Ray Duckler: Rape trial forces boarding schools to look in the mirror

Last modified: 8/30/2015 12:42:41 AM
During the Watergate investigation 41 years ago, Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, wondering about Richard Nixon’s role in the scandal, asked, “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Baker’s succinctly worded curiosity has resonated through the decades, and it remains relevant as we examine the nationally covered rape trial that ended in superior court Friday.

What did those in charge at St. Paul’s School, trusted with teenage students at a college-like campus, know about something called the “senior salute,” and when did they know it?

Owen Labrie, charged with raping a 15-year-old St. Paul’s School freshman while he was an 18-year-old senior, was acquitted of the most serious charges, aggravated felonious sexual assault.

He was, however, found guilty of statutory rape because of the victim’s age and a felony charge of using a computer to lure a minor.

At least one school official, we heard, knew something was going on, before the national media descended on the city to cover what’s been called a culture of sexual misconduct.

“I came to understand the senior salute as one element of a larger vernacular the kids at St. Paul’s used to describe a wide range of relations between students, some of which, I would say, included sexual (activity),” Chad Green, dean of students at the school, testified this week.

He added that he was unsure how many other officials knew about the tradition.

Is it probable, though, that Green was the only school official privy to this? Don’t faculty members talk to each other? Especially about a topic as toxic to the school and its student body as this?

And didn’t testimony by students lay out in detail a tradition of grooming young girls for this annual tradition, of creating a list of girls who Labrie and his friend, Tucker Marchese, “would enjoy getting to know better?”

Rape or not, we know the girl was led into a secluded, locked area by Labrie and was touched and kissed while in her underwear.

If you were the parents of the victim, wouldn’t you want to know the school’s culpability here?

Wouldn’t you want to know why Labrie had a key to that off-limits area, or why suitable security measures were not in place to discourage this sort of behavior, or why the school failed to warn students and inform parents, in harsh terms, about severe penalties seniors would face for trying to seduce freshmen?

If school officials knew, they had an obligation to inform parents about the exact measures they were taking to address the boy-will-be boys network at the school.

And if a majority of those in charge were clueless, is it because they are out of touch with their students, or oblivious to what’s happening on campus?

Laura Dunn ,the founder of SurvJustic, a nonprofit that supports victims of sexual violence, represented the girl’s family and released this statement from them after the verdict:

“We still feel betrayed that St. Paul’s School allowed and fostered a toxic culture that left our daughter and other students at risk to sexual violence. We trusted the school to protect her and it failed us.”

Defense attorney J.W. Carney said his client was no angel, but he, too, attacked the school.

Standing outside the courthouse after Wednesday’s session, microphones and recorders just inches from his face, he gave us a hint of what was to come the next day during his closing arguments.

“The culture at St. Paul’s should be very troubling in my opinion to any parent who sends a child there,” Carney said. “It’s shocking to me as a parent myself of a boy and a girl that the senior salute has been allowed to continue on this long. It’s time for St. Paul’s to get rid of it.”

Carney mentioned the word “wink” while talking about what I interpreted to be the school’s initial reaction to the senior salute. To make sure I had it right, I asked Carney later that day if he was referring to the St. Paul’s School’s apparent dismissal of a serious discipline problem, happening right under its nose.

He nodded his head up and down repeatedly, then, in court on Thursday, said, “St. Paul’s played that role of parents, and St. Paul’s School failed the children with their attitude toward senior salute.”

Chilling words, indeed; words that no doubt rocked boarding schools around the country as a new school year draws near.

“It’s alarming for all of us at any school when these types of incidences happen,” Holderness School Headmaster Phil Peck told me, “and it reminds us of the importance of to-do things that most of us say we do in the way of education and in the way of supporting our kids.”

Peck said a human development course at the Plymouth school – with a trained counselor stressing the framework for healthy relationships and a town policeman explaining the legal ramifications of sexual assault – seeks to educate students.

Peck, though, stopped short of saying his school is foolproof against what happened at St. Paul’s.

“That would be hubris to say that we are,” he said. “I would be irresponsible to act arrogantly at this moment. What happened at St. Paul’s is humbling and tragic for all of us, and all of a sudden you can’t say, ‘Not at my school.’ ”

When asked what, if anything, he would have done had he learned of something like the senior salute subculture, Peck said, “I would say if our administration knew about a situation, we would have been proactive and tried to do the best we could to look in to it.”

Obviously, not enough was done at St. Paul’s to prevent what led to an ugly and awkward trial, one that attracted media from around the country.

“The entire St. Paul’s School community has been deeply affected by this incident,” the school’s rector, Michael Hirschfeld, said in a statement released shortly after the verdict was read. “It is our responsibility to ensure that our students live and learn together in a community that is built on respect, caring, and support for one another.

“Anything short of that cannot and will not be accepted.”



(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter 
@rayduckler.)




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