Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

03.26.13

Sex Abuse Scandals at Horace Mann: What Do They Tell Us About Private School?

Two articles say boys were systematically exploited by predators. Is private schooling to blame?

When sex scandals erupted in the Catholic Church and Penn State's football programs, we heard a lot about how the sick culture and institutions of religion and football created a safe space for pedophiles. Why no similarly harsh words for private school?

Full disclosure: I didn't go to Horace Mann.  But I went to its nearest neighbor, Riverdale.  They were two of the three "Hilltop schools", green leafy campuses in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx.  The biggest sporting event of our school year was not a football game, but a basketball match, the "Buzzell Game".  It was held in memory of a Horace Mann athlete who had succumbed to polio in 1950.  

And the schools were similar in many ways, though when I was there, Horace Mann was supposed to be the brain school and Riverdale had the jocks.  Both schools had gone co-ed in the 1970s, just a decade before I arrived; my graduating class was still 2/3 boys.  The old, somewhat cloistered atmosphere was gone, but traces of it still lingered at both places. I played basketball and ran track and cross country for the Riverdale Indians, a name that was changed to the Falcons sometime after I left, and so thoroughly scrubbed that school sources now talk about the Falcons playing games in the 1950s.

So you can imagine how shocked I was to read the stories of teachers molesting students, first from the New York Times Magazine and now from the New Yorker.

We heard rumors of this kind of thing at my school, of course; I suppose there are sniggering suggestions at any school.  There was a seventh grade English teacher who was a little too friendly with female students, and one senior who claimed to have had an affair with a teacher. But those teachers quickly disappeared when the rumors became too loud.  I'd never heard any suggestion of the kind of widespread abuse that has now been chronicled at Horace Mann--abuse that was, the authors claim, unnoticed or even ignored by the administration.  The stories are harrowing.  If true, they tell us that teenaged boys, most of them in vulnerable family situations, were groomed and abused by methodical predators.  The situation seems to have been made worse by the deliberate decision that schools like mine made to open their doors to kids from more diverse backgrounds; it provided a reservoir of particularly vulnerable boys for the teachers to prey on.  Their victims have only come forward recently, when they no longer have to fear the repercussions for jobs or college admisions (or being called gay).

This is troubling.  And what's troubling is that one imagines it wasn't limited to Horace Mann; pedophiles tend to go where they have access to children, and a school is one excellent place to gain that access.  The incentives to hush up such incidents are obvious, particularly in a private school, where it's easy to imagine all the parents pulling their children out, and the school actually collapsing.  

Here's what's really interesting about these two articles: we haven't heard any calls to re-examine the institution of private school in light of these revelations.  

When the Catholic Church scandals erupted, there was a lot of discussion of what factors specific to the church had allowed them to continue.  Priestly celibacy, obviously: you'll naturally attract people who can't act on their sexual desires in public.  Hierarchy and tradition clearly played a role; victims deferred to authority, and so did many of the people who tried to bring these crimes to Authority's attention.  The Catholic Church's repressed attitude towards sex was referenced, as were its retrograde views on the role of women.  Surely such a thing could not have happened anywhere except an all-male patriarchy?

Similarly, when Jerry Sandusky's crimes were exposed, the commentary focused on the flaws of Penn State as an institution--and also on the macho culture of football. Yet as the Horace Mann revelations continue, I haven't seen anyone question whether Horace Mann deserves to exist, much less suggest that private school presents an unusually ripe field for pedophiles--a field that should be sown with salt.  The authors of the two bombshell articles (both Horace Mann graduates) certainly don't make any such suggestion; they are plainly bewildered that this was allowed to continue as long as it did.

What explains the difference?  The obvious candidate is the demographics of columnists and academics who write about these things.  Few of them are football players.  Few of them are practicing Catholics (or social conservatives).  But a fair number of them went to private school, or send their children there.  Even if they are prone to question the institution as an institution, doing so would be awfully uncomfortable.  And it might not do much for little Emily's chances at Brearley.  

For the record, I don't think that private schools are somehow structurally or culturally hospitable to pedophiles in a way that public schools aren't. But it's worth asking why we were so sure that other institutions--ones we don't participate in--were somehow uniquely pedophile-friendly, rather than subject to the normal human instincts to give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt, and avoid scandal at any cost.