Help one survivor, one school, one community


For September: Take the time to reach out to help one survivor, one school, one community. Without authentic dialogue and a fresh perspective, nothing will change.

A teacher reported back to me: “…we had an incident <in a nearby school> this summer. I emailed your report to a friend on the BOE and the high school principal. I’m happy to say they took it very seriously and the board member sent it to other board members. So your work is ending up in places you don’t even know about it. It is much more widely disseminated than you even know.”

Board chairs and school heads are using our report with their staff this summer and fall after speaking with alums from HM and other schools. We have heard from alumni about discussions with the New England Association of Independent Schools (NEAIS), the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), and about seminars teachers have conducted based on the report.

— Send the link to your own child’s head of school. Ask about how its procedure incorporates the best practices. Ask now, before any event makes conversation far more difficult.

— Urge current teachers to read the alumni-sponsored Report. Start and continue a conversation this September.

Reach a teacher you had or know. Send the link to the Report, best practices, recommendations and news. 
— Assess your school:
— Understand best practices administrators endorse:
— Install specific recommendations:…/findings-recommendations/
— Read the Report:
— Find news and updates:


We can assist teachers planning to conduct seminars using the case materials.  Email us at: [email protected]

Perps in Plain Sight


If you feel a sense of comfort that today abusers of children seem to be reported sooner, that school authorities appear more aware, that teachers report signs earlier or that the community is more willing to speak up, listen: that comfort is false. And it blinds us to a dangerous loophole.

Yes, we read news of abusers arrested in recent incidents. Yes, we read articles of adult survivors finding the courage now to speak up about their abuse as a child. What we don’t hear about is the huge gap in between: known abusers teach and coach and counsel children right now, but can’t be charged or investigated. Previous victims know who they are. In some cases even the DA or the press knows who they are. But the public doesn’t, even if they are teaching children. The same is true in religious organizations, camps, youth-oriented sports and even Hollywood. They know of perps in plain sight.

These are not abusers yet to be discovered — many have a long swath of victims. The shameful loophole is carved out each time the crimes are unaddressed and just old enough to disable police, the DA and criminal charges. Worse, the delay rewards the institution – the administrators at a school, church or agency – with no accountability despite volumes of irrefutable prior alerts.  Their silence when, perversely, prompt action could have had the most benefit, buys their own immunity at the expense of future victims.


In New York State, for example, once a child sexual abuse crime is three years past, victims cannot confront the institution, even where it ignored or buried numerous reports. After five years, the abuser cannot be charged and investigations are stalled. The consequences are stunning. The abuser can then continue with little risk, the organization isn’t required to answer for its enabling of abuse, and the victim is left to shoulder further burden when the press is the only path remaining. Consider the plight of the Cosby victims who came forward. Or recall the many survivors among schoolmates at Horace Mann. Now consider any teacher, coach or religious official less famous who remains in place, unknown to his or her community – but painfully known to survivors.


We need to fix the role institutions play in sexual abuse. Prevention fails in three ways:

Schools and organizations intimidate victims who report abuse and cover up accounts. Many do not alert authorities of repeated reports. The result is they multiply abuse and add victims. The justice system must support victims – not allow abusers and those who enable them to be unaccountable.


Eliminating the statute of limitations is vital. But if that is all we do, it will help when survivors speak up in years ahead – it won’t help identify perps in plain sight now. There is still a massive backlog of cases where abuse is known, the crimes are beyond the statute, but the abuser is still working with kids.

The Child Victims Act includes a year-long window designed to resolve this very loophole during which older claims can be adjudicated in civil court. Several states have enacted the window. In California, one clear effect is hundreds of abusers working with children were revealed and addressed. Perps in plain sight now were fairly dealt with – cleared or removed. The purpose is safety, not compensation, for most survivors.

