Nearly two hundred pictures of white text against maroon backgrounds flooded Instagram feeds this summer. In these posts by @hmspeaksout, past and present students spoke about their experience with racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, antisemitism, and other forms of oppression at the school until the account became inactive on July 25.
Alumni of the school started @hmspeaksout on June 17. They wanted to raise awareness for the marginalized students’ experiences and pressure the school to change so that these incidents do not reoccur, said Sal* ’19, one of the account’s administrators.
The alumni behind the account wanted to stay anonymous for their safety and because they do not want contributors to feel judged — nor do they want praise for the account, Sal said.
Most accounts for other predominantly white institutions (PWIs), such as @blackatchapin and @blackatdalton, center around Black students and students of color’s experiences with racism because they were made in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
However, @hmspeaksout wanted the account to be intersectional since a student’s time at the school is not only shaped by their race, but also by their gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic class, and religion, Sal said.
“There are times where I wish [the account] was more focused on Black experiences because of everything that was happening within the nation,” Nshera Tutu (12) said. Despite that, she thinks its administrators made a conscious effort to highlight Black stories, both in general and when they shared appreciations for Black faculty members on Juneteenth.
Before @hmspeaksout, @blackat_horacemann posted several stories, but the administrators deactivated the account in early June, Sal said. @blackathoracemann2 started after @hmspeaksout for Black students to share their experiences with racism. “That account fizzled out after a bit, so everyone turned their attention back to @hmspeaksout,” Jaden Richards (12) said.
@hmspeaksout had amassed 1,543 followers and 193 posts before it stopped posting on July 25. The owners were worried about the potentially libelous nature of the posts and wanted to be cautious of the risks in running it, Sal said. “We are a bunch of alumni without any real knowledge of how to work this, and there are some legal dangers to posting names of people or accusing people of stuff,” she said. “But we do want to keep highlighting these stories in as safe a way we can.” When asked about the future of the account, the alumni running it did not comment on their course of action.
Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly wrote that @hmspeaksout is independent of the school and those who run it are free to do so. The school notified its employees and the Board of Trustees about the account; however, they decided not to inform parents or students due to concerns over the validity behind some posts on the account, Kelly wrote. “Given the hurtful and rather malicious nature of portions of the website, sharing it with the community at large was not appropriate.”
Additionally, Kelly said that while some posts on the account warranted a public comment, the school found others to be untrue. “In some instances, the school has spoken publicly about the need to address a particular instance,” he wrote. “In others, the information presented is incomplete, and we would appreciate a more in depth conversation with the individual who posted. And in still others, we found material to be inaccurate and even malicious.”
On July 12, the administrators of @hmspeaksout sent an open letter to Kelly and the Board of Trustees. Since the school had not formally addressed the account, the alumni wanted them to come out with a plan for tangible and long-lasting change, Sal said.
“How can we trust new initiatives to fight bigotry at the school will work, given that previous initiatives have failed? How can we trust the school to hold itself accountable?” they wrote in the letter. “We need to know that Horace Mann is committed to not only taking the required initiatives but also acknowledging its neglect of the pervasive bigotry that has existed in the school.”
The letter compiled stories of racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, sexual harassment, and sexual assault from the account. It also included 663 signatures from alumni, students, faculty and staff, parents, and friends of students and alumni.
Nusaiba Ashraf (9) signed the open letter because the school would be more pressured to respond if there are many signatures behind it, she said. She hoped to show that people want the school to enact changes, so future students will not experience the bigotry highlighted on the account.
However, English teacher Jennifer Huang did not sign the letter because she felt that it was addressed to her, not something she should address to someone else by adding her name to it. Faculty and staff have a responsibility to improve the culture of the school and the well-being of students, she said. “I myself can and should and must work harder to support students who feel scared, threatened, marginalized, diminished by their experiences at school.”
Rebeca Four P’22 signed the letter, but she thought it was not strong because it did not articulate specific demands, she said. Instead, the administrators of @hmspeaksout made general calls for accountability and left it up to the school to decide what that meant. “You have to call [the school] to task and show them what accountability is, what it looks like, and when it needs to happen,” she said.
Kelly replied to the open letter with an email to the account, he wrote. In it, he invited any member of the school community to meet with him about the account, whether they had submitted to it or not. The administrators of @hmspeaksout appreciated his response, but they did not post it because it was a private conversation rather than the public statement from the school they had wanted, Sal said.
Given the amount of hurtful situations detailed in the posts on the account, Richards thinks the school should have publicly addressed the account, he said. “Them not responding is quite literally part of the problem,” he said. “You have 200 plus kids saying that they’ve had all these traumatic experiences at your school and not even saying, ‘We hear you’ is disappointing.”
