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Testing Horace Mann

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After a board meeting, the trustee whose daughter had created one of the Facebook pages came up to Danielle McGuire. “Students are just blowing off steam,” she said. “They’re stressed. It’s not unusual for them to say racist or sexist things.”  

At a faculty meeting in the cafeteria after school the next day, Kelly said that punishments for students would be severe—and then proceeded to castigate the faculty for engaging in “similar behavior” by logging on to the Websites surreptitiously, and instructed them to straighten their “moral compasses.” “Your contracts are under review, and you’re being watched by the kids,” he said.

To McGuire, this was a shocking statement on a number of levels. She too had been at Kenner’s seminar the previous spring—as had the high-school principal and almost the entire faculty—and McGuire had followed his instructions in accessing Facebook. Kelly, however, didn’t acknowledge that the meeting had taken place—and thus that the administration had in effect sanctioned McGuire’s tactic. Instead, he tried to suggest that such ugliness was part of the job—he spoke of a time when, in his previous job as a public-school superintendent in Westchester County, he had been the target of online hate groups. Three times Kelly repeated that he had been called a “nigger lover.”

Kelly had been at Horace Mann for just over a year when the Facebook scandal erupted, and he hadn’t earned the trust of large segments of the faculty. What is clear is that Kelly, in the Academy X affair, had shown a keen grasp of the principles of political expediency. When Trees admitted to Kelly that he had written Academy X, Kelly was forgiving, urging him to announce the news in a letter to the school’s student newspaper, the Record. “I want to be clear that I have not tried to paint a portrait of Horace Mann,” Trees wrote. “Dr. Kelly has already read the book, and he assured me that he did not think it would cause any major problems.” Then, around the time the letter appeared in the paper, some members of the board leaned on Kelly to fire Trees. In early May, Kelly called Trees, Sheehy, and Barry Bienstock, chair of the history department, to his office for a meeting. “Just so you know,” Kelly began, “the pushback—I said that there’ll always be some—has occurred.”

“For me personally, and as head of the school, it’s satire,” Kelly told Trees and his colleagues gathered around Kelly’s conference table. “It’s fair game. It’s my job. I get criticized, and if you don’t want to be criticized, then you know what, live in a hole.” C’est la vie, in other words. “At this point in time the school does not see a legal issue … We’re going to handle this like everything else we handle here: by the book, standard operating procedure.”

His only concern, in fact, was the likely media frenzy the book would prompt. Kelly pledged to remind faculty not to talk to the press, invoking the “Swiffer incident.” The student newspaper’s review of the book would be the most delicate. “Everyone is trying to find out if I’m going to squash a Record review … I said, ‘It’s not my place.’ ” Kelly added, however, that he planned to put the Record’s archives behind a private firewall as soon as he could, but not now. “Just because your book is out,” Kelly confided. “It would look creepy.”

Despite his assurances, Kelly stressed that the board would not be so forgiving. “It’s frustrating to some trustees because in the corporate world, you don’t need cause, you just fire people,” he cautioned. “I’m trying to referee there. I said, ‘Guys, take a deep breath. With all the things going on, this is a book written by a faculty member that’s not unlike other things that have been written,’ ” Kelly said. He even played with the idea of writing a Horace Mann tell-all himself. “They’re nervous about me because I joked with one of them. I said, ‘What, are you kidding me? I only have two years left on my contract here, I’ll do Academy X uncensored!’ And they’re like, ‘That’s not funny.’ And I’m like, ‘Guys, think about it! David Schiller’ ”—the English-department chair, who became high-school principal last year—“ ‘says it all the time, and he’s right: There’s no better story than a Horace Mann story.’ And someone says, ‘Tom, what if you get hijacked by the media?’ I said, ‘Then my response to Larry on Larry King Live will be, “I just got here, I’m trying to clean this shit up.” ’ ”

Despite the pressure from the Horace Mann board, Trees remained on the payroll and returned to teach in the fall of 2006. In one way, his presence on campus further complicated the Facebook crisis: If a teacher could write what he wanted without punishment, why should students be disciplined for posting to sites that weren’t intended to be public? Even before being directly confronted by the administration, many students seethed at the perceived violation of their privacy. And in their fury, of course, the students had powerful allies: their own parents on the board. “It wasn’t just that students were threatened by the faculty; the faculty was threatened by the students,” the then–student-body vice-president, Michael Marcusa, recently recalled. “There was an erosion of trust.”


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