In NY, the Catholic Church spends huge sums to block the removal of the loophole, despite the clear risk to the community (especially odious with the church’s own sordid history of hidden abusers). The pretext they point to is bankruptcy though the track record says that hasn’t happened. And the idea that courts get clogged is also disproved. Worse, they spread fear of bogus claims when research shows that is exceedingly rare. Consider that the burden of proof is first on the plaintiff and add that no culpability attaches unless the institution received and ignored clear reports. Further, the shame, pain and struggle to endure legal action for sexual abuse falls so hard on survivors that sadly, many don’t have the stamina or strength.


The retroactive window solves the backlog, deals with known abusers, offers some healing to survivors, has precedent, works in other states, and finally adds needed relief beyond the removal of SOLs. Let’s unburden all our communities from an ugly shadow in sexual abuse past and present. Enable our schools and each of us to speak openly, so that the message is clear to any child watching what we do: we believe him or her, we want to help, and we want to know and to heal.


Why do we permit institutions to protect predators and create massive abuse?


The SOLs nationwide have blocked truth and justice for victims:


We expect politicians to deliver what they promise, especially for the safety of children:,57492?


The SOL in NY is used by institutions to cover up the truth, silence victims and enable abusers:


Institutional Accountability and Real Prevention – News Updates:

The nationwide inquiry in Australia has concluded that when institutions let child sexual abuse happen, that should be a crime.

“We need to move from an understanding of institutions as merely places where child sexual abuse may occur to places where the institution itself is conducive to crime. And if institutions or organisations are directly or indirectly responsible for criminal behaviour such as child sexual assault, the law should hold them to account.”

Martin Guggenheim — law professor and nationally recognized expert in the field of children and law — pointed directly at the very issue many governments and legislatures are now realizing when he said at the NYU panel on child abuse: “Why isn’t a school’s commitment to the well being of its children something we demand? Why isn’t it a tort for a Board of a school to lie to an alumnus about past behavior? Who is worse? I think the denier.” Oct 21st, 2014:

Now, the nationwide inquiry in Australia has concluded that when institutions let child sexual abuse happen, that should be a crime. In addition, the national inquiry in the UK is likely to underscore the same issue: Institutional accountability. Coming to a legislature near you.


Victoria has now abolished limitation periods within which to sue for injury arising out of child abuse.

Premier Denis Napthine:  “We as a government are committed to ensuring organisations cannot hide behind statutory time limits in order to avoid the liability they have for harm they have caused to victims of child abuse,” Dr. Napthine told reporters on Thursday.

The government has already created offences for people who fail to report suspected child sexual abuse, as well as for people holding a position of responsibility who fail to protect a child when they know someone in their organisation poses a risk.”

Removing the incentive organizations used to stall or cover up reports is a giant step:


UK opens child abuse inquiry with broad powers

“We must put difficult questions to politicians, bishops and other faith leaders, headteachers, police officers, regulators, inspectors and public officials of all kinds. And we will carry on putting those questions until we get answers.

“Too many individuals and institutions” have been “sheltered from accountability through patterns of indifference or obstruction”, she added: “It is a stark reality that some abusers have abused their positions of trust within institutions as a means of gaining unfettered access to children.”

The inquiry provides an opportunity to “expose past failures of institutions to protect children” and to “confront those responsible”, she added.


Heads of school are obligated to report abuse to authorities (and parents)

Connecticut law requires school staff and officials to report allegations of abuse, neglect and endangerment to either law enforcement or the state Department of Children and Families within 12 hours of learning of the allegations. State law also requires that parents be notified of such allegations and investigations.


Ending the venue loophole for student abuse on trips

“It is troubling to think that a teacher responsible for the care of young adults can sexually assault them on a school trip abroad and not be subject to prosecution in our state,” the court said. “That outcome, though, is driven by existing statutory law, which requires that conduct that is an element of the offense occur here.”


Church continues to stall on help for survivors

“I’ve been routinely brushed off by the powers that be at Bergen Catholic.  I’ve been ridiculed, my claims have been declared not viable, and all together I think these people are trying to sweep something under the rug.”


Ending deceit and denial about clergy sexual abuse cases

It is inconceivable that any bishop would stand before a congregation and give them the following instructions:

The scenario is unthinkable, but it is also descriptive of the very behavior that Catholics have witnessed among their leaders, with slight variations, for the past 30 years.


