team. A glowing article about him in The Daily Princetonian described him as "a Picasso in cleats," and speculated on whether he could have gone pro or would get a Ph.D. "I think Mark lives life to the fullest," the head of his department told the paper, noting that he "exudes enthusiasm and versatility." After college, he came back to Horace Mann to teach art and to coach football.
"I first had him as an art teacher," Andrew told me, in the steadied voice of someone who had worked through the story in therapy. "He was a great guy. Funny, gregarious, everyone loved him. He had this aura of success around him, and I was so happy that someone like him would take an interest in a skinny underclassman like me. I felt special.
"One night he called my house and asked my parents if he could take me to the museum," Andrew continued. "My parents were so excited that a teacher would take such an interest in me." And this being Horace Mann, he added, "it didn't hurt that he had also gone to Princeton." Still, Andrew didn't feel comfortable hanging out with a teacher on the weekend, so he turned down the invitation. A little later Wright had another idea: he asked to draw a portrait of Andrew.
"It was the night of the eighth-grade dance," he told me, "and instead of going to the gym, I went to meet him in his art studio on the fourth floor of Tillinghast. He locked the door and told me to undress." As he got to this part of the story, Andrew's pace slowed and his voice lowered.
"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.
"I left the room and walked to where the dance was. I saw all these kids doing normal eighth-grade things. I tried being present at that party, but I was horrified." Afterward, Andrew said, "it was really hard being at Horace Mann, knowing that if I ran into him, he would get up really close to me and say stuff like: 'What's wrong, little buddy? You're not still mad about that time, are you?' "
This was 1978, a different era in terms of public awareness about sexual predators. Today children are taught from a young age that unwelcome touches are not O.K., not their fault and should be reported immediately. But at 13, Andrew hadn't heard any of those lectures. He didn't tell his other teachers or his parents. He felt too ashamed to talk about what happened. "What I did do in the immediate aftermath," he said, "was contribute to the rumors going around that Mark Wright was a child molester, which were pretty rampant at that time. I'd join conversations about it and say that I'd heard he was into boys, etc. But these conversations were always very frustrating, because he had a lot of defenders who would say that people said this about him because they were jealous that he was such a stud."
Eventually two friends told Andrew that Wright assaulted them, too. "People just talked about it," he said. That's how he heard about the physical exams that Wright gave athletes in the gym building. When Andrew's coach told him he had to see Wright for a physical, he was wary but didn't see any way out of it. So he opened the door to a small, windowless room and walked in. "There was no pretense of medical examination when I got there," he said. "He just tried to start molesting me again, and I told him I'd tell someone if he continued, and he stopped and told me to leave."
G., another kid from my class, who asked me to use only his initial, remembered the same setting — windowless training room, only one door. "I was 14 and recovering from a football injury," he said, in an almost jocular tone, "when Wright used the purported physical exam to try to engage me in a sexual encounter by touching my penis. Although nothing further happened, I was speechless, and I never said anything to anyone. I never looked at myself as a victim, but. . . ." Suddenly his voice cracked. "In hindsight, I just wish I had said something to someone. Maybe then it wouldn't have happened to other kids."
We were only kids ourselves, I said, inadequately.
"I don't think he looked me in the face when he was doing what he did," he said later, "and I certainly didn't look him in the face either."
Later that year, one of Wright's examination subjects, a football player, spoke up. "I reported that Coach Wright was performing limited but inappropriate physicals on team players," the former student told me, "and that I was concerned that he was going to do so on others. The contact was very limited, to about 30 seconds. It was a 'private-parts inspection.' "
When students and faculty returned to campus after the 1978-79 winter break, some told me, Wright was gone. One teacher remembers being told he resigned; others say they got no explanation, as do the students I spoke to.
Wright's victims might have appreciated the invitation to talk about their experiences — if not with school officials, then with counselors or psychotherapists. Students in general might have welcomed an explanation, however limited, of why a teacher that so many looked up to simply disappeared from their lives. And the entire school might have benefited from a more open discussion of student-teacher boundaries, of the danger of abuse and the right to resist it, of how to report it and how the school would respond. But several faculty members of that era said that, to their knowledge, the school said nothing — not to the students, not to their families and not to the police.
