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"Law & Order: SVU" Tackled The Horace Mann Sexual Abuse Scandal

On Wednesday's SVU, the detectives investigated an elite private school in the Bronx with a legacy of pedophiliac teachers.

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On Wednesday’s Law & Order: Special Victim Unit, the headline-that-was-ripped is The New York Times Magazine’s gripping, exhaustive, beautifully told “Prep-School Predators: The Horace Mann School’s Secret History of Sexual Abuse.” When the story, written by Amos Kamil, was published in June, it caused an explosion of conversation about sexual abuse in schools. In a subsequent New York Times article, another former Horace Mann teacher, Tek Young Lin, admitted that he’d had what he considered to be consensual sex with students. He told The Times, “In those days, it was very spontaneous and casual, and it did not seem really wrong."

Warren Leight, the showrunner and executive producer of SVU, talked to me about the making of this episode. I went to Horace Mann – my disclosures are at the bottom of this story – so I was particularly interested in seeing it. SVU is fictional, of course, so Horace Mann is called “Manor Hill,” and the plot is a jumble of the real stories from Kamil’s article: In short, a teacher’s suicide leads to the exposure of a number of faculty abusers, and the damage they’ve caused in their now-adult victims. Led by lead actress Mariska Hargitay as SVU detective Olivia Benson, the episode has a recognizable guest cast, with Elliott Gould playing a popular teacher, Buck Henry in a scene as an addled former faculty member, and a stern Charles Grodin as the board’s chairman who wants to protect the school.

KA: The New York Times article went everywhere. Tell me how it inspired this episode.

WL: I read that story, and everyone was talking about it in those circles in New York – but no one was shocked by it. And that’s what struck me as interesting. Whether you went to that school, pretty much everybody of a certain age remembered the weird teachers you avoided when you were back in high school in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. There was somebody I went to school with, and I went to a 30th reunion. We’d had a moment when we were maybe going to date, and it fell apart, and I hadn’t seen her in 30 years. I said, “What did I do wrong back then?” She started to cry. She said, there was a school dance, and “remember that teacher who drove us both home?” After he dropped me off, he molested her that night. She broke into tears, and had been sitting on that herself for 30 years. Never told anyone. Which is par.

KA: You went to Fieldston, which is a neighbor of Horace Mann physically, but very different culturally.

WL: Very different culturally! I went to Fieldston, and by bizarre coincidence I went to Unitarian Sunday School and one of my teachers was one of the teachers whose name eventually came up, although it wasn’t in the original article. Did you have Tek?

KA: I did not have Tek. I was well aware of the cult around him, though nothing else.

WL: I had no hint of that. At all. But I think he taught me really how to read.

KA: How old were you when you had him?

WL: I’m guessing 7 to 11, or 8 to 12, something like that? A lot of writers I know who’ve gone to Horace Mann talk about him being a seminal influence on their decision to become a writer. There’s some gray; there are different circles of hell for these guys.

Mariska Hargitay as Det. Olivia Benson. Via NBC Universal

Mariska Hargitay as Det. Olivia Benson. Via NBC Universal

KA: The Elliott Gould character is someone who’s gay, was living a secret gay life, and was having sex with older students that he felt was consensual. And the episode doesn’t contradict him.

WL: It doesn’t contradict him, but Olivia Benson doesn’t buy it for a second. The guys at the 1in6 foundation -- which is one in six men were abused as boys – saw the episode. If you talk to people in this world, most of them would say a guy like this is a classic pedophile, and he’s deluding himself if he isn’t. I think there’s a range of behavior of the predators in the episode. I might draw some distinctions between them. I don’t know that Olivia Benson does. That’s OK.

KA: Have you followed the aftermath of The New York Times story?

WL: To a degree. I also spoke to a couple of people who teach there. Once we started going, I kind of let our story run. Obviously, where our story goes is not where Horace Mann has gone. We have these seminars with the Joyful Heart Foundation where they come in and talk to us – that’s Mariska’s foundation for survivors of abuse. And they all were talking with us about how sometimes because of the arcane laws, you can’t get a conviction, it’s not obtainable. But sometimes an apology or an acknowledgment is important. And that stayed with me.

KA: Whether it’s Horace Mann, or the Poly Prep story, why are these things coming out now?

WL: People are now willing to believe these stories, whereas 20 years ago, you could not even talk about them. I was a public school kid until seventh grade. And what my parents knew when I got a scholarship to Fieldston is I would be safe at school, which I wasn’t in public school, I was getting knocked around terribly. The notion is parents sacrifice a lot – not everyone is super rich. Even if you’re a parent at Horace Mann and you’re paying tuition, it’s a big sacrifice, and part of the reason you’re doing it is so you don’t have to worry about things like this. People didn’t want to believe this was possible for a long time. I do think shows like SVU do begin to open the discussion a bit. I do think the Sandusky story, as awful as it was, allowed people to start talking about things a little more. When the Sandusky story broke, I imagine former students at Horace Mann started talking a little more about things. That Horace Mann story – it wasn’t just that it was rich, smart kids. That story went around really fast because it pushed a lot of buttons for a lot of people. I think it’s healthy, frankly.

Disclosures: I went to Horace Mann and graduated in 1987. I was interviewed for The New York Times Magazine story, and am quoted in it briefly. After the story was published, I wrote about my own experience at Horace Mann when I was touched by a driver’s education teacher.