The alumni report on Horace Mann



Washington Post:



What’s wrong with us?

“What’s wrong with us?  An institution that continues to deny and gets away with it.  Why isn’t a school’s commitment to the well being of its children something we demand?  Why isn’t it a tort for a Board of a school to lie to an alumnus about past behavior?  Who is worse?  I think the denier.”

Watch Martin Guggenheim on video — law professor and nationally recognized expert in the field of children and law — from the NYU panel on child abuse, chaired by Judge Snyder, Oct 21st, 2014:


Rob Hollander, HM alumnus, wrote:

I spoke to a Horace Mann board member after the panel last night, but I failed to convey to him my concerns that first drew me to meet with alumni. Those concerns have not been resolved. They’re about the role of institutions, not about abusers.

I believe abusers will always be among us. The burden of protection, prevention and punishment lies on institutions. Most of us, maybe all of us, have hurt someone and even seduced someone in some way, sensing those who are available and vulnerable to us. We’ve all abused someone in some inconsequential way and who knows how far those consequences reach. I don’t mean to diminish what the abusers at HM did, just to say that abuse is human and will be with us; it’s for institutions to curb it. Teachers should respect their professional ethics; some won’t; HM should have enforced it — that’s what an administration is for. So I blame the institution for what happened more than the abusers who took advantage of an administration that allowed them their breaches.

More important than blame, however, is achieving a sense of justice for the wronged. Here I don’t think the abuser can do much. “Sorry, I was wrong” doesn’t make up for years of suffering and pain. Apologies may redeem the abuser, but not the wronged, and to see the abuser redeemed adds confusing feelings that may not be helpful at all.

Institutions can go much further. Institutions have the weight of authority and public legitimacy. When that weight is shifted onto the scale of the wronged and against the wrong-doer, especially if the wrong-doer comes from the ranks of the institution itself, the wronged is given a support of authority that no one else can give. That support is the sense of justice. Only authority can give that sense. It’s the father standing with the wronged child with his arm around his shoulder to say, “You were right; I know you were right; what they did was wrong, and I was wrong to allow it.” It’s full validation and respect.

So long as the school protects the trustees who knew about the abuse, the school sides with the abusers. That is to give the weight of the institution to injustice, which wrongs the wronged once again. Surely this is why survivors remain discontent with the current board of trustees.

Shifting to full validation has not yet happened at HM. Abuse deserves condemnation, but to me all the condemnation of abusers is incidental to what really matters — the institutional role, institutional betrayal, institutional justice. What matters is that the school publicly take full responsibility for its past and say publicly, “We failed. We abused you. We were wrong” That’s what an independent investigation is really all about. It’s a confession, a full confession to validate the survivors.

As an alumnus I also feel I have a role in giving a sense of justice by saying this whenever I can to validate the survivors and side with them for justice’ sake. I wish I had done more.

Rob Hollander, 10-22-14

Struck against a great thing

After many recent revelations about child sexual abuse regarding famous people, and clusters of repeated accounts within institutions and religious denominations, the call for justice is unified in outrage but the steps toward prevention have “struck against a great thing.” Two, actually.

Oceans – Juan Ramon Jiminez

I have a feeling that my boat
has struck, down there in the depths
against a great thing.

And nothing happens!
Nothing.. Silence.. Waves..

– Nothing happens?
or has everything happened,
and are we standing now, quietly,
in the new life?

Perpetrators and institutions have cheated justice and gotten a free pass from current statutes of limitation (SOLs) which enable more abuse and provide a perverse incentive to cover up their crimes. It’s time we look into the depths and remove “great thing” #1 blocking the truth: State SOLs on sexual abuse.