Administrators at Horace Mann rarely speak to the press. Over the last six months, I contacted the current headmaster, Tom Kelly, on many occasions, by letter and phone, to ask about Mark Wright as well as the other teachers that I learned about in the course of my research for this article. I also wrote individually to 22 members of the board of trustees, imploring them to hear the stories that former students had told me and to speak on the school's behalf about better policies that might now be in place. I received an initial reply from Kekst and Company, a corporate public-relations firm, and later a statement from the school that said in part: "As an educational institution, we are deeply concerned if allegations of abuse of children are raised, regardless of when or where they may have occurred." It continued: "The current administration is not in a position to comment on the events involving former and, in some cases, now-deceased, faculty members that are said to have occurred years before we assumed leadership of the school. It should be noted that Horace Mann School has terminated teachers based on its determination of inappropriate conduct, including but not limited to certain of the individuals named in your article."
As for questions about Wright or the other teachers I heard about in the course of my reporting, the school issued a blanket statement, saying: "The article contains allegations dating back, in some instances, 30 years, long before the current administration took office, which makes it difficult to accurately respond to the factual allegations therein. In addition, on June 13, 1984, there was a fire in the attic of the business office that destroyed some records."
"Mr. Kops would occasionally cancel class in favor of something called 'frolic.' "
Stocky and socially awkward, Stanley Kops was a far cry from the popular Mark Wright. He was a bit weird, actually. But so were lots of other teachers. Horace Mann tolerated and in some cases even prized eccentricity in its faculty.
Kops — like Wright, an alumnus of the school as well as an employee — used to walk through the aisles of his classroom lecturing about some king or army, then pause at a student's desk to drive home a point. As students noticed, and openly discussed, the objects of these in-class tutorials tended to be handsome, self-confident male athletes. Kops didn't just quiz them; he gave their shoulders a massage. If that didn't coax forth the answer he was looking for, he bent one of their arms behind their backs and pulled — gently, at first, then a lot less so. The inquiry might move on to a headlock.
"I remember this one kid misbehaved," said Rob Boynton, who was a year ahead of me in high school and is now a journalist and a professor. "And his punishment was to take his shirt off and stand by the window. It was freezing outside. Must have been February. All this in full view of the class."
Another former student, who asked not to be named because his child currently attends the school, said: "Mr. Kops would occasionally cancel class in favor of something called 'frolic.' Basically, he would allow kids to run amok in the classroom and kind of joined in the action. I was new in seventh grade and remember thinking that this was a different kind of school where a teacher was physically 'handling' me. I can remember him being kind of red and breathless after particularly vigorous frolicking."
Kops also coached the junior-varsity swim team; it was in that context that I came into contact with his long, creepy touches, which always accompanied pointers about stroke or form. His postpractice entry into the communal shower would clear the steamy room in a hurry. And then there was his ambiguous relationship to Clark, a subject almost perfectly engineered to capture the imagination of students.
Despite all these distractions, many of his students — boys and girls, athletes and not — were as devoted to him as he was to them. He 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.
That all changed in the fall of 1983 at the John Dorr Nature Laboratory, a rugged expanse of fields, streams and woods in Washington, Conn., that serves as Horace Mann's outdoor-education center. At various points during their education, the school's students go to Dorr for a few days to explore nature and bond with one another under the oversight of Dorr's resident faculty and, sometimes, visiting teachers as well.
Kops accompanied one of the seventh-grade orientation trips that year and slept, as visiting faculty often did, in a cabin with the students. At some point in the night, one of the boys, whom I'll call by his middle name, Seth, woke up.
"I was on the top bunk," he recalled, in a matter-of-fact tone. "Middle of the night, my sleeping bag fell to the floor. I climbed down to get it, and as I bent over to pick it up, Kops came up from behind me and pressed up against me. It was pitch black. He then helped me to pick up the sleeping bag even though I didn't need any help." They were fully clothed, he said, and he didn't feel assaulted, just uncomfortable. "I probably wouldn't have said anything except for what happened the next morning."
After breakfast, Seth told me, as the group assembled for activities, Kops took him aside behind a building, grabbed his own crotch and asked, "What were you doing last night?" Seth says he was in shock. "I freaked," he said. "I started screaming: 'You're calling me a homo? You're the homo. You're the homo!' " Listening to Seth, I wondered if that was really what Kops was getting at — perhaps he was making a crude masturbation joke? But more to the point, I wondered if, from Kops's peculiar perspective, that bizarre encounter with a 12-year-old looked all that different from twisting students' arms or making them partly undress in full view of his class.