Similarly, Ericka Familia (12) said that addressing the account would have been the appropriate course of action for the school. “Almost every student knows about it and we know the school knows about it, so acknowledging it and discussing ways to move forward would be the best response,” she said. “I don’t think ignoring it is going to fix the situation.”
Like Familia, Destiney Green (11) had hoped for a statement from the administration before September so that students, especially those who posted to the account, would feel more comfortable returning to school, she said. “I’m really, really, really disappointed [that there hasn’t been one], and really questioning why,” she said. Whether or not it was the school’s intention, Green said the message she received was that they do not care about the stories.
Sal said she expected the school to acknowledge and apologize to the community for the stories. Instead, she felt like the school was ignoring @hmspeaksout. “They would rather try to cover up this account and wait until the stories died down, rather than acknowledge that they have happened and are currently still happening,” Sal said.
Although the school has not spoken openly about @hmspeaksout to the community, they have worked with Black Students Demanding Change (BSDC), an organization that advocates for anti-racist reform in private schools, on initiatives that address racism and other types of discrimination that the account brought to light.
Tutu, a BSDC representative, used @hmspeaksout to identify problems that the school needed to fix. “Having a wide array of experiences and stories to draw from made [our demands] more equitable and representative of everyone in the community,” Tutu said.
One of BSDC’s demands was to improve the system for reporting racism, sexism, homophobia, and other discrimination, Tutu said. They worked with the school administration on a policy titled “Reporting Incidents of Bias.”
Page 55 of the 2020 Family Handbook states the new guideline: “If students experience any harassment or bullying by any other member of the community, on the basis of any aspect of their identity or any other basis, they should immediately report the incident to a trusted adult, who is then obliged to bring the incident to the Upper Division Head.”
From her experience at the school, BSDC representative Lauren Gay (12) saw that many students believed the only way to report their experiences with discrimination was to speak with the administration, and many did not feel comfortable doing so, she said.
Richards, for instance, has had experiences with administrators at the school that made him reluctant to seek help from them, he said. His Middle Division Dean said he and another Black student looked like twins and called them by each others’ names for two years, even though they looked nothing alike. “If you can’t even identify me as an individual, then why the hell am I going to go to you when something bad has happened to me? You don’t even know who I am,” Richards said.
Gay hopes that the new policy encourages more people to report their experiences, she said. “We wanted to make it clear that you could go to any teacher you feel comfortable with, it doesn’t have to be Dr. Levenstein or Dr. Kelly.”
Some students may also feel uncomfortable coming forward because they do not want to get a peer or adult “in trouble” or be proven wrong after an investigation, Kelly wrote. In other cases, students might think they reported their concern correctly but see no action from administrators.
“This additional level of record-keeping will afford the administration the ability to intervene with a better understanding of past incidents, founded or unfounded, specific to a particular student or employee, as well as ensure a more consistent system for following up with the student voicing the concern,” Kelly wrote.
Ashraf appreciates that the school takes students’ experiences seriously, but said she wished the policy was clearer about the repercussions of discriminatory behavior. “If someone were to report [an incident of discrimination] to the administration, I want to know what accountability looks like for the person who said or did something,” she said.
Richards is still skeptical of the new policy. “I have no faith in these new measures until they address the real problem, which is that the school’s culture is quite toxic at the moment.”
@hmspeaksout was the first step in improving the school’s culture because it raised awareness about racism and other forms of oppression, Nitika Subramanian (10) said. “I don’t think the HM community truly understood the scope of our problem, so it would’ve been impossible to even begin to fix it.”
Subramanian wishes the account was still active because it would’ve kept people talking about race, gender, and sexuality. “I don’t think we’re done learning about the issues within our community,” Subramanian said. “I want us to have more conversations on a more personal level. What am I doing to support people who are victims of this? What am I doing that hurts people?”
After reading the stories on @hmspeaksout, Stephen Chien (11) realized the severity of the inequity at the school and the need for racial justice, he said. “Being Chinese, I’m not really aware of the racism that my Black classmates or [other] minority classmates experience.”
Eli Bacon (12) hopes that people who do not experience discrimination read the posts, put themselves in marginalized students’ shoes, and work to make their classmates’ time at the school less difficult, he said. “The account opens the narrative about what it means to be not straight, not white, not male, and not wealthy at a school like HM.”
@hmspeaksout proved that even though the school strives to foster an inclusive environment, many students still feel ostracized, Familia said. Every student, faculty, and administrator needs to read the posts and understand how much more work the school has to do to make that a reality, she said.
Familia said that one way to do so is by holding difficult conversations in English, History, and Seminar on Identity (SOI). “By ensuring that everyone participates in these discussions in their classes, it more strongly conveys that the school acknowledges the seriousness of these issues,” she said. “It creates a more conscientious student body that is more likely to think deeper about how their words and actions affect those around them,”
Tutu said she also thinks the school should incorporate topics from the account into classes or community meetings. She felt frustrated when she saw that students of color and female students make up the majority of people who like and comment on the posts. Marginalized people engage with social justice issues more because they are directly impacted by them, but everyone should be active in these conversations, Tutu said.
