Good students trust their teachers. They should be able to trust their teachers even more at a good school, and Horace Mann, a prestigious prep school in the Bronx, is one of the best. Sometimes that trust is broken, and sometimes the silence that results lingers for decades. In a revealing article published by The New York Times Magazine, screenwriter and Horace Mann alumnus Amos Kamil writes about what others who received their education behind the school’s desks say happened behind closed doors.
“The walk from the station is short,” Kamil writes of arriving at the school aboard the 1 subway train to 242nd Street, “but it traverses worlds.” Over the course of his research, Kamil says he spoke with more than 100 interviewees, including 60 fellow alumni and 15 current and former teachers or staff members. Not all of them approved of his project, thinking that “no good could some of opening old wounds.” Yet the wounds seem fresh to others quoted in the article, for whom Horace Mann remains in memory a place where worlds of opportunity and abuse continue to collide.
The Football Coach
Kamil recounts hearing shortly after he arrived at the school in 1979 that Mark Wright, a football coach, had left the school, and no one quite knew why. Those memories came crashing back years later, when a friend–who is quoted in the article as Andrew, his middle name–confessed that Wright had sexually assaulted him. An African-American man who had himself graduated from Horace Mann before going on to dominate the Princeton gridiron, Wright was beloved by students and faculty alike when he returned to the halls of his alma mater to coach and teach.
“I first had him as an art teacher,” Andrew said. “He was a great guy. Funny, gregarious, everyone loved him.” Andrew remembers being flattered by the attention he received from his teacher. Then Wright asked Andrew if he could draw a portrait of the eighth-grader. Andrew was taken by Wright to a secluded part of the school and told to undress, which he did. Then Wright had the boy’s penis in his hand, Andrew says. “I was so scared,” the man remembers. “He was a pretty intimidating guy.”
Andrew later spoke with other students who said that Wright had molested them, too.
Another alumnus who returned to Horace Mann’s classrooms to teach was Stanley Kops, a history teacher nicknamed “the Bear,” who was known for his “unusual pedagogical methods,” Kamil writes. Among those was a sort of recreational period that Kops called the “frolic,” a time during which students were allowed to do whatever they wanted in the classroom, and Kops would join in the fun. “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 former student remembers. “I can remember him being kind of red and breathless after particularly vigorous frolicking.”
The Bear also had unusual methods of discipline. Rob Boynton, an alumnus who went on to a career in journalism and academia, said that he remembered an incident in which a male student’s punishment for misbehaving in class was to be made to take his shirt off and stand by an open window in the middle of the winter. Other times, when students didn’t answer Kops’s questions as quickly as he would have liked, he would put them in a headlock or playfully twist an arm. The objects of Kops’s attentions seemed to fit a profile, some students remember–male, athletic, and handsome.
A Hero and a Monster
The eccentric son of an Austrian-Swiss banker, Johannes Somary was one of a coterie of teachers who were genuine fixtures at Horace Mann, Kamil writes. A conductor whose baton had drawn harmonies from the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic, among other world-class ensembles, the maestro was a martinet in the classroom, known for slamming the piano lid shut when his students didn’t pass muster. His devotees followed him around the school grounds and gathered in his classroom.
Students like E.B. remember “the hero,” but caught a glimpse of “the monster.” “He had a formidable arsenal for impressing students,” remembers E.B., who claims that the married man and father of three would invite him to his home in Riverdale, where he allegedly molested the boy on at least one occasion.
Another alumnus, M, agreed to be identified in the article only by this single letter from his middle name. He called Somary a “manipulator par excellence.” M said he was first assaulted by Somary in the man’s car, then several more times when he went on trips to Europe with the teacher alone or with the Horace Mann glee club. When M finally protested and refused to share a hotel room on any more trips with the teacher, Somary drove to M’s house and “sat in my living room like a jilted lover, begging me to stay in the same room with him,” M told Kamil. “Right in front of my father.”
The Cost of Silence
In one case, abuse at Horace Mann may have cost one young man his life. In 1993, Horace Mann senior Benjamin Balter was put on suicide watch at Nyack Hospital after his father found him passed out from an overdose of pills. Balter had recently returned from a glee club trip to Europe. After being released from the hospital, Balter wrote a letter to Horace Mann headmaster Phil Foote in which he wrote that Somary had performed “inappropriate actions.” Balter also told his mother that Somary had kissed him–when the boy’s mother confronted the music teacher, he told her that Ben had kissed him first.
Foote lasted for three years as headmaster and has since suffered a stroke, but told Kamil that he could remember the incident. “Somary came into my office with the mother and strenuously denied everything,” 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.” At some point later in his career, Somary was barred from traveling alone with his students, but he remained a teacher at the school until 2002.
Balter killed himself with a lethal cocktail of drugs and alcohol in 2009.
After an incident that involved a clothed late-night encounter with a student on a school camping trip, Stan Kops left Horace Mann. He went to Rutgers Prep in New Jersey, where a former official told Kamil that administrators were not told of any allegations of sexual misconduct at Horace Mann. He taught there for a year and then his contract was allowed to run out.
The world of New York prep schools is elite and insular, and rumors about what became of the Bear flew among alumni for years afterwards. He had committed suicide, that much was known. But the details weren’t quite certain, and the gossip that developed may say something about the reputation the man had. One story went that he had shot himself with a Bible nearby. Another was that he had killed himself on a baseball diamond as some sort of macabre message to then-headmaster R. Inslee Clark, Jr.
In some ways the truth, like the horrible banality of the abuse cases the students in the article recall decades later, was simpler, more prosaic. Kops did shoot himself, not in a dramatic setting that sheds light on a troubled inner darkness, but alone, sitting in his car by the Raritan River.
Mark Wright also had his career cut short by allegations of abuse, allegations that were dealt with discreetly, with some faculty told he had resigned but most students and teachers given no explanation at all. For years, that silence has continued to hang over some of the former students of Horace Mann.