Seth said he was unsure of what happened next, but according to the story that circulated around campus, he took off running, screaming something about Kops. Seth says his father, an active parent in the Horace Mann community, demanded the school take immediate action, which it did. Kops resigned.
Michael Lacopo, who was the headmaster at the time (Clark had been promoted to president), is now retired and living in Colorado. When I reached him, he told me that he could not discuss any case by name but that he presided over only one such allegation. Speaking in clipped sentences, he gave me a very limited report. "The act was never consummated, but it was an issue of concern, and it became clear it was time for him to move on. And he didn't deny it. And the kid's parents were satisfied," he said. "Everyone knew where I stood on the matter."
Horace Mann says faculty members received a letter about Kops's resignation, but Lacopo made no announcement to his students, their parents or the student body in general.
Kops called some of his favorite students at home and asked them to meet him at school the next day for an announcement. One was Kate Aurthur, who took his ancient-history course the previous year. When they assembled, she said, he told them he was leaving. "He didn't say why he was leaving, and I didn't know why yet," she said. Regardless, the news came as a shock. "It was very emotional. He always had a red face and a soft voice, but he got redder than usual and choked up."
The next time students heard anything about Stan Kops, it was at the end of the next school year, and the news was far more shocking: he had committed suicide. The rumors ran quickly through the Horace Mann student body. Some said that he shot himself in a car, with a Bible nearby. Others said he shot himself on a baseball field as some sort of coded message to Clark. The school still said nothing.
Mr. Somary "was a hero to me, but he was also a monster."
Years before Kops's death, before Wright's firing, before Clark's arrival at Horace Mann, and for many years after, too, Johannes Somary, the head of the arts-and-music department, was a legend on campus. With his wild hair and faraway gaze, a jacket and tie over his pot belly, Somary seemed almost a caricature of a brilliant maestro. The son of a famous Austrian-Swiss banker, he enjoyed a prominent international reputation, having guest-conducted numerous orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic of London and the Vienna Philharmonic. The walls of Pforzheimer Hall at Horace Mann were lined with posters from his concerts.
In class, he was strict, shouting in heavily accented English or slamming the piano lid if a rehearsal was not to his liking. Students took the glee club, and him, very seriously. They accompanied him as he strutted across campus, with an old-fashioned briefcase filled with musical scores and batons. They gathered in his office, where, they say, he was more relaxed and funny, and where they could spend their free periods discussing music, doing homework, even sitting on his lap.
"He had a formidable arsenal for impressing students," said E. B., a flushed, avuncular man who attended Horace Mann in the 1970s. "He was fabulously wealthy, had priceless art on his wall, drove a shiny green Jaguar and was a world-famous conductor." E. B. agreed to tell me his story (though he asked that I identify him only by his initials) at an Italian restaurant outside Lincoln Center. As he spoke, he seemed both nervous and eager, his eyes darting around the room. "He was a hero to me," he said. "But he was also a monster."
Somary started out by befriending him, then allowing him to call him Hannes, then hiring him for little jobs like baby-sitting in the Riverdale home where he lived with his wife and three children. It was there on a fall night in 1973, when E. B. was 16, he says, that Somary sat next to him on a couch, unzipped the boy's pants and started handling his penis. "I wasn't scared, just stunned," E. B. said. "The primary emotion was revulsion. I told him to stop, and he did." But a couple of weeks later, Somary abused him again. "I was such a good victim," he told me as the meal in front of him grew cold. "Shy, trusting, unsophisticated." He shook his head slowly.
M., another man now in his mid-50s, had a similar experience. He was so anxious about my revealing his identity that he initially said he would speak only through an intermediary. ("M" is a letter in his middle name — the closest he would come to letting me identify him in print.) But sometime near midnight this past January, he called me directly and launched into a rapid-fire account of how Somary, "a manipulator par excellence," groomed him for victimization. And how, one night, Somary suggested they take a drive. Somary parked in a lot near the club where the two had spent many hours playing tennis together. "He then pulled me close to his chest," M. said. "I'm thinking: This is weird. Uncomfortable. Then he starts kissing my lips. I'm thinking, Oh, my God, this can't be happening. I didn't know what to do. I was just a child. I didn't have the ego strength to say no. I was shocked, uncomfortable, but I let it persist. He unzipped my pants and started to masturbate me."
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.
The arrangement continued for three years — even into M.'s time at college, he said. "I don't know why I let it go on for so long," M. said. "I've been asking myself that for decades."
