Shamoni Sarkar,

Correspondent (Our World)


When a case of sexual abuse involves a teacher as the perpetrator and a student as the victim, the parameters for judgment are challenged, changed and manipulated. At some point, everyone involved allows themselves to doubt their own intuition (including the students and their parents): Perhaps we were misunderstanding the teacher’s intentions. The student misread the situation because of youthful confusion. A teacher of this caliber could only have students’ best interests in mind.

By the time the teacher in question has been found out, charged, and given a punishment, there is stronger conviction about their guilt because more facts have since been revealed. But even then, many people still continue to doubt. These grounds for doubt are valid, because there are details that will always remain unqualified– details having to do with that very relationship of master-student/mentor-trainee that made the abuse difficult to name at the beginning. Was it love or abuse? Everyone implicitly asks this question at some point. In fact, it becomes the most relevant question.  This makes sexual abuse involving teachers and students all the more dangerous and difficult.

Last year, a series of abuse allegations came out from former students of New York City’s prestigious Horace Mann School. Looking back, most of them realized that they had been “selected” for exclusive attention by the teachers that abused them. It was a process that covered a period of years. At the time it occurred, many of the students were unable to understand when exactly the exclusivity became abusive– when exactly they stopped participating as independent human beings and became vessels for something more sinister. In his exhaustive account in the New Yorker magazine, Marc Fisher describes the nature of some of these special relationships, built on roots of poetry, music, indoctrination and learning. The participating teachers were brilliant, aloof, and appeared to care for every aspect of their protégées’ education and wellbeing. In the event that a student objected to any kind of advance, it was meant to be a reflection of his weak character– he was not strong enough to give himself to the highest pursuit of knowledge, and he did not respect and love his teacher who had done so much for him.

In the case of Horace Mann, the teachers accused of abuse had formed a sort of brotherhood of erudition and words with their chosen victims. Jerry Sandusky– the former assistant football coach at Penn State University charged with 45 counts of child sex abuse in 2012– hid behind the fairness of sport. The children he abused were members of the Second Mile, the charity organization Sandusky and his wife started as a refuge for troubled boys. While Horace Mann teachers selected students with the apparent aim to refine them, Sandusky seemed to select to redeem them. In both cases, there was something paternal and benevolent about their actions. When the full story about Sandusky came out, it was revealed that those highest up in Penn State’s authorities chose to ignore what was happening, and even protected him. They wanted the university’s and its football team’s legacy to stay intact. Penn State, and the spirit of football cultivated within it, both depended on Sandusky’s stature as a coach and mentor.

What happened at Horace Mann School and at Penn State University are not unique cases. They are universal models for other similar cases of sexual abuse, because uncomfortable questions are asked of anyone who has ever been a teacher or student of any kind. Should there be official standards established for how “close” a teacher and student can be? Would having such standards help? How can we ever determine if there was even the slightest consent? Would consent have been possible at all? Should these cases be dismissed as ruthless pedophiles acting outside of all norms, or should more attention be paid to how structures of education are set up? Of course, in many cases, the lines are a lot clearer and there is hardly any doubt that what occurred constituted abuse. Even in the case of Horace Mann or Sandusky, there is no excuse for the actions of those accused. In fact, when one is able to address all the unanswered questions left by them, one might actually see circumstances more clearly in the future, and come to swifter judgments without any guilt or doubt.

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons


  1. Thanks, Shamoni, for your clear insight. As one of the “selected” ones, I appreciate your clarity and lack of sentimentality. Keep reading and responding to the world through your writing. It was reading the story of another woman in the newspaper years after the theft of my youth that broke open my closely guarded secret. Setting “standards” will not change a perpetrator but education and open conversation about these issues will continually serve as a powerful educational tool for those who may be “selected.” gd

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Gigi. It definitely made me think about aspects of this topic that I did not address in my piece. Open conversation would be ideal, but I believe also incredibly difficult, especially if it’s supposed to get loud enough to be heard. But you probably know this better than I do. For now, it is good that we have online forums like these for strangers to respond to each other!

  2. I loved reading your article, Shamoni. I think the discussion of official standards is interesting, especially for the victims of the abuse. In both the Sandusky and Horace Mann cases, the abusers deliberately blurred the victims’ lines between intellectual/emotional mentoring and physical/emotional abuse.

    I do think emphasizing and educating everyone from a very young age on what is abusive/”not okay” is very important in stemming serial abuse and bringing to light abusers close to the incident. I’ve been a teacher, and the discussion stems around our direct conduct instead of educating children on what conduct they should be expecting from their teachers in general. If children are openly, repeatedly and clearly told that “anyone, no matter who they are, continuing to touch you, or try to touch you, when you don’t want to be touched is doing something wrong, and you can always tell someone you trust when you think something is wrong,” hopefully they’ll have a better foundation for battling the guilt, fear and confusion that many victims experience, the feelings that many have to battle in order to tell others and act upon their experiences.

    To emphasize the importance of the standards to the potential perpetrators alone gives them the opportunity to shape the situation for the unknowing victim – to emphasize and clarify those standards to a potential victim (in the same way they are currently emphasized to teachers) gives the victim the knowledge they need to stem the abuse and hold their abuser accountable.

    • Thanks, Susan! I completely agree with you. Often though, I would imagine that the “intellectual/emotional mentoring” from the perpetrator has a much stronger impact on a young person than the education they receive about how to identify their own abuse. So along with education, we should also emphasize self-awareness. This is of course really difficult, because nobody really has a to-do list of how to become self aware…