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HM RECORD: School for scandal: Talkin’ bout our reputation

posted by HM Action at 2014-05-29 19:18:00

School for scandal: Talkin’ bout our reputation

Written by Teo Armus-Laski 
on May 29, 2014 at 8:39 AM

In a letter to the editor last fall, a fellow senior wrote that “Horace Mann students are human.” The writer’s need to make this reality explicit, however, implies the presence of a perspective – somewhere, from someone – that considers us not to be human – but rather, super-human.

The point has been made many times in these pages by others and by me: “We are not any more talented, intelligent, or hard working than our contemporaries at other schools. Our lives are not any more valuable; our souls are not any more precious; we are not any more loved by whatever spiritual being you may happen to believe in. The assertion that we are any of those things is both irrational and inappropriate.”

Even after malicious letters sent to colleges, Post articles on our “boozy sex parties,” and more sexual abuse coverage, the same underlying problem persists within the student body and administration: Everyone is concerned with establishing a superior reputation for the school – yet in most cases, we refuse to take on any individual responsibility to improve this reputation.

Throughout my high school career, any time this school has ended up in the press (usually not for positive reasons), I’ve heard my classmates and teachers students embark on tirades about how the media loves to hate our “elite prep school.” 

Though I can’t deny that there has been some unwarranted coverage of our school in the press this year, what has been most surprising to me is the lack of any action in response.  Rather than embarking on necessary measures to rebuild after scandals, the school, its students – or likeliest of all, its parents – often simply engage in rants against the media that echo the Sarah Palin campaign trail. 

In short, it’s a classic case of “practice what you preach.” We write about our academic excellence and core values of excellence, yet we don’t practice that excellence.  

After The New York Post published two articles about private, out-of-school parties attended by many members of the student body, a senior penned a letter to the newspaper to attack them for painting an inaccurate picture of our school culture. “I would delve more into the incorrect details [but] I have to go study,” she ended her note – which she also posted in the Class of 2014 Facebook group – “because that’s what we do at Horace Mann, study.” 

If we’re so busy studying, though, then how come 75% of our grade has time to go to these parties? If our students are oh so busy slaving away at their homework, then why are they out drinking and trying to hook up with “randos” (whatever that means), just like other normal adolescents? Of course, studying and partying aren’t mutually exclusive – but in attacking The Post for creating a supposedly false depiction of how HM students spend their time outside of class, the letter-writer is making it seem like they are.

Just a few weeks before this incident, when it was reported that an unidentified member of the school community had sent a letter to colleges defaming someone in the Class of 2014, the same fingers came out to point at the media for “going after us.” While the College Counseling Office was actively working to remedy the situation, online comment threads and in-class conversations only seemed to get filled with the same defensiveness. One comment I both saw in class and written on a thread defended our school with the argument that the commenter’s sibling regularly performed community service over the weekend – as if the fact that a Horace Mann student performing community service magically makes us all better people.

Yet in playing the blame game towards the media – whether scholastic or professional – people forget that the good doesn’t cancel out the bad. We forget that instead of ranting, we can actually protect the school against its negative stereotypes by simply not embodying them. 

And this isn’t just true for students. The same goes for the school and many of its major scandals - where most of the coverage seems to have been brought on by the school itself.

Having been a legal adult for all of two months, I’m not sure that I am qualified to judge how the Board of Trustees has handled this whole ordeal. But after reporting on the issue for a year, it’s pretty clear to me that no front-page magazine article would have been published had the administration in the 1960s through 1990s responded to the many complaints survivors said they took to the school’s higher-ups. And no documentary film or book on the school’s secret history of sexual abuse would be in the works right if the school had responded by meeting survivors’ chief demand: an independent investigation. 

Take a look at Deerfield – a school of arguably similar character as this one – where two longtime teachers were each accused of sexually abusing two students. Rather than carefully avoiding recognition with words like “alleged” or “claimed,” the Deerfield administration attacked the issue head-on, with a nearly immediate apology and an investigation. 

At first glance, it seems easy to brush off but after hearing the stories of those who survived (or those who didn’t), it becomes very hard for me after hearing the stories of the survivors – as well as those who didn’t make it.

While the sexual abuse case may be an issue of an entirely different magnitude, this example upholds the logic with which we seem to address crises of reputation at Horace Mann: rather than taking action, we panic and ramble at the media for “targeting” us.

If this school is really to become the kind of intellectual Garden of Eden so many people claim it already is, then it needs to stop blaming the outside world and embody these principles. If you don’t want your parties to end up on the cover of The New York Post (right beside Justin Bieber’s visit to a Brazilian brothel), don’t go to these parties. If you don’t want the school whose board you sit on to end up on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, deal with charges of sexual abuse by meeting the demands of the survivors. 

Practically every time I’ve brought this topic up in conversation or in a class discussion, a classmate has spat back that if I hate this school so much, then there’s nothing keeping me here.

Let me clarify something: I love this school, and I’m so grateful for the opportunities it has granted me – among them, the chance to edit, lead, and learn from a volume of this newspaper. But I can appreciate this school’s environment without praising it as the breeding ground as the second coming of Jesus (or As I approach the fine line between senior and alumnus, I only want the best for the school that has already given me so much. I don’t mean to sound like I have all the answers (I don’t), or that this this viewpoint captures the quintessential HM experience (I doubt it). 

But if the school would accept a suggestion, it’s this: we need to fundamentally reevaluate this school’s action versus its self-perception. So if you’re at all concerned about this school’s reputation, don’t blame The Post, or The Times, or even The Record. They’re just trying to sell newspapers. Instead, try looking a little closer to home – the real culprit might be inside all of us.

posted at: 2014-05-29 19:18:00, last updated: 2014-06-01 19:19:57

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