E. B., too, is still struggling to make sense of what happened to him. He started a blog called "Johannes Somary, Pedophile," which he hoped would become a gathering place for fellow victims. (E.B. said one other victim reached out to him after coming across the blog.) At the urging of his therapist, he wrote a letter to Somary explaining the scars his abuse left. He received no reply. When he also wrote to Somary's wife, he said, he received a cease-and-desist letter from her lawyer. I wrote to her also, and to Somary's children, in hopes of discussing these allegations, but none of them replied.
Two decades after E. B.'s experiences with Somary, a student named Benjamin Balter, a member of the class of 1994, made a similar allegation.
In the summer of 1993, as Ben was preparing for his senior year at Horace Mann, he accompanied the glee club on a European trip. When he came back, his family says, they could tell something had changed. "He was always really, really smart," Charles Balter said of his brother. "He was a really nice guy, but he was always a bit socially awkward. One of those kids who could perform at the highest levels of math and science but couldn't do the basic things like tie his shoes." After the trip, Charles said, "he was withdrawn, angry and secretive."
The Balter family was in turmoil on a number of fronts at the time — Charles was recovering from a swimming accident (in which Ben had saved his life), their parents' marriage had just ended and Ben was in the midst of coming out of the closet — so though they noticed Ben's unhappiness, it did not occur to them that abuse could be the cause. That fall, Ben took private music lessons from Somary at St. Jean Baptiste, a church in Manhattan. Ben's mother — who works at Horace Mann and who asked that I not print her name — says she asked Somary if she could observe a lesson. Impossible, he told her.
It was soon thereafter that Ben's father found him hidden in a crawl space, passed out after swallowing pills. He was admitted to Nyack Hospital, where he was placed on suicide watch.
The day after he was released, Ben sent a letter to Phil Foote, then Horace Mann's headmaster, accusing Somary of "grossly inappropriate sexual advances." The letter said in part: "The purpose of a school such as Horace Mann is to provide a safe and comfortable learning environment. This goal is clearly made impossible by the inappropriate actions of teachers such as Mr. Somary. It is unfair to me and to other students to have such teachers in our midst, for they compromise not only the goals of the Horace Mann school but also the integrity of education in general."
Ben's mother says she confronted Somary, the man she knew as her son's teacher as well as her own colleague. "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."
Foote's tenure as headmaster lasted only three years, and since that time he suffered a stroke, but speaking recently in his home on the Upper East Side, he was able to recall both the letter and the surrounding events. "Somary came into my office with the mother and strenuously denied everything," Foote said. "His vehemence made a lot of people put off doing anything about it." Later, Foote said: "All the administration and trustees got together and decided they wouldn't do anything about it. People came out of the woodwork protecting Somary." (I have contacted 10 trustees from that era. Most declined to speak to me at all; only one, Michael Hess, agreed to speak with me on the record, but he said he had no specific recollection of the incident.)
Ben's mother says a lawyer affiliated with the school warned her that unless she had evidence of the abuse on tape, there was nothing she could do. "It was Ben's word against Somary's," she says she was told.
Whatever the legal standards might have been for firing or even prosecuting Somary, nothing was stopping the school from at least talking to Ben about his experiences. But according to his mother, no school official ever did. Exhausted by a divorce process, with one son in the hospital and another only recently released, and with no evidence of the kind the lawyer mentioned, Ben's mother dropped her protest.
As for Ben, he finished up his senior year and went to Brown. But he didn't seem to find solace there, nor in his postcollege life, in which he muddled through a series of jobs and relationships, struggling with depression and finding it hard to commit to anything. Charles said that through it all, Ben continued to bring up the abuse he had suffered. "There was definitely a before- and after-Somary quality to his life," Charles said. In 2009, while living on Shelter Island, off the eastern end of Long Island, he made another suicide attempt, with antidepressants and alcohol. This time he succeeded.
"I have been running from this thing most of my life."
I spoke with nearly 100 people for this article, including 60 former students and 15 former or current faculty members. Some of them implored me not to pursue the subject, insisting that no good could come of opening old wounds. Others said that Horace Mann today is a very different place than it was back then — eagerly responsive to the concerns of students and parents. Some said they were unaware of these rumors. Some said nothing had happened to them but that they had heard similar stories from classmates. Many said they were surprised it took this long for these stories to come out.
