From PREP-SCHOOL PREDATORS

The New York Times Magazine Cover Story

June 6, 2012

by Amos Kamil

 

“Do you remember Mr. Wright, the football coach?”

 

Ten years after graduation, four Horace Mann friends and I decided to go on a camping trip. We had been close in high school but later scattered across the country. And we all sensed that the next 10 years — careers, marriages, families — would pull us even farther apart. So we tied our sleeping bags to our backpacks and headed up to the Sierra Nevada for a week of hiking and bonding.

 

One night after a particularly grueling hike, we sat around the campfire, eating some burned vegetarian meal and enjoying that pleasing quiet that falls between exhaustion and sleep.

 

Then one friend cleared his throat. (Like many people in this article, my friend asked me not to use his full name, because of the sensitivity of the subject matter and the fact that these events took place when he was a minor. I’ll call him by his middle name, Andrew.) “Guys, I have to tell you something that happened to me when we were at H.M. Do you remember Mr. Wright, the football coach?” Our metal utensils ceased clanking.

 

Speaking calmly and staring into the flames, he told us that when he was in eighth grade, Wright sexually assaulted him. “And not just me,” he added. “There were others.” First Wright befriended him, he said. Then he molested him. Then he pretended nothing happened.

 

**

 

In many ways, Wright was the ultimate Horace Mann success story. People who knew him remember him as tall and extroverted, with an easy smile and a huge laugh. He graduated in 1972, a time when African-American students like him were a rarity, then went to Princeton, where he majored in art and archaeology and played right tackle for the football team. A glowing article about him in The Daily Princetonian described him as “a Picasso in cleats,” and speculated on whether he could have gone pro or would get a Ph.D. “I think Mark lives life to the fullest,” the head of his department told the paper, noting that he “exudes enthusiasm and versatility.” After college, he came back to Horace Mann to teach art and to coach football.

 

“I first had him as an art teacher,” Andrew told me, in the steadied voice of someone who had worked through the story in therapy. “He was a great guy. Funny, gregarious, everyone loved him. He had this aura of success around him, and I was so happy that someone like him would take an interest in a skinny underclassman like me. I felt special.

 

“One night he called my house and asked my parents if he could take me to the museum,” Andrew continued. “My parents were so excited that a teacher would take such an interest in me.” And this being Horace Mann, he added, “it didn’t hurt that he had also gone to Princeton.” Still, Andrew didn’t feel comfortable hanging out with a teacher on the weekend, so he turned down the invitation. A little later Wright had another idea: he asked to draw a portrait of Andrew.

 

“It was the night of the eighth-grade dance,” he told me, “and instead of going to the gym, I went to meet him in his art studio on the fourth floor of Tillinghast. He locked the door and told me to undress.” As he got to this part of the story, Andrew’s pace slowed and his voice lowered.

 

“He told me to bring a bathing suit, but when I got there he said not to bother putting it on. I was really uncomfortable but did it anyway since he was across the room. I remember exactly what he said: that he needed to see the connection between my legs. The next thing I knew, he had my penis in his hand. I was so scared. He was a pretty intimidating guy. He began performing fellatio and masturbating,” Andrew said, now breathing with effort.

 

“I left the room and walked to where the dance was. I saw all these kids doing normal eighth-grade things. I tried being present at that party, but I was horrified.” Afterward, Andrew said, “it was really hard being at Horace Mann, knowing that if I ran into him, he would get up really close to me and say stuff like: ‘What’s wrong, little buddy? You’re not still mad about that time, are you?’ ”       

 

This was 1978, a different era in terms of public awareness about sexual predators. Today children are taught from a young age that unwelcome touches are not O.K., not their fault and should be reported immediately. But at 13, Andrew hadn’t heard any of those lectures. He didn’t tell his other teachers or his parents. He felt too ashamed to talk about what happened. “What I did do in the immediate aftermath,” he said, “was contribute to the rumors going around that Mark Wright was a child molester, which were pretty rampant at that time. I’d join conversations about it and say that I’d heard he was into boys, etc. But these conversations were always very frustrating, because he had a lot of defenders who would say that people said this about him because they were jealous that he was such a stud.”

 

Eventually two friends told Andrew that Wright assaulted them, too. “People just talked about it,” he said. That’s how he heard about the physical exams that Wright gave athletes in the gym building. When Andrew’s coach told him he had to see Wright for a physical, he was wary but didn’t see any way out of it. So he opened the door to a small, windowless room and walked in. “There was no pretense of medical examination when I got there,” he said. “He just tried to start molesting me again, and I told him I’d tell someone if he continued, and he stopped and told me to leave.”

 

G., another kid from my class, who asked me to use only his initial, remembered the same setting — windowless training room, only one door. “I was 14 and recovering from a football injury,” he said, in an almost jocular tone, “when Wright used the purported physical exam to try to engage me in a sexual encounter by touching my penis. Although nothing further happened, I was speechless, and I never said anything to anyone. I never looked at myself as a victim, but. . . .” Suddenly his voice cracked. “In hindsight, I just wish I had said something to someone. Maybe then it wouldn’t have happened to other kids.”

 

We were only kids ourselves, I said, inadequately.

 

“I don’t think he looked me in the face when he was doing what he did,” he said later, “and I certainly didn’t look him in the face either.”

 

Later that year, one of Wright’s examination subjects, a football player, spoke up. “I reported that Coach Wright was performing limited but inappropriate physicals on team players,” the former student told me, “and that I was concerned that he was going to do so on others. The contact was very limited, to about 30 seconds. It was a ‘private-parts inspection.’ ”

 

When students and faculty returned to campus after the 1978-79 winter break, some told me, Wright was gone. One teacher remembers being told he resigned; others say they got no explanation, as do the students I spoke to.

 

Wright’s victims might have appreciated the invitation to talk about their experiences — if not with school officials, then with counselors or psychotherapists. Students in general might have welcomed an explanation, however limited, of why a teacher that so many looked up to simply disappeared from their lives. And the entire school might have benefited from a more open discussion of student-teacher boundaries, of the danger of abuse and the right to resist it, of how to report it and how the school would respond. But several faculty members of that era said that, to their knowledge, the school said nothing — not to the students, not to their families and not to the police.

 

Administrators at Horace Mann rarely speak to the press. Over the last six months, I contacted the current headmaster, Tom Kelly, on many occasions, by letter and phone, to ask about Mark Wright as well as the other teachers that I learned about in the course of my research for this article. I also wrote individually to 22 members of the board of trustees, imploring them to hear the stories that former students had told me and to speak on the school’s behalf about better policies that might now be in place. I received an initial reply from Kekst and Company, a corporate public-relations firm, and later a statement from the school that said in part: “As an educational institution, we are deeply concerned if allegations of abuse of children are raised, regardless of when or where they may have occurred.” It continued: “The current administration is not in a position to comment on the events involving former and, in some cases, now-deceased, faculty members that are said to have occurred years before we assumed leadership of the school. It should be noted that Horace Mann School has terminated teachers based on its determination of inappropriate conduct, including but not limited to certain of the individuals named in your article.”

 

As for questions about Wright or the other teachers I heard about in the course of my reporting, the school issued a blanket statement, saying: “The article contains allegations dating back, in some instances, 30 years, long before the current administration took office, which makes it difficult to accurately respond to the factual allegations therein. In addition, on June 13, 1984, there was a fire in the attic of the business office that destroyed some records.”

 

 

 

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