As Students Return To St. Paul's, Specter Of Trial And School Culture Questions Linger
At St. Paul's School, dorms are full again and on afternoons you can see students walking across the Concord campus dressed for practice as they gear up for the fall athletic season. It looks like a typical start to a new school year, but the first weeks of classes come not quite a month after high profile trial put St Paul's School front and center in the national media.
Last month 19-year-old Owen Labrie was convicted of statutory rape for having sex with a then 15-year-old freshman girl in May of 2014. During the trial, Labrie’s lawyer told the jury how the sexual encounter was part of a so-called tradition known as the “Senior Salute,” for which seniors try to hook-up with as many underclassmen as they can before they graduate.
The trial and the ritual it uncovered are clearly on the minds of students and parents. But it’s tough to know exactly how.
During and after the trial, NHPR sent nearly a dozen requests for comment from the school asking to be put in touch with administrators or current students and families. All were denied. And the school has explicitly advised students to not speak to the press.
But we did find Hanna Chan, who graduated from St. Paul’s in May, and is now a freshman at Georgetown University. Chan said she has remained in close contact with her friends back at St. Paul’s, and said they tell her everyone on campus is just trying to get past this incident by focusing on their studies and extracurricular activities.
“It is really busy in the fall, there are things every day. There is a bunch of varsity sports going on. People are busy but that is going to be lingering in the air,” Chan told NHPR.
We do know the school has sent out numerous emails to the St. Paul’s community advising parents as well as current and former students that this so-called “Senior Salute” was never permitted by the school and that it will continue to prevent such incidents from ever happening in the future.
A recent email reads that last year the school “pledged that we would use this case and the issues raised by it to learn more about ourselves and to make our school better” but stressed that “the topics raised by the trial have been an area of focus for the school for some time.”
"It is really busy in the fall, there are things every day. There is a bunch of varsity sports going on. People are busy but that is going to be lingering in the air," said Hanna Chan, who graduated last year.
The issue came up in the trial and in detailing the sexual culture at St. Paul’s, the defense pointed to a tradition they said had been going on for decades, going so far as to blame the school for allowing it to continue.
“This kind of tradition can only be mischievous, can only lead to problems and it is shocking to me that the senior salute has been allowed to continue on for this long. It is time for St. Paul’s to get rid of it,” said Labrie’s attorney, J.W. Carney, right after the verdict was read.
In written statements, the school acknowledged that it knew about this so-called “Senior Salute” a year before the incident but would not elaborate on what the school did to address it prior to May of 2014.
After the incident, the school brought in speakers to talk about issues surrounding sexual assault and worked to develop a new bystander intervention training, which has been widely praised by advocates. The email also stated that the school has sought advice and guidance from a team of public health professionals to help improve their prevention programs.
But for schools it’s a tricky position to be in.
Massachusetts lawyer William Hannum III has advised dozens of independent schools across the country on how to respond and move forward from sexual assault allegations. Hannum said when it comes to this issue, schools should be as transparent as possible, but adds that when civil lawsuits could be in the pipeline – that may not be so easy.
“Persuading a school that they should you know figure out what the facts are and deal with it openly and take it head on is a lot easier said and done when people are threatening to sue a school for tens of millions of dollars or more,” Hannum said. Currently no lawsuits against the school have been filed.
But this campus culture isn’t unique to St. Paul’s.
"I always like to approach sexual assault like any other kind of health problem or community health problem, in that if you are going to work to prevent it, you want to use things that have demonstrated to be effective," said Robert Eckstein, a UNH professor.
According to New Hampshire’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Study, nearly six percent of all high school students say they have been physically forced to have sex with someone without their consent and more than 10 percent say they were forced to do sexual things by someone they were dating.
Other New England prep schools such as Philips Academy in Andover Massachusetts and Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter have also sent out similar emails to their communities -- outlining how they will better combat sexual assault.
For Andover, the initiatives include changing certain policies on sexual consent and limiting when students can visit one another’s bedrooms. And for Exeter, officials say the school plans to adopt a new bystander intervention program.
Robert Eckstein, a UNH professor who studies prevention of sexual violence and relationship abuse in high schools, said the spotlight around this incident provides an opportunity for many schools to take a second look at their policies.
“I always like to approach sexual assault like any other kind of health problem or community health problem, in that if you are going to work to prevent it, you want to use things that have demonstrated to be effective,” Eckstein said, stressing that schools do their homework before jumping the gun.
And when it comes to prevention -- research shows that dosage matters.
Bianca Monroe, an education coordinator at the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire, said sexual assault education needs to be incorporated into the curriculum throughout the school year to really have a lasting effect.
“We also recognize that this is going to be a multitude of resources, we can’t just come in once and expect the culture to change. We have to incorporate students because they need to be the ones presenting the messages because students listen to other students,” Monroe said.
Last year alone the Crisis Center visited and spoke at 47 out of the state’s 124 high schools. St. Paul’s was not one of them.
Chan, like many of her former classmates on social media, stands by the school and said that since the 2014 incident, St. Paul’s has addressed this so-called culture and that the trial only reopened old wounds that have already healed.
“I think the reason so many people from St. Paul’s have been kind of outraged at the media response is because they feel that the image that has been portrayed is one that is not current,” Chan said.
Although the school has not been very open to outsiders, Chan said after the incident the school was in constant communication with students to make sure such behavior would not be tolerated.
And last fall the school changed certain policies such as restricting access to on-campus buildings late at night and added a line in its Student Handbook that explicitly states that any participation in any “game” of sexual conquest would be grounds for expulsion.
This Saturday during alumni weekend St. Paul’s will be holding a special Q&A with the Rector and president of the board of trustees as well as a panel discussion with students to address how the school can “take actions to provide a healthy educational experience for our students.”