Last week, a former student at St. Paul’s School was sentenced to a year in jail for having sex with an underage student — a development that could bring more scrutiny to one of America’s most prestigious boarding schools.
A jury found Owen Labrie, now 20, guilty of a misdemeanour regarding the girl’s age but cleared him of more serious assault charges this summer.
Steven J. Kelly, a lawyer who represents the victim’s family, is now investigating the school, according the New Hampshire Union Leader, which noted the school itself had not yet faced litigation over the incident.
At the center of this case is the “senior salute” tradition, in which outgoing senior students try to hook up with younger students and keep “score” of their conquests, according to the Daily Beast.
“This would not have happened had it not been for the culture of the school, and specifically the senior salute,” Kelly told the Union Leader on Friday. “This is basically a game designed to encourage statutory rape, to have upper-class students target under-class students.”
However, a former student told the Daily Beast in August that she rejected the notion that the “senior salute” was sordid and predatory, though did concede that “it is a coined term and tradition.”
“[B]ut it’s really just hooking up with underclassmen,” she said. “People at St. Paul’s call it ‘scoring.'”
She also spoke highly of Labrie, saying he was a, “well-rounded kid, very personable, and was going to Harvard on a full scholarship. He wasn’t a spoiled, pretentious, typical prep school kid.”
The St. Paul’s administration told police the school had been trying to educate against “sexual scoring” on campus, according to the Concord Monitor, which cited a police affidavit.
If Kelly decides to bring this case to court, the lawsuit would rest on the concept of “loco parentis,” in which schools have the responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of their students, much like parents do, Richard Lehmann, a Concord attorney, told the Union Leader.
Other high-calibre boarding schools, like Hotchkiss in Connecticut, have been subjected to lawsuits over criminal sexual behaviour. But in Hotchkiss’ case, the alleged perpetrator was a teacher and not a fellow student.
The current rector of St. Paul’s (a position similar to a headmaster or a principal at the Episcopal affiliated school), Michael Hirschfeld, flatly rejects the notion that the school’s culture encourages “sexual conquest.”
In a statement released in September, Hirschfeld said that the “[senior salute] is not a decades old tradition as some have alleged. The phrase ‘senior salute’ described a wide range of behaviours related to spending time with other students — none of these behaviours was ever understood to include any type of ‘game’ or sexual conquest.”
The statement continued: “School culture must not be equated with the behaviour of one, or even several individuals within the community. The allegations about St. Paul’s were not — and are not emblematic of our School, or our values, our rules, or our student body, alumni, faculty, and staff. Those claims just simply aren’t true.”
St. Paul’s has had its fair share of controversies in the past, according to a a 2006 article from Vanity Fair.
In the article, Vanity Fair contributor Alex Shoumatoff — an alumnus of St. Paul’s — reported the school had been plagued by financial improprieties, allegations of faculty sexually abusing students, and a hazing investigation.
Kelly’s lawsuit, if it comes to court, will shine a spotlight on the insular culture of St. Paul’s and other elite, exclusive New England boarding schools.
“You have adults in charge of these kids who are afraid to discipline them because of the perception of the power and influence of their parents,” Kelly told the Union Leader, “these are kids; they may be rich, and they may be entitled, but they still need adults to take charge.”
Business Insider reached out to St. Paul’s for comment and received the following statement:
“Our focus continues to be on our School and the education we provide for our students. We remain committed to teaching our students our core values — that they live honorably, respectfully, and never forget to be kind.”
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