One of the top college prep schools for Manhattan’s elite is Horace Mann, located in northern New York City and a funnel to Harvard, Columbia, Yale and Princeton.
Like many schools, the interactions of students in their late teens, faculty and staff can be combustible, as any number of prep and high school leaders will admit. The more prominent the school in a given city, the more publicity it’s bound to get when something goes wrong.
Things started going wrong at Horace Mann — publicly at least — on June 6, when the New York Times Magazine published a first-person account by Amos Kamil, about faculty sexual abuse at the school. He graduated 30 years ago and his compendium of classmates’ experiences blasted the lid off the cloistered institution.
The fireworks only started with the magazine article. Fueled by social media, Facebook discussions and the interactions of the well-educated, Horace Mann became even more of an isolated castle alongside Van Cortlandt Park than it already was. A former faculty member, Tek Young Lin, admitted to sexual experiences with students — insisting they were consensual. At 88, he was surely aware that the statute of limitations for his transgressions was past.
All of this is further exacerbated by having the nation’s most prominent and powerful newspaper on the school’s case. The Times published nearly a dozen subsequent articles and with a large percentage of Horace Mann alumni living in the New York City area, the pressure on the school has been properly relentless.
For the school’s part, head of school Thomas M. Kelly has come across as aloof and cold. That may be tied mostly to the legal advice he’s getting. Horace Mann’s substantial endowment and annual alumni giving could both take substantial hits due to this mess.
Schools seem particularly vulnerable to these situations. The smart school, especially it seems the private ones, ought to have crisis plans in place. This is all the more crucial because most of its internal constituents — students, parents and young alumni — are highly proficient using social media and rumors will hit and hurt as fast as people can post them.
Horace Mann hired a prominent public relations agency to help it through this crisis. No one needs to tell its experts what to do. What’s crucial is that Horace Mann’s leaders listen and act accordingly: Transparency; an investigation led by a prominent and credible team; a report that let’s responsibility rest where it should; reforms; intense internal constituent communication; and public release of all information. These are just a few of the pillars of ending this foundational crisis.
Other schools should take note and learn from Horace Mann’s challenges.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.