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Testing Horace Mann

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In early May, head of school Thomas Kelly called Andrew Trees, Peter Sheehy, and the chair of the history department into his office. “It’s frustrating to some trustees,” he said, “because in the corporate world you don’t need cause, you just fire people.”   

These Facebook pages, however, were something different. Kids have always ragged on an unpopular teacher or ridiculed an unfortunate classmate. But sites like Facebook and RateMyTeachers.com are changing the power dynamics of the community in an unpredictable way. It is as if students were standing outside the classroom window, taunting the teacher to her face. Should they be punished? There were, as yet, no rules or codes for how a school should address such issues. (Horace Mann, through its PR advisers Kekst and Company, declined to comment.)

But the questions provoked by the Web postings ran deeper than these. Who should make the rules? In the past, there had been at least a rough assumption that teachers were parental surrogates, authority figures who were charged with making decisions regarding education and discipline, and that the rules governing this kind of behavior were clearly the faculty’s to make. But the frenzy around college admissions is driving a private-school arms race, funded by wealthy parents who believe their contributions entitle them to substantial input in the running of the schools. Now, at times, teachers can seem merely like hired help. Horace Mann alumnus William Barr, the U.S. attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, believes that the school has become “too much of a business.” “The school needs and wants a lot of money,” he says, “so the influence of the business community becomes very strong. It’s a symbiotic relationship. But in the long run, the school loses something.”

The students were more aware than ever of where the real power resided. So when the Facebook situation was brought into the open, the teachers found themselves powerless to act, and the students did not passively wait to be disciplined.

Sheehy knew the Facebook pages had the potential to be explosive. The previous spring, the board had been furious with a colleague of Sheehy’s in the history department, Andrew Trees, after he published a satirical novel about an unnamed New York City private school (bearing a strong resemblance to Horace Mann) and its craven and corrupt board of trustees. Around the time Trees admitted in a letter to the Horace Mann student newspaper that he was the author of Academy X, some board members wanted him fired.

On Monday morning, September 25, 2006, Sheehy alerted Thomas M. Kelly, the head of school, to the Facebook clubs, and Kelly called an emergency meeting after school, attended by the grievance committee and department heads and deans. Within hours, several board members’ children were pulled off the Web pages. It was becoming clear that this was something the powers at the school would rather sweep under the table.

Meanwhile, the history department informed Danielle McGuire about the club specifically targeting her. From her computer in the history-department office, she logged on (using her married name) and stared at the screen, aghast. Immediately, she recognized the crude illustration of Tituba, whom she had lectured on last year. Tituba as Aunt Jemima, she thought. The artist had painted a racial slur. In every word on the page, McGuire saw herself depicted as a witch or a bitch. She trembled a little as she read the names of the members. There was the daughter of one board member, who had e-mailed from her daddy’s BlackBerry requesting extra credit. And the club’s creator, who daydreamed in class. (The Facebook page sometimes seemed to have been written not so much to attack the teacher as to express admiration for a boy she liked. “I formally dedicate this group to … a survivor (hopefully) and a friend,” she wrote. “Didn’t think he was going to make it, but he pulled through and got a hug!”) And a rich kid who got caught up in the wrong crowd. And then, McGuire saw the name that bothered her most. We’ll call him Jeffrey Robbins.

Jeffrey was McGuire’s most antagonistic student from sophomore U.S. history the previous year. Jeffrey challenged McGuire’s focus on liberal politics and civil rights, proposing to write his class research project on plagiarism in Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and saying that his hero was Roy Cohn—himself a Horace Mann alumnus. The previous spring, after he lost a student-judged essay competition, Jeffrey had stormed into the history-department office, railing against McGuire’s sexism and claiming she was biased against his work. A few weeks later, Jeffrey accused McGuire of maligning his mentor, Sam Gellens, a more conservative world-history instructor, in class. The school investigated and found no evidence to substantiate his claims.

On Tuesday afternoon, September 26, McGuire informed Barbara Tischler, the high-school principal, that she viewed the Facebook group as connected to Jeffrey’s earlier conflicts with her. The page had exhorted students to join McGuire Survivors if “your name is Jeffrey Robbins” and “you are excited to enter history class to see Jeffrey Robbins pace around and get angry.” Clearly, Jeffrey was behind the group, McGuire explained, as Tischler listened impassively.


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