Letter Grades for Preventing Sexual Abuse

Letter Grades for Preventing Sexual Abuse

Horace Mann Alumni Group Will Rate Private Schools

Last summer, Robert Boynton was strolling through his Brooklyn neighborhood when he was struck by the grades pasted in the windows of every restaurant.

“This is weird,” he remembers thinking. “Why do I know more about the health conditions at my local restaurant than the school I spend $45,000 sending my kid to?”

It was one of the inspirations behind a decision by the Horace Mann Action Coalition, a group of alumni, to create letter grades for private schools in the New York City area based on the strength of their policies to prevent sexual abuse. Mr. Boynton helped found the group to address allegations that faculty and administrators at the elite Bronx private school sexually abused more than two dozen students from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Last May, the school apologized in a letter posted on its website for “unconscionable betrayals of trust,” acknowledging that “it is clear” that former teachers and administrators “in fact did abuse” students.

The grades are part of a revamped agenda for the coalition after it failed to raise enough money to fulfill its original goal of conducting an independent investigation of the allegations.

The new focus: building a searchable database of recent sexual-abuse allegations at private schools across the country, working with experts to create national standards for schools on how to prevent and respond to abuse, and grading New York City area private schools on how well they conform to those policies.

The coalition also plans to complete a scaled-back investigation into what happened at Horace Mann School, focused on alleged administrative breakdowns.

A spokesman for Horace Mann declined to comment.

The database will catalog the seeming onslaught of cases that have emerged over the past few years at schools across the country. Details will include the years the alleged abuse took place, the number and gender of victims and abusers, and each school’s reaction once the attacks became public. The hope, said organizers, is that patterns will emerge.

“I think the database will be critical to protecting children in the future because we’ll have the facts how private schools covered up abuse, aided perpetrators and failed to protect children,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who studies how institutions respond to sexual abuse.

“It may well be the pattern is identical to [what happened in] the yeshivas and the parochial schools and the public schools, but if it’s not we need to know that,” she said.

The database will be paired with the work of Charol Shakeshaft, a professor in the school of education at Virginia Commonwealth University, who began a project in December to create a set of national standards for schools on how to prevent sexual abuse of students by faculty and staff members.

The final guidelines, which cover hiring practices, everyday conduct and handling abuse reports, will be vetted and weighted by experts as well as by public- and private-school administrators across the country, she said. The report is expected to be completed this summer, she said.

Public schools are already subject to more stringent reporting laws in some states. As a result, “private schools need to up their game,” said Ms. Shakeshaft.

Myra McGovern, senior director of public information for the National Association of Independent Schools, said she thought a database covering both public and private institutions would be more useful. But “every little bit of work that aims to raise awareness” helps, she said, adding that wasn’t aware of any other similar efforts.

Some of Ms. Shakeshaft’s suggested guidelines include requiring teachers to leave classroom doors open if they are alone with a student, only driving students in groups for school-sanctioned trips and conducting any tutoring sessions in open spaces such as school libraries. Schools must report suspected abuse to the police—and hold on to those records.

The investigative section of the report will be written like a business-school case study and examine how the school’s response compares to the best-practice guidelines, coalition members said.

“It will be scaled down, but it still will hopefully have ultimately the same impact,” said Leslie Crocker Snyder, a former judge and sex-crimes prosecutor hired to lead the investigation.

Mr. Boynton and others expressed dismay that their original plans had been curtailed because of a lack of funds. Former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Louis Freeh spent more than $8 million on his investigation into the sexual-abuse scandal at Penn State, according to school documents. The Horace Mann Action Coalition spent about $50,000 on the initial phase of its investigation.

A campaign to raise $150,000 through Rockethub, an online crowd-funding company, had yielded $17,180 from 74 people with nine days left, as of March 1, according to the fundraising page—on top of $40,000 the organization has already raised.

As a result, the group had to scrap plans to hire experienced investigators to interview suspected abusers, former staffers and alumni across the country.

“I was disappointed we didn’t raise more money,” said Mr. Boynton, a coalition board member.

The group’s new direction, he said, is “going to be much lower key, more forward-looking and more aimed, really, at administrative malfeasance.”

Mr. Freeh also had cooperation from the school; Horace Mann declined to participate in the coalition’s investigation.

Despite their limits, alumni groups serve a vital role by putting “very persistent pressure on the institution,” Ms. Hamilton said.

“For me that is the most important element in all of this,” she said. “How do we both help the survivors from the past first and how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again, so 20 years from now a new set of alums isn’t surprised?”

Write to Sophia Hollander at sophia.hollander@wsj.com