The former students who chose to share their stories with me are all men, but if their classmates are to be believed, the situation was far more complex. People who haven't set foot in the school in 30 years still rattle off the names of male teachers who were said to be sleeping with their female students. A couple of female faculty members were said to be sleeping with male students. Once I started asking around, these stories continued to bubble up — from friends I thought I knew well and from other schools, public and private, each with their own elaborate histories of which teachers you ought to steer clear of, which students seemed too old for their years. In just the past couple of years, among just the tiny fraternity of elite New York City private schools, two allegations made the news. A male math teacher at Riverdale Country School pleaded not guilty to charges that he had oral sex with a 16-year-old female student. And Poly Prep was named as a defendant in a lawsuit in which 10 former students and two day-campers say the school covered up for a football coach who was molesting boys. In New York City public schools, during the first three months of 2012, reports of sexual misconduct involving school employees were up 35 percent compared with the same period last year.
I have several friends who confided in me, back in high school, about their own sexual encounters with teachers, but who are now unwilling to talk about it. I can't say I blame them. Victims rarely speak out, said Paul Mones, a lawyer who represents people who have been sexually abused by authority figures. "The whole goal of the grooming process is to wrap the child close," he told me. "The affection and trust is to make the kid complicit in the act. Make them feel like it was their fault, so it won't even occur to them to talk." Even if they do, New York State's statute of limitations, which says people who were victimized as minors cannot take civil action against an abuser after they turn 23, makes it unlikely that they would find justice.
Thirty or even 40 years later, many students who have talked about surviving their teachers' abuse say they still live in its shadow. "I spent decades feeling unlovable," said E. B., the creator of the anti-Somary Web site. "I drank and drugged for many years, because I just couldn't face all the anger it brought up."
Andrew, my friend from the camping trip, said: "You spend a lot of your life feeling like an outsider — it shatters you. These people who were supposed to be the good guys were actually the bad guys, and nobody would talk about it."
M., the one who says Somary abused him for years, also feels the effects. "I have had so many issues that I think I can trace back to this," he said, including drug abuse and broken marriages. "I have been running from this thing most of my life."
Stories like theirs point to why sexual abuse by teachers — or religious leaders or relatives, for that matter — is so especially damaging. As Mones said: "It's counterintuitive, but sexual abuse emotionally binds the child closer to the person who has harmed him, setting him up for a life plagued by suspicion and confusion, because he will never be sure who he can really trust. And in my experience, this is by far the worst consequence of sexual abuse." That's one reason, he said, why those few victims who ever speak out at all tend to do so only after the abuser is dead or dying: telling the truth while the other person is still strong enough to deny it, or to blame the accuser, is just too terrifying.
At Horace Mann, students who spoke up at the time and saw quick action from the school seem to have suffered few, if any, ill effects. "I was not traumatized by the experience in the least," Seth, the student at the center of the John Dorr Nature Lab confrontation with Stan Kops, told me. "In fact, I was just relaying the story to a friend the other day at lunch. I think the school acted swiftly and appropriately."
The football player who blew the whistle on Mark Wright's "private-part inspections" also says he was not traumatized. Though the administration did not inform him of its action, Wright was gone almost immediately, and the student says he was satisfied with the outcome. "No one knew why he was gone, but as far as I am concerned, the administration wasted no time in addressing the situation," he said. "I have the deepest respect for how it was handled. Unbelievably glad about how they handled it."
For whatever reason, the allegations against Johannes Somary were handled quite differently. At some point after the incident with Ben, faculty members said, Somary was told he could no longer travel unchaperoned with students. But he continued to teach. Several teachers past and present say they noticed his unusually close relationships with certain students. "In the late '60s, early '70s, people started talking about his inappropriate behavior," one of his former colleagues said. "One student a year was anointed," another said. A third former teacher, who taught at Horace Mann during the last years before Somary's retirement, said he was shocked at the time that Somary was still allowed to teach.
These teachers saw enough to make them wonder and even to worry. Yet when the school chose not to act, none of them shouted from the rooftop for help. They came to work the next day, as they had the day before. Teachers had strong incentives not to speak: their jobs were on the line, as was the reputation of an institution in which they had invested some degree of their identities. Even today, witnesses with no current ties to the school have reasons not to speak. Those with school-age children worry about damaging their children's chances at Horace Mann or other elite New York schools. Others point to Horace Mann's influence, real or perceived, and what it could do to their careers or social standings.
