Sexual Misconduct Hasn't Taken Shine Off St. Paul's Prestigious Summer Program
Long before the #MeToo movement took down politicians, movie moguls and powerful media personalities, St. Paul’s School in Concord was grappling with its own history of sexual misconduct.
The prep school has been in local and national headlines as one of its students was convicted of sexual assaulting another student; a campus culture of student-led sex rituals was revealed; and decades of misconduct by teachers and faculty were reported.
But the impact this disturbing news has had on the St. Paul’s brand in New Hampshire is a lot more complicated of a story than the fallout of a Kevin Spacey or Harvey Weinstein-type, especially when it comes to St. Paul’s renowned Advanced Studies Program.
Every summer, St. Paul’s idyllic Concord campus hosts 250 bright, talented soon-to be New Hampshire high school seniors for an intensive academic program.
ASP gives public and parochial school kids a taste of the elite prep school life: They sleep in St. Paul’s dorms, they can even row crew or fence if they want, they attend chapel and take rigorous classes.
Nearly half of the students receive some type of need-based aid, which helps cover the $4300 admission cost.
While just the idea of summer school sends shivers down most kids spines, it’s hard to find an ASP alum who doesn’t rave about their five and a half weeks at St. Paul’s.
Noah Rachlin, who now teaches at Phillips Andover and is a fellow at their Tang Institute, was the kind of kid who always enjoyed school. But he says ASP took learning to a whole new level.
“Many students who go there will say it was one of the hardest summers that they had, and yet it was also some of the most fun I'd ever had in a classroom. And I think it demonstrates that rigor and joy especially in an intellectual and academic space don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” he says.
Lots of alumni describe the program as having a transformative power to it. Some attended colleges they never would have considered before ASP, while it was where another alum grew his first beard.
Nearly all ASP alums who shared stories for this piece said it was the first time students felt surrounded by like-minded kids who truly understood them.
But St. Paul’s as an institution hasn’t been receiving such rosy public reviews lately.
In 2015, St. Paul’s senior Owen Labrie was convicted of sexually assaulting a freshman. The trial was highly publicized, and stories of student-lead sex rituals on campus making headlines not just on national television, but in magazines like Vanity Fair and People, Labrie’s bespectacled face was plastered all over the internet. School administrators still maintain St Paul’s was portrayed unfairly by the media.
And then there was stunning news last year of decades of sexual misconduct by several St. Paul’s faculty and staff members -- with allegations ranging from violating students’ boundaries to rape.
The state Attorney General launched a criminal investigation into St. Paul’s School last summer.
While nearly all these incidents happened on the boarding school side, which attracts students from around the world, St. Paul’s has mostly dominated local headlines. The prep school’s name has been in the newspapers and on the televisions in the homes of New Hampshire kids - the same kids who want to apply for ASP.
Applications are in for this summer’s program, and given the emotion and force behind the national conversation around sexual misconduct, it begs the question whether this difficult news has had any impact on the Advanced Studies Program.
But so far, it seems there’s been little to no impact.
“I haven’t had one student mention it to me at all in the last one and a half, two years,” said Colleen Desrusseaux, Director of School Counseling at Bow High School. “I haven’t had a parent mention it at all or questioning or worried about it.”
School counselors from all over the state shared similar reactions. Only one high school counselor said she had a single student ask questions about the sexual misconduct news.
St. Paul’s Vice Rector for Operations and Finance, Michelle Chicoine, said the school hasn’t experienced a decline in application numbers for either ASP or the boarding school.
Desruisseaux has been a guidance counselor at Bow for 20 years, and she said some of her students may not even know of the sexual misconduct at St Paul’s.
“I don’t think the average 16 year old is watching even WMUR,” Desruisseaux said.
Bedford High School consistently sends a cohort of students to ASP, but counselors there said haven’t seen a change either.
Ali Mattson is a Bedford school counselor at Bedford High School and ASP alum. She also worked as a college counselor for ASP students. Mattson was one of many counselors who said they think kids see a separation between what goes on at the boarding school versus the summer school.
“I’m not surprised it hasn’t changed how kids feel about the summer program,” Mattson said. “Maybe it was me growing up in Concord but it always seemed so different to me. It’s a different staff, its a different student population its a different feel.”
But maybe the biggest reason the history of sexual misconduct hasn’t chipped away at the summer program is because high-achieving New Hampshire kids have been obsessed with it for over half a century.
Ian Bresnahan is a junior at Bedford high school, he had just gotten home from tutoring Calculus when he sat down for an interview.
The guys loves math and science.
“I really like rules and learning the rules to apply them to some sort of a problem. And I just love the concept of chemicals and how they interact and things like that.
As Ian’s mom Michelle Bresnahan puts it, ASP seems right up Ian’s alley.
She’s seen the news about St. Paul’s.
“To be honest, I wasn’t terribly concerned about the summer program because it seemed like a completely unrelated issue,” she said, adding that the news of sexual misconduct didn’t factor at all into their decision about whether or not Ian should apply.
“Whether that’s good or bad i don’t know, but it did not,” she said.
As for Ian, he’s confident that if he’s accepted, his experience will be a good one. He has friends who loved ASP, and one of them really hyped up the math class.
So while he said what happened at St. Paul’s is horrible, it won’t affect him.
“It doesn’t really change the fact that I still want to go, and still do the course that’s there,” he said.
Mike Ricard has lead the ASP program for almost a decade. Every year he goes around the state and leads around 55 info sessions for parents and students. This time around he said the school is putting out more information about how ASP kids can report sexual misconduct.
Ricard says he mentally prepared himself to answer questions about sexual harassment, but he didn’t get many.
“Quite frankly I was expecting more questions,” he said. “I have received literally a handful more, but not appreciably more than what I thought given what’s transpired over the last few years.”
The questions he said he did get were mostly about safety and security: What’s the adult supervision like in the dorms and are there locks on the doors?
Ricard thinks this is because ASP alums and their parents are doing the work for him.
“The way the program was designed originally was intentional in terms of not having it be after the 12th grade,” he said. “The best recruiter is the student who goes back in to their high school for their senior year.”
Think about high school and how much weight students place on the opinions of their peers. Summer program alum Noah Rachlin can still remember kids at Concord High School talking up ASP.
“The word on the street was it was this place that was really exciting and really cool where you went to like summer school but it wasn’t bad summer school, it was actually this really cool experience,” Rachlin said.
Rachlin says ASP alums build momentum and enthusiasm for the program, so it makes sense to him that ASP has avoided the conversation about sexual misconduct that’s happened not just at St. Paul’s, but throughout New England prep schools.