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Testing Horace Mann

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The week before final exams, Sheehy collected signatures from some 60 scholars and public figures on a petition voicing support for Trees, and submitted it to the Record. After the editors called Kelly for comment, he censored the letter, citing legal grounds.

On graduation day, last June, Trees packed up his remaining books and left campus. Danielle McGuire, who sat two desks down from Trees in the history-department office, was also leaving. In March, Kelly informed her too that the school would not be renewing her contract. (She’s now on a fellowship at the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of the American South.) “The really good students make you forget about all the crap,” McGuire recalled recently. “Now when I go back through this, I can’t believe this shit … It was so clearly about the culture of money and power and lack of a willingness to really take a firm stand over what was right and wrong.” Martin Bienenstock, a Dewey & LeBoeuf partner whose son was in McGuire’s class, regrets the board’s decision. “The issue of privacy was misapplied totally,” he says. “After having heard what was said about her, she easily could have filed a lawsuit and gotten that material in discovery. She decided not to sue. Frankly, that was a concession on her part. Lots of lawyers would have taken that case.”

In November, Trees’s new attorney, Thomas Mullaney, filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court against Horace Mann, alleging that the school’s firing of Trees violated its employment agreement. The suit also alleges that Schiller defamed Trees by falsely accusing him of drafting a nonfiction tell-all in the fall of 2006.

In February, Horace Mann’s lawyers filed a 121-page motion to dismiss, claiming that the school employs teachers on one-year contracts without any guarantees of renewal and that Horace Mann rightly didn’t renew Trees’s contract, since he had embarrassed the school in a work of fiction. “Reaction in the School community to the portrayal of ‘Horace Mann’ in Academy X once the book was published was swift and overwhelmingly negative,” Kelly said in an affidavit. “The School concluded that Trees’s continued employment, under the circumstances, would be divisive and distracting.” (In a meeting with Trees the previous May, Kelly said he had heard complaints “second- and thirdhand.”)

Reconciliation between Horace Mann’s students, faculty, and administration has been agonizingly slow to come. Last spring, the administration canceled the student elections after several candidates ridiculed classmates during campaign speeches. After the voting was halted, Jeffrey Robbins became a campus populist, railing against the teachers’ involvement in the election, and the administration decided to let the election proceed.

For his part, Peter Sheehy always planned to return for his ninth year at Horace Mann this school year. But in August, Kelly invited Sheehy to join him for lunch with David Schiller, the high-school principal. At the Mercer Kitchen, near the Soho loft that Sheehy shares with his wife, Us Weekly editor Janice Min, Kelly and Schiller informed Sheehy it was time for him to take a sabbatical, “paid or unpaid.” It wasn’t punitive, they claimed.

Over the next week, Sheehy and Schiller worked on the terms of the leave, with little progress. The night before teachers returned to school this fall, Schiller called Sheehy at home. “Look, let me just tell you, I have not gone over to the dark side, okay?” Schiller began. “I mean, Tom,” he said, referring to Kelly, “needs me to succeed in the school. And Tom likes me. I mean, maybe I should feel bad about that, but I don’t. I feel good about that because it’s going to help me change the school, okay?”

Sheehy pressed Schiller to sign a formal letter stating he could return to Horace Mann the next year or the school would pay out his salary. “I just feel I’m in a very highly unusual situation,” he kept repeating. “I need to be protected.”

Schiller countered that Kelly probably wouldn’t sign any such agreement. “You know, what’s going to be is going to be,” Schiller said. “It will take a lot of generations to undo the bad shit that has happened. But I have some ideas about how to begin. And they involve holding people to their commitments, they involve talking about values, they involve the dean of faculty, and they involve, you know, rules. And having people live up to the rules, because the rules come from our values. And I don’t think that has happened at Horace Mann.”

Sheehy needed more than lofty assurances. “You weren’t there when Tom promised Andy that his job was secure, waited a year, and instead of firing him, said, ‘Oh, I’m not renewing his contract.’ Okay, very cute, all right? And what happens next year when he says, ‘I’m not firing Peter; I’m just not renewing his contract’?”


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