Awareness has never been higher, loopholes are recognized, effective solutions have been crafted – yet those with the power and obligation to act are stalled. Are a few institutions still blocking progress? Yes, according to Marci Hamilton:

“Powerful lobbyists—including the Catholic bishops, the Latter-day Saints bishops, and Jewish rabbis—invest millions against the victims, and the insurance lobby enjoys collecting premiums while it avoids having to pay out. Legislators have listened to the lobbyists and not the victims in too many states for too long. Predators know SOLs and they gravitate to the states with the worst SOLs. Thus, SOL reform really is a choice: predators or children. Let’s take the SOL out of the child sex abuse picture.” Read her powerful assessment:

Are people even aware that the Child Victims Act, supported by many, is under consideration in Albany this week? It deserves an up or down vote, rather than having the few opponents hide behind committees so that their constituents won’t see that they side with abusers and institutional betrayal. Where does your own representative stand?

Even religious groups resistant to past disclosures have spoken out:
— “Institutions responsible for protecting and nurturing our communities must focus on protecting those who are in their charge rather than protecting those who are in charge.”

— Add the biggest step the Vatican ever has taken to hold bishops accountable:

Internationally, Australia, Scotland, Ireland, France, the UK, Japan, and more have discovered sexual abuse on an enormous scale and have begun to investigate. Nationally, schools in every state have suffered and many are assessing their prevention systems. The most effective change is in state legislatures reforming laws that up to now help abusers and not victims. The rusty hulk of machinery that is bureaucracy takes time to move. Right now, lawmakers have shown a failure of courage. Until they act, each school administration is the first line of defense.

Are they prepared to respond to help victims and report to authorities? The sad history says no. When institutions put reputation above safety, they fail to confront abusers and cover up crimes that victims have painfully brought forward. Too many examples have been revealed – at Yeshiva, Hackley, Woodward, Indian Mountain, Known Grammar, Episcopal Academy, and American School in Japan – of “great thing” #2 obstructing justice: Decades of cover up by schools.

One head of school says of the lesson of the past:

“There were points were heads and boards knew and failed to take decisive action. Thus, the interests of the adults were served at the expense of those whose lives are most important—the students. Conducting a rigorous and intense investigation and then having the courage to do what is in the best interest of kids and the institution should be our North Star.”

Administrators are more aware of the strengths and weaknesses in their reporting as board chairs and principals have reached us about reading the recommendations in the report by alumni from Horace Mann, “Making School Safe,” and meeting with teachers, staff and parents. Send the link to the head of your child’s school:

Will the head of school where you are see the way to alert authorities? It’s time to demand accountability from independent schools (and colleges) to tell any victim of harm they want to know what happened, they want to help and to show they can speak openly about sexual abuse, past or present, without fear.

Ask your school what they will do today or the promise to victims will again strike a “great thing:” the failure of courage. Healing and justice deserve to be the real great things — in the new life.

What do you say first to a friend?

When a person walks up to you and says “I have been terribly hurt,” the first thing you do is listen and help. You let them know they are safe. You do not worry that you may learn difficult information, you do not reach out only halfway to prevent anticipated problems, you do not let your own fears stop you from helping. All other things, whether they involve authorities, medical professionals, determinations that there was only smoke, not fire, etc. – All those other things come after.So I want HM and schools today to listen. I want HM to show me it is not hiding from the fact that its history is filled with heroes and villains and sometime they are one and the same. And mostly I want HM to show me that it truly values all those who have bravely spoken out, will bravely speak out, and those who will choose to keep their silence. That it recognizes the mistake it made in never talking to Benjamin Balter and that it will never make that mistake again. Not the mistake in failing to deal with Somary, we get that. The mistake HM made by not first asking how can we help this student who is in great pain.

Three reasons why current New York law undermines justice

There are 3 significant reasons to eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual abuse:

1.  The psychological shame that prevents victims of sexual abuse from reporting, sometimes for decades,

2.  The perverse incentive in the law that rewards institutions when they discourage, silence and cover-up reports of abuse, and

3.  The system being unable to pursue abusers teaching right now – unnamed, uninvestigated but known. The provision for the retroactive window protects students.  The CVA works to remove these barriers:

Justice requires we recognize the pain victims struggle with that prevents reporting:

Many victims may choose to live with their pain hoping to forget the experience in time. From reading accounts of Horace Mann victims from their own hand, I’ve learned that when they finally, after decades, choose to report, it is not because the memories have suddenly erupted like a recovered memory. They report because the memory has never left them. It visits their sleep in nightmares; they remember it every morning when they wake; it haunts them every day; when they know that the unbearable will not be relieved, they have nothing more to lose than to speak out the truth.