Since Instagram is a platform people use voluntarily, Green worries that those who perpetrate bigotry highlighted on the account can choose to ignore the stories. “I fear that they feel this is not applicable to them and they don’t need to care about it,” she said.
Tomoko Hida (11) had posted a story on @hmspeaksout, but those who she wanted it to reach did not like the post or follow the account, she said. “I wish that people would understand that if they don’t go through things that other students experience, it’s their responsibility to be there and be an ally.”
Hida said that SOI classes could look at posts from the account and listen to one another. “If all of the people in our grade and in our school are forced to look at them, face the hard truth, and discuss them in class, that would be ideal,” she said.
Four said that looking at the posts will spur students to be more vigilant in calling out racism, sexism, homophobia, or other oppressive behavior, now that they know the extent to which it happens on their own campus. “The value of the account, even if this is the only thing that it accomplishes, is to give people a voice,” said Four, who would often comment on the posts.
Nia Huff (9) said that viewing the posts showed her how other students have had similar experiences as her own.. “As a Black girl, I can relate to some of the stories that have been told,” she said. “It’s really sad that we have to go through this. But it’s also empowering how finally our voices are being heard and people are finally recognizing the true experience of being non-white at a PWI.”
Like Huff, Green appreciates how the account amplifies the voices of female or LGBTQ students and students of color. “That’s needed because we’re in a community where white cis males are running [the school] and have power in [it],” she said.
The option to post anonymously also creates a safe space for people to share their feelings, Green said. It takes away the pressure to stay silent for fear of how other students or the school would react.
However, some students chose to publicly post their stories of bigotry they faced at the school. When deciding whether to put his name on his post, Richards realized he wanted people to picture his face when they read his story. It would be easier to brush it off if they do not know who it happened to, he said.
“By having the teachers in the Upper Division and the heads of school see my name, it might hurt a little more to know that a kid they taught had one of the most traumatic experiences of his life on this campus,” Richards said.
Tiger Moreno ’20 also spoke publicly about her experience with a former faculty member who spoke to her and touched her inappropriately. “He hugged and then kissed me on top of my head after telling him about family troubles,” she wrote in the post.
People often treat sexual harassment like gossip rather than take it seriously, Moreno said. “This is an opportunity to show that I’m a real person, I went through this terrible thing, and I was one of your classmates.”
Additionally, Moreno wanted to let survivors of similar situations know that it is possible to walk away from it and speak about it openly. They are not alone, and their experiences are valid, she said. After she posted her story, people she did not know reached out to her saying “thank you for doing that” and “that was really brave.” “It was really comforting,” Moreno said.
While anonymity has benefits for those who submit their stories, Evann Penn Brown (12) saw drawbacks in the administrators of the account being anonymous, she said. Penn Brown finds it problematic that people could not hold them accountable for what they post. She also does not like how they know the identity of each student who sent in a submission, yet students do not know who they are, she said. “It is important to have a face on an account like this, especially with such delicate issues that people find so hard to talk about,” Penn Brown said.
Additionally, there was also a lack of communication between the administrators and the accounts’ followers. Penn Brown did not know if they sent the open letter or if they received a response from the school, she said. She also thought its tone was accusatory and challenging and did not show that the administrators of the account were willing to work with the school.
“We found the letters off-putting and not solution-oriented,” Kelly wrote. “To see a social media platform calling for zero tolerance across all forms of harassment, only to maliciously attack others in doing so, does make one wonder about the sincerity of those operating the site.”
Richards thinks that the administrators’ anonymity prevented them from working with the school on policy or curricular changes, he said. The account framed itself as a forum for marginalized students to share their experiences, not an organization that will use those stories to make demands of the school like BSDC, he said.
“If this were to accomplish anything, then someone should take the posts on the account and make some sort of plan to make sure those experiences are never witnessed again on Horace Mann’s campus. But @hmspeaksout isn’t the person to do it,” he said.
For example, Penn Brown, president of the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club that advocates for LGBTQ+ students, thought stories on the account of queer people being outed or fetishized showed there was not enough education about LGBTQ+ issues in the school, she said.
“I hope the GSA will continue the work that @hmspeaksout was trying to do: talk to students and hear their stories then work with the administration to create a more comfortable place for queer students,” Penn Brown said.
Even though the account is inactive, systems of racism, sexism, and abuse persist and people must work together to tackle them, Moreno said. “We’re still here, the people who are walking around you in the hallways are part of those stories, and there’s still stuff that hasn’t been talked about.”