As we discussed last week, a group of abuse survivors released a report on a horrific pattern of child sexual abuse at the Horace Mann School in New York City. The report exposed pervasive abuse by 22 employees spanning more than three decades. First-hand accounts from alumni revealed that the abusers included a headmaster, coaches, teachers, a school chaplain, a dean of guidance, and department heads. More than 60 student victims have come forward to expose the abusers.
These numbers are unprecedented, and as the report makes clear, the policies and the culture of Horace Mann played a key role in allowing the abuse to occur:
What happened at Horace Mann represents the largest concentration of abusers at a single institution. Such things do not happen by chance, and the situation at Horace Mann was enabled by a culture of arrogance and secrecy, aided by individual acts of cowardice and denial by administrators, board members, and teachers. Thus enabled, abuse was allowed to thrive for decades. This institutional dynamic—the tacit collusion of abuser and administrator to keep things under wraps—must be understood, and eliminated, in order to keep our children safe. There is no safety in secrecy, whether it is at the behest of an administrator, a board member or an abuser. Secrecy aids abusers, harms victims and creates more victims, each one preventable.
Fortunately, from the tragedy at Horace Mann, we can learn valuable lessons for the future to better protect children and promote the healing of survivors. In particular, simple changes to the policies and cultures of private schools can both prevent sexual abuse and make children feel safe coming forward to report abuse when it does happen.
What Happened at Horace Mann: A Culture of Secrecy
The “Making School Safe” Report, produced from outside of the Horace Mann School, conducted a full investigation of the circumstances of the sexual abuse of more than 60 children. The abuse continued for more than thirty years even though the staff, administration, and the Board of Directors had received multiple reports of the abuse. The Report reveals that a culture of secrecy at the School—maintained by its employees—led to cover-ups, the silencing of children, and a failure to report incidents to law enforcement. Most upsetting, of course, is the fact that this culture led directly to the further abuse of victims by serial pedophiles employed at the school.
The “Making School Safe” Report ultimately concluded that the private school’s policies and procedures failed to protect its children. In response to this conclusion, the Report made several recommendations on how private schools in New York and elsewhere can make simple changes to their policies and procedures to create safer schools and better protect children. Some of these are discussed below.
Private Schools Must Report Suspected Abuse
The single most important thing a private school can do to protect children it to put a “reporting system” in place. The Report points out that “Early warning is by far the most valuable single element for safety.” These early warnings—and a reporting system—were entirely lacking at Horace Mann.
According to the Report, “Between 1962 and 1996, more than 20 reports of sexual abuse were made by victims, their parents, teachers or witnesses to Horace Mann’s teachers, administrators or trustees.” Instead of providing support to victims and reaching out to law enforcement, however, the administration chose to protect suspected abusers. Not a single report was forwarded to law enforcement. School administrators claimed that without “evidence,” they could do nothing.
By doing nothing, however, schools harm victims and create an environment that allows still more children to be abused. The Report emphasizes how the Horace Mann School’s failure to report sexual abuse to law enforcement allowed abusers to continue teaching—and abusing students—for years or decades after victims came forward.
Formal policies and procedures that require employees to report the suspected sexual abuse of children to law enforcement represents the single most important thing a private school can do to protect its students from abuse. Although Horace Mann did not have an official policy on what to do once reports of abuse were received during the years the abuse took place, the School adopted a new policy in 2012 requiring school employees to report the suspected child abuse of students by school employees. All private schools should embrace such policies.
State Laws Should Require Reporting by Private Schools
In addition to recommending that private schools develop policies requiring employees to call law enforcement when they suspect sexual abuse, the “Making School Safe” Report also called on New York State to make the law more clear as to the duties of private school employees to report suspected abuse. Horace Mann claimed that New
York State’s mandatory reporting laws contained loopholes that enabled teachers and administrators at private schools to avoid reporting peers they suspected of abusing students. While New York State’s Social Services Law mandates that all school officials report suspected child abuse by a parent or “other person legally responsible” for the child. The statute, argued Horace Mann, required private school officials to report sexual abuse by parents or guardians, but not by their employees.
Throughout the years of sexual abuse at Horace Mann, the administration and Board of Trustees chose not to support victims when they learned of the abuse. Instead, they sided with abusers. Their refusal to support victims led to further abuse and blocked many opportunities to help victims find justice and healing.
Schools can support victims, however, and they can do so with simple changes. Survivors of sexual abuse at Horace Mann called on the school administration to make some of these changes:
- protect potential future victims by identifying living abusers who may still be abusing and work with law enforcement to investigate them;
- ensure that abuse can’t happen again at Horace Mann by creating new policies, removing board members who were aware of the abuse and did nothing, conducting an external, independent investigation and removing abusers’ names from honor rolls and building plaques on campus;
- healing and assisting former students who were victimized by issuing a public apology “which expresses compassion for what we have suffered” and establishing a fund to compensate victims; and
- supporting changes to the regulations and laws to better protect children.
The author of the “Making School Safe” Report, retired Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder, states, “young children and young adults are being sexually abused in our elementary and secondary schools every day. It has been estimated that 4.5 million children—1 in 10 between kindergarten and grade 12—have been sexually abused by a teacher, coach or school employee.” Despite pervasive sexual abuse within its walls, Horace Mann refused to even cooperate with the “Making School Safe” investigation. The Report makes clear, though, that private schools can do the right thing and promote transparency and policies that protect victims. Independent investigations, policy changes, public apologies, and admissions of wrongful conduct can help ensure that future students will be safeguarded.
To read the complete report, click here or copy and paste the following: http://makingschoolsafe.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/MakingSchoolSafeReport.pdf
The attorneys at Crew Janci LLP have successfully represented many clients in bringing claims against both public and private schools.