Justice requires we remove the perverse incentive the current SOL provides to schools to silence reporting… at the very time it would be most effective:

We now know that many victims did report abuse to the administration from the late 1960’s through the 90’s only to be turned away and ignored. The SOL for schools is only 3 years.  When a sophomore reports abuse and the school stalls them, by graduation the school is no longer accountable.

So even those victims with the self-assurance and confidence and tough courage to report were only to be dismissed by the institution and discouraged in their pursuit of justice. No law can strictly prevent institutions from hiding timely reports, but it CAN remove an incentive. Since a cover-up may last decades, the statue of limitations facilitates institutional cover-up.

The current SOL prevents the arm of the law from extending beyond the walls of institutions like Horace Mann that conceal and cover up sexual abuse and discourages victims from reporting enduringly hurtful crimes. Neither the abusers nor their protector and facilitator institutions should be allowed to hide behind a statute that serves harmful, dangerous people and unjust institutions.

Justice requires we address abusers still teaching, hidden in the backlog of cases:

Beyond the removal of the SOL, the retroactive window is essential so that abusers now teaching can be identified.  As it is now, the DA or police cannot fully investigate accounts out of statute.  As a result, abusers remain unchecked and unknown to the public.  Children remain at risk.

The DA is better able to investigate crimes than a school principal, but when the SOL prevents charges, the process ends. In NY, once an abuser’s crimes are 5 years old, he can teach your child without you even knowing — without accountability. Making civil action available would at least uncover risks hiding close by. Victims should not bear the burden alone to speak out. Our schools and institutions must be accountable to report abuse when it occurs.  And speak about it openly.

In sum, victim shame, school cover-up, disabled authorities – all three are enlisted by institutions as they game the system to buy silence for reputation over safety.  The price is paid by further victims.  Urge your legislator to pass the Child Victim’s Act, A2872 / S63.

What schools do in response to reports of abuse defines them.

Examples of “doing the right thing” in schools’ letters to the community

When school administrations are confronted with the difficult news that their students were sexually abused by faculty, how did they react?  Most reach out to their communities immediately.  Many set an immediate path to learn, take action and heal.  Some work with groups behind closed doors, while others deal with each reporting victim separately.

At Carolina Friends School, even though the abusers could not be prosecuted, “…the school could still try to unearth the truth, no matter how painful, said Mike Hanas, the current principal.  “As a Friends community, at our best, we ought to be relentlessly truth-seeking.” [1]

From the very first message it sends out, a school defines how students, parents and the public will react, and most important:  if survivors will feel safe enough to overcome fear and shame. Examples from letters illustrate how schools create or discourage healing:

“We are humbled by the strength of our former students who had the courage to share their experiences with us.  …we hired two of the nation’s leading experts on child abuse and sexual misconduct to conduct an independent review… Interviews were conducted with a number of former students, parents, former and current staff, and Board members. The information we gathered was shared with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney.”

“At CFS, we teach our children that it is possible to change the world. Those former students and alumni who shared their experiences with us live that value. They have created the opportunity for communal healing and reconciliation. In doing so, they have made our world better by allowing us to both right a past harm and to improve our care of students going forward.” [2]


Hanas said it is important to be transparent about what happened because a “pernicious” culture of silence can only hurt victims of abuse. [3]


“As I have tried to make sense of what unfolded, I’m struck not only by the failure to ask more questions after these inappropriate activities first came to light but also by the atmosphere of silence and privacy at the School…” – Rebecca Upton, Head of School, Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, Oct 10, 2008.

What matters? Openness and ownership. People think the children don’t understand. I guarantee you they do.  Children smell hypocrisy in the way their school tells the truth – or doesn’t.

