On Wednesday, The New York Times posted “Prep School Predators” to its website, a 9,000-word narrative tracing the “secret history of sexual abuse” at New York’s elite academy The Horace Mann School. The story—treatise, really—will be on the cover of the paper’s Sunday magazine. It almost instantly shot to the top of the Most E-mailed list, gathering nearly 800 comments in the first 48 hours alone.
Within hours, multiple Facebook groups—specifically intended for other victims and school alumni—had been created. One of them, a private group called “Processing Horace Mann,” ballooned to more than 1,400 members within 25 hours of its genesis. It now has more than 1,900.
All this before the story even appeared in print.
The piece highlights the bad behavior of three former teachers—all of whom were said to have abused young male students decades ago, and all of whom are now deceased—and what role, if any, the school’s former head, R. Inslee Clark Jr. had in allowing such behavior to continue without consequence. But what became clear almost immediately after the story went live was that it was less the definitive tale of injustice and abuse that a story of its length would seem to suggest, and more like the tip of the iceberg.
As comments poured in—to the New York Times’s website, Facebook, and even in unexpected places like Urban Baby, a message board and local news site for city parents—one former student after another came forward with their own stories. Some of them claimed to be revealing their abuse for the first time. Many stories mirrored the events described in the piece, with former students saying that they had been victimized by the same people in the same way. Others, though, named different names, ones that didn’t appear anywhere in the story itself.
One of them was a man named Joseph Klein.
On Thursday, the day after the Times’ story went live, my colleague Kate Aurthur wrote about her experience with the man, whom she identified as “Mr. Anonymous” and who she says groped her during a driving lesson. (As a math teacher, she wrote it had been rumored, he’d established such a reputation for lechery that he’d been demoted to driver’s ed.) After posting it to her Facebook page, two separate people, both classmates from Horace Mann, said that they recognized “Anonymous” as Mr. Klein.
“I had the exact same experience with Mr. Klein,” wrote one of them. “Remember it just being expected that he would rub your leg and make perverted remarks.”
As Aurthur wrote in her piece, she had told the Times story’s reporter, Amos Kamil, about her experience with Mr. Klein, identifying him by name. He didn’t appear in the final story, and his isn’t the only name that has been bandied about in the days since it appeared. A coach who allegedly regularly touched girls under the guise of adjusting their uniforms has been named multiple times. And there’s another—an English teacher this time—whose name has appeared repeatedly in the comments sections and Facebook groups spawned in the story’s wake.
The names of these additional alleged perpetrators might mean less than their omission from the original story. Klein, according to public records, died in 2006. The other, while apparently still alive, has long since retired from teaching. But if the chorus of voices chiming in on these chat groups is to be believed—and there’s no reason to think they shouldn’t be—both men have their own lengthy histories of abuse and victimization. The primary difference? Theirs was perpetrated against girls, not boys.
“One reason the Times focused on boys and not girls, in addition to libel issues,” wrote one commenter on Aurthur’s page, referring to the fact that leveling such accusations against living people, as opposed to dead ones, can expose media organizations to lawsuits claiming libel, “may have been the sheer shock factor. Apparently the old adage about politicians caught in bed with someone still holds: ‘better a dead girl than a live boy.’”
As others pointed out in conversation threads elsewhere, most current, mainstream media coverage of sexual abuse against children focuses on boys targeted by older men: things like the apparent toleration of pedophilia by the Catholic Church, and Penn State’s blind eye toward the alleged ongoing abuse of boys by coach Jerry Sandusky. As one commenter on the Times’ site put it, “It’s my perception that when boys are the targets, there is far more outrage, (articles, lawsuits, etc.) whereas raping girls is business as usual.”
Alison Pollet, a Horace Mann graduate and author of novels for young readers who now lives in Cambridge, England, put it more bluntly. “It just didn’t seem that crazy,” she says of her experiences with the English teacher, who was also her adviser and who, she says, gave her hash, took her and her friends to bars, and for a period was repeatedly calling her at home. “And it probably wouldn’t have gotten the cover of a magazine because it’s such a clichéd narrative: a groping old hippie turned English teacher,” she told The Daily Beast. “You could barely sell it as a YA [Young Adult] novel.”
“I wouldn’t say I was traumatized by the experience,” Pollet wrote in an email after our conversation. “I think in part because at that point I was both jaded and beaten down, and had so few expectations for adults in power. In that environment—total pressure cooker, all about college, teachers would badger, berate and humiliate in the classroom—it just seemed par for the course. (That’s how this stuff becomes systematic, I guess.)”
Pollet and others say that they’ve been struck by how powerful the conversations on Facebook have been. As more and more people come forward with their own stories, it has become increasingly clear that some of the alleged perpetrators were methodical in their approach. What may have seemed like an inappropriate, but not necessarily criminal, act on the part of a teacher, becomes easier to identify as abusive when put into this context.
“There’s an assumption that to make a pass at a male student or to engage in something that is less than consensual with a male student is somehow more of a violation than if it was a female student, because girls are considered to be sexually passive,” says Marina Rustow, who graduated from the school in 1986 and is now a history professor at Johns Hopkins. “One of the things that’s been great about the Facebook group has been, we’re pushing against that. There’s been a lot of women coming out and saying, the place was an absolute nest of these lecherous men who were allowed to hang around there for reasons that are so disturbing to think about.”
Giving a pass to teachers known to proposition their female students, punting a lecherous math teacher off to driver’s ed instead of firing him outright—these are behaviors that, in retrospect, could have helped foster a culture rife with much more serious, ongoing abuse.
That’s part of what Rustow found herself thinking as she read through some of the comments in the group. “I was saying to myself, was there faculty hanging around the faculty lunchroom talking about their conquests in the student body? Was there something that got into these people’s heads that was like, well, it’s OK to do this here?” she says. “It was known in this school that you could cross lines all the time and absolutely nothing would happen.”