Perhaps the teachers who wondered about Somary thought they didn't have enough information. Perhaps they just dearly hoped their hunches were wrong. At least one wishes now that he had acted differently.
"In some ways," said the teacher who worked at Horace Mann during Somary's last years at the school, "I guess I'm culpable."
After Horace Mann, Mark Wright lived for a while in Washington, D.C., and worked at TIAA-CREF, the financial-services organization. Then the trail grows faint. His Horace Mann classmates didn't keep up with him after college, and of the dozens of Princeton classmates contacted for this article, none had any information to share. Wright died in 2004 while living in a bay-side condo in the South Beach section of Miami Beach. The cause was never announced.
When Stan Kops left Horace Mann, he landed at Rutgers Prep, a private school in Somerset, N.J., where he taught history while taking classes at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. A former Rutgers Prep official, who was involved in Kops's hiring but who did not have permission to comment on it, said the school always checked applicants' references. "No one from Horace Mann said anything that indicated Stan would be anything other than a safe bet at Rutgers," that official said. "Rutgers had no idea about any potential allegations of sexual impropriety against Stan at H.M. If they had, they never would have hired him."
Kops finished the year without incident, the Rutgers Prep official said, but "he had strange teaching habits and taught in ways more in keeping with a more homogeneous school like Horace Mann." His contract was not renewed.
Shortly after the school year ended at Rutgers Prep, Kops drove across the Raritan River to Piscataway and shot himself — not standing on a baseball diamond, as the more imaginative gossip had claimed, but sitting in his car, the police told the school administrator. A close relative of Kops's, speaking on behalf of his family, said they had no comment for this article. Today his name appears on the honor roll of the Tillinghast Society, which recognizes alumni who made provisions for Horace Mann in their wills.
As for Somary, he taught at the school without interruption, until his retirement, at 67, in 2002.
Phil Foote, the former head of school, told me that he didn't know why Ben Balter's mother "gave up so easily" in her quest to see Somary fired. "I always wondered why she didn't pursue it," he told me. "Maybe she just got defeated." Sitting in his living room recently, I asked him why he himself didn't try to remove Somary, or at least to investigate the charges more thoroughly. Why didn't he go to the police? "The structure of H.M. was not easy," he said. "There were groups and groups within groups. It was a time with different values and different systems. You didn't have the access you do now. It was hubris. H.M. was sure it was above everybody else. Nobody wanted anything to change."
I asked if he knew what became of Ben. He said no, then paused to study my face. "He committed suicide?" he guessed, before I could say it. He turned away and, staring into the middle distance, said, "Oh, my Lord."
Ben's letter was addressed to Foote. But his mother said that she also spoke to Eileen Mullady, the head of school who immediately followed him, to make sure she knew about her son's letter. I reached out to Mullady, as well as the former Horace Mann administrators Larry Weiss and Ellen Moceri; none responded to my questions. Neither did the board of trustees, the body responsible for those school officials. One longtime former member told me: "No one will talk to you. They are all lawyering up."
Tom Kelly, the current headmaster, didn't start his job until after Somary's retirement. Three years after Ben's suicide, after I asked the school for comment about it, Ben's mother says Kelly showed her the letter her son wrote. It was the first time she had ever seen it. She wished she had done more for him, she told me.
Somary died in February 2011, from complications related to a stroke. "Now this wonderful, wonderful man is trying to shape up the heavenly chorus, and God bless him," says a Class of 1957 obituary on a Yale alumni Web site. "They will sing everything his way."
E. B. phoned Kelly to implore him not to sponsor any memorial service. Kelly told him none was planned. But shortly thereafter, the school's director of alumni relations sent an e-mail inviting certain alumni to the Johannes Somary Memorial Concert at the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral. According to the school, Somary's widow, a retired Horace Mann teacher, and his children, who were all alumni, "asked to communicate with their former students and classmates, and they were granted limited access to the database of alumni." E. B., whose e-mail address was not included in that mailing, called to demand an explanation and was told that the school did not endorse the concert.
A few days later, E. B. says he wrote a letter to Archbishop Timothy Dolan explaining the situation and asking him "as the spiritual head of the Archdiocese of New York to rescind permission that has been given by the organizers of this concert to use this sacred space." The church did not respond, he says, but the location for the concert was changed to the Great Hall in Cooper Union.