The best schools invite a dialogue by making it clear immediately that they…

— “You may access confidential counseling and support by contacting a 24-hour confidential hotline.  Solebury School’s door and inbox are open. You may contact [Head of School] Tom directly at [direct phone number] or click here to email Tom. Click here to communicate information directly to the school. Information may be submitted anonymously through this webpage. You may also contact… child abuse professionals and attorneys” [4]

— Whit Sheppard, on Deerfield’s head of school: “Margarita Curtis responded within hours of receiving my e-mail in June 2012. She displayed a clear moral authority and offered unconditional support from the start. At the end of nearly every conversation we had — more than a dozen over the next several months — she would ask me some version of “Are you doing OK? Is there anything I can do for you?”  She saluted my courage in coming forward and offered a sincere and heartfelt apology on behalf of the school. Hers was the first acknowledgement I had ever received that the school bore some measure of responsibility for my troubling experience there.” [5]

— “It is important that the School have a full and accurate understanding of any misconduct that may have occurred, so that we can do our best to support and protect every former, current, and future member of the School community.” — Eric F. Peterson, Head of School, St. George’s School

Carolina Friends, Buckingham Browne & Nichols, Deerfield, Solebury, St. George’s School, Marlborough, Hotchkiss, and others have been able to speak openly about abuse and encourage victims to speak out.

Survivors need to be heard and when administrators see listening as a liability, reconciliation is narrowly defined and turns litigious. Survivors have already been hurt. They shouldn’t be harmed again by being turned away.


A tepid or ambiguous school response is confusing to everyone.  It feels odd.  It’s not normal communication and enforces silence.  Not taking ownership is a deadly message.

— “…there are two schools to tend to: one facing forward with a lifetime of wonderful memories taking shape, and one with students well past college-age seeking support and leadership beyond what a traditional alumni office offers.”[6]

Translation:  The alumni are some irrelevant adults who need to be redirected.  What of the victims among them?  Is this the invitation you would respond to if you were harmed?

— “Defining our choice as between focusing on the “bad past” or the “good present” is a false choice which only serves the interest of those invested in inertia and denial.  How about this: the only bad things we know about HM’s present are the ways the institution is choosing not to respond to its past.”  (A survivor, on healing)

— Telling parents that abuse “may or may not have happened” despite scores of victims

— Referring to victims reporting abuse as “a group of self‐described alumni ‘survivors’ who report that they were abused by teachers who are no longer at the school.”


Denial is destructive. Choosing not to respond to the past is permanent damage — present and future.    

Even after three years, Horace Mann has yet to say the one thing that matters – the one thing that is truly standard in all communications from other schools right now – that they want to know what happened; that if an alum was harmed they want to know and help, without judgment.

And so there are survivors who have not spoken, who have not been welcomed as they truly are, who see others brought back in the fold to HM.  HM opens its doors to some, not all.  And for those who have yet to speak up, this must hurt. The entire community suffers and it brands the school.

“An independent investigation is so utterly logical, so clearly necessary and apparently so very threatening to the current Board of Trustees that one obvious conclusion that can be drawn is that certain key Board members do not want the truth to be known. Whether they are hoping to hide their own complicity and culpability or that of their predecessors is the only question really still in doubt.”  (An alumna)

[1] Jane Stancill, NewsObserver, July 21st, 2014.

[2] Michael Hanas, Carolina Friends School, Letter to Members of the CFS Community, June 11th, 2014.

[3] Jane Stancill, NewsObserver, June 12th, 2013.

[4] Thomas G. Wilschutz, Head, Solebury School; Scott Bolenbaugh, Board Chair, Solebury School; Letter to Community, July 29th, 2014.

[5] Whit Sheppard, ‘What Happened at Deerfield,” Boston Globe, July 21st, 2013.

[6] Tom Kelly, Head of School, Horace Mann, Letter to alumni/ae, June 10, 2012,

Is your child’s school safe? 5 Surprising Lessons All Parents Should Know

I have learned some hard lessons over the last three years about independent schools.

