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Testing Horace Mann

When students created Facebook pages that viciously attacked a teacher, and when their wealthy parents on the school’s board defended them, Horace Mann was forced to confront a series of questions: Is a Facebook page private, like a diary? Is big money distorting private-school education? And what values is a school supposed to teach?

Logging on to Facebook, Danielle McGuire was shocked. In every word on the page, she saw herself depicted as a witch or a bitch. Illustrations by Jeffrey Smith   

Peter Sheehy, a history teacher at the Horace Mann School, sat in his bedroom, trolling the Internet. It was the fall of 2006, shortly after lunch on a Saturday afternoon. The school year had just begun. Not a good start, Sheehy thought. On Thursday, J.T. Della Femina, the newly elected student-body president and son of advertising magnate Jerry Della Femina, had brought a female club leader to tears at the opening high-school assembly when he introduced her at the podium as “the Queen of Mean.”

Now, in the hallways and in the school newspaper, students and teachers were fiercely debating the presence of sexism on campus. The students defended J.T.’s words even as the teachers deplored them.

MYSPACE, Sheehy typed into Google. He had never been on social-networking sites before, but he was troubled by the reaction to the assembly, and his worry triggered a thought. Not long ago, a student had told him that classmates were photographing a math teacher with their cell phones and posting the embarrassing pictures online. (Sheehy was chairman of the faculty-grievance committee.) Perhaps it was worth taking a look.

Logging on to MySpace proved too complicated, but then he recalled a faculty seminar he’d attended the previous spring, in which Adam Kenner, Horace Mann’s technology director, had demonstrated how to monitor student Facebook pages. All it took was a Horace Mann e-mail account, a false name, and a year of graduation. Following Kenner’s lead, he logged on to Facebook using middle names. Sheehy found no evidence of the photos but within a few minutes stumbled on something much worse.

The Web page for a Horace Mann Facebook group titled the “Men’s Issues Club” mocked a student organization on campus called the Women’s Issues Club. The 44 members of the parody club included children of both trustees and the legion of prominent names who send their children to Horace Mann, which sits in the top rung of private schools in New York. One club member referred to an English teacher as a “crazy ass bitch” and a French teacher as an “acid casualty.” Another boy boasted that he’s “the only person here who actually beats women when hes [sic] drunk. no joke,” while still another bragged that he had “banged” a teacher “in [the] music dept. bathroom” and “will get great college rec” for the accomplishment. The boys lamented Star Jones’s “fat and wrinkled ass,” “sex in the city,” and “feminism,” proclaiming, “WHERE DO THEY BELONG?!?!????!!! IN THE KITCHEN!! IN THE KITCHEN!!!” The club summed up its mission thus: “For too long men have not had a way to express themselves and their beliefs in society. Men need to have a voice, we aren’t meant to be seen and not heard. Let freedom ring, bitches.”

Shocked, Sheehy continued trolling. He then found a Facebook Web page for “McGuire Survivors 2006,” a student group dedicated to his colleague, Danielle McGuire, a 33-year-old history instructor with a liberal bent who had taught at Horace Mann for a year. The page’s profile picture was a grotesque illustration of the black slave Tituba, one of three women first accused in the Salem witch trials. Scrolling down the page, Sheehy again found trustee children behind the Website. Derogatory slogans about McGuire included “Official Minority Rights Officer and Head of Protection for Feminist Society” (McGuire is white) and “Representation of Oppressed ‘Indians’ of America.” The club called on prospective members to join if “you know what it is like to be a McGuireite; you have an entire volume of doodles in your history notebook; you have never done the reading; you are scared to enter history class for fear of brainwashing,” concluding ominously, “you don’t know if you will leave class alive.”

Horace Mann has always been a pressurized place, the junior division of New York’s elite. Parents of current students include former governor Eliot Spitzer, Hillary Clinton pollster Mark Penn, fashion designer Kenneth Cole, and Sean “Diddy” Combs. But the Internet has added a new kind of pressure. For Horace Mann, this new reality emerged in the winter of 2004, when an eighth-grader e-mailed a cell-phone video of herself masturbating and simulating fellatio on a Swiffer mop to a boy she liked, who in turn forwarded the clip to his friends. In short order—as these things inevitably do—the video popped up on Friendster for millions to view. “Swiffergate,” as the scandal became known, roiled the Horace Mann community.

Adam Kenner, who had taught in the school’s technology department for twenty years, began lecturing parents, students, and teachers on the risks of social networking. “Nothing online is private, not even if you are only sharing it with your best friend,” he said in one speech. “Don’t post anything online you wouldn’t want posted on a bulletin board in your school’s hallway.”