Despite all that transpired, M., the student whose encounters with Somary stretched over several years, went to his former teacher's funeral. "I don't know why I went," he said. "Still, today, after the drinking and the heroin and the therapy and the battered relationships, I just can't bring myself to fully hate the man who gave me so much."
"Great is the truth, and it prevails."
I have similarly conflicted feelings about Horace Mann. It was in many ways an amazing place filled with inspiring teachers and smart, funny students, with a sense of enthusiasm and possibility. Despite all I've since learned about it, I still look back on my years there with affection and gratitude, as do so many former students, even some who shared their harrowing stories with me. But that gratitude is part of what makes these stories so painful. We were at such a vulnerable moment in our lives — just beginning to make the transition from childhood into early adulthood, struggling to come to terms with the responsibilities of sexuality and trying to decide what we were willing to stand up for. We needed strong and consistent role models. In many cases we got them. But in too many other cases, we got models of how to abuse authority, how to manipulate trust, how to keep silent, how to fix your eyes forward.
The statement that the school sent me via the public-relations firm seems to suggest that the system worked as well as it could have. After all, Mark Wright's and Stan Kops's tenures at Horace Mann were brought to an end. The school provided no explanation for why the accusations in those cases were treated so differently than those against Johannes Somary. But all three of these stories have something in common: they seem like artifacts of a previous era, a time before the explosion of electronic communication and before the scandals in the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and Penn State. Today, if faculty members disappeared from campus under suspicious circumstances or if rumors were swirling about predatory teachers, students would be texting about it in real time. Outraged parents would be organizing into networks and distributing action plans. And schools would dispatch counselors to help everyone through their pain. According to the school's statement, "Horace Mann School today has in place clearly articulated and enforced rules, regulations, policies, procedures and expectations concerning appropriate behavior within the community — including whistle-blower protections to ensure that any member of the school community can freely report alleged violations."
Clearly Horace Mann's policies have evolved far beyond what they were in Mark Wright's day. National awareness of the issue has evolved, too, but we still have a long way to go. With its prestigious reputation and its network of influential alumni, Horace Mann could take a leadership position, educating other schools on how to talk about these dangers with their students and their faculty. But first it will have to acknowledge the kinds of experiences former students shared with me for this article.
A little while ago, I took my children to see the school. We sat eating ice cream on the same left-field wall I used to sit on 30 years earlier. The place has changed so much since I was a student; a wave of prerecession fortune left snazzy new facilities in every corner. But at the center of it all is still that same green diamond of manicured grass that a member of the Yankees grounds crew once helped maintain. The smell of spring's thawing mud reminded me that baseball season was just around the corner. A razor-thin kid shagged flies, and my thoughts drifted back to Inky.
Horace Mann has referred to Inky Clark as "a man of true valor." I remember him that way, too. Years after I graduated, I learned he even reached into his own pocket to pad out my scholarship to Horace Mann, then he did it again for my college, when Eric discreetly warned him that my family might fall short.
Inky was in so many ways a hero, a man who felt the urgent obligation of history and rose to answer its call. But he was also a man who shied away from the most urgent obligation of all. He pried open the doors of insular institutions, making an elite education — and all the benefits it confers — available to students who would never otherwise have had a shot. But then he stood at the helm of one such institution while teachers allegedly betrayed their students in the most damaging ways.
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.
Clark left Horace Mann in 1991, having led the school for two decades. He died eight years later of a heart attack while recovering from a fall. He was 64. The baseball diamond that first drew me to the school is now called Clark Field.
I saw Inky for the last time during a college vacation. He and I hadn't been close for years, but my mother still felt grateful to him — as did I — and she invited him over to her apartment for brunch.
The years had caught up with Inky, or perhaps it was the drinks. Beneath the cheery banter and the bright outfit, he seemed weary. We caught up about my time in college, the injury that ended my years on the field, the various players and teachers we both knew.
Inky was a man who dared to reinvent august institutions and inspired decades of students. For reasons I still can't quite fathom, he had gone to the effort of changing my life. But here we were sitting across from each other, after so many years, and we were just making small talk. It didn't seem right.
Stan Kops had recently committed suicide. That horrible news felt like a heavy, unaddressed presence in the room. So, yearning for a deeper connection, I took a swig of my drink and found the courage to say that I was sorry to hear about the death of his friend.
Inky looked at me with his watery blue eyes and slowly wiped his mouth. "Strangest thing, Mouse," he said, as though from far away. "I heard about Stan Kops, too."