1.  Your child’s teacher is obligated to report YOU but not an abuser teaching next door, in independent schools. We need to fix mandated reporting in New York State. And the Bronx DA agrees.

2.  Private schools in NY State rarely alert authorities when they get reports of abuse by teachers. Abusers love that.

3.  The policies schools write are to show parents. All bets are off when a real event happens.

4.  Schools aren’t accountable for keeping records. Once a school covers up an incident with an abuser, every next incident is preventable and inexcusable.

5.  If your child reported abuse to the principal, you’d expect an immediate call. Not at Horace Mann.

We know more about the sanitation of the restaurant down the street than about the risk our children face in the schools we trust to take care of them every day.

With any abuse event, knowing how and why is essential to prevention. Despite four decades of abuse by faculty, HM refuses to investigate or cooperate to learn the truth. We expect our schools to be accountable.

You can learn more in our report of the investigation by concerned alumni. The systemic conditions we found in our school may likely exist in your child’s school. Read what we found along with recommendations for school administrators.

Assess your school. And find out what your school is doing.

If your child’s school can’t speak openly about sexual abuse, your child won’t either.

The statistics on the sexual abuse of children are staggering. Victims are everywhere. They are current students. They are current parents, our neighbors and our neighbors’ children. And many, many of them live in silence seeing people every day react in a way that suggests they do not want to hear the truth about uncomfortable topics like ‘sex’ (in quotes because what we are really talking about is not sex). And each time a victim senses this, he or she learns to hold onto silence a little bit tighter; that is the nature of fear and shame.

Children are watching and learning from how we address this issue.  They have a really amazing ability to sense and understand how their school and the people around them (much less society at large) react to things — not the words they are told, but the genuine response. Most communication, after all, is nonverbal.

Children who are victims of sexual abuse all live with some part of shame and fear. Some victims are strong enough to speak and when they are not heard (or worse are silenced), that shame and fear is only heightened. Others do not speak up for any number of reasons, but the shame and fear is very real for them nonetheless.

So how is this relevant to your child’s school? I think it likely that current students have picked up on the fact that their institution does not want to discuss sexual abuse, that their authority figures believe that bad things that have happened should be relegated silently to the past, and that those authority figures view simply speaking openly as a threat in the present, even if the shameful harm was in the past.

Policies and programs put in place by schools are important. Students learn that sexual abuse is wrong, will not be tolerated, and that they should speak up immediately about it. But if our schools won’t show our children they are not afraid to address the past and present, students won’t speak up. Unless statistical lightening strikes, among these students are multiple victims of sexual abuse. Imagine for a moment being such a student, living with your violation as a secret, and knowing that the school you attend wants its own history silenced.

Now imagine instead that Horace Mann and other schools were to respond with true openness to its former students who were victimized. If it were to stand up with strength, apologize meaningfully, acknowledge its mistakes, demonstrate that it cares about the harm to any and all, and communicate not only with words, but with actions, that there are no secrets of which we need be ashamed and that no victim of sexual abuse need be afraid. If it did that, I would start to believe a school is ‘safe’.

Programs are not enough – if the school is to protect its students, it must demonstrate through its actions that silence and shame will not be tolerated within its walls, that its leaders will not reject difficult truths because they are scared. At the moment, as far as I can tell, its actions say the opposite. Sadly, its actions are being seen not only by its own students, but by people everywhere.

So this is my plea: that we all step back and consider that each act along this difficult path must make it known that nothing that has happened in the past should be feared and that however awkward and however painful discussing sexual abuse can be, discussing it can only help us and certainly cannot hurt us. That we be strong enough to say “this scares me” or “this angers me” but that we never be so weak as to suggest silence would be better. That as we fight for assistance for our fellow alumni who are survivors, for some community healing, and/or for how we want things to be at the school today, we remember that somewhere there is a child living silently with shame and fear who is watching how we all react and what he or she sees will decide whether or not he or she feels safe enough to ask for help.

(My special thanks to Ben Field, HM ’89, a singular voice for survivors and no more silence.)