The St. Paul’s rape case shows schools are still in denial about sexual assault

As the case for accused rapist Owen Labrie began in New Hampshire on Aug. 18, it put a spotlight on St. Paul’s School. At the heart of the matter is the “senior salute,” described by the media as a competition among upperclassmen at the storied, elite boarding school to take the virginity of new female students. This has been described as a decades-old tradition dating back to the William Randolph Hearst days, but it’s actually a new development for life at St. Paul’s.

The “senior salute” was not part of the culture when I attended St. Paul’s from 1997 to 2000, nor was it around for students who graduated just five years ago. The conditions that enabled this deplorable lie to take hold are not unique to one boarding school, but are part of a centuries-old custom that the well-educated and privileged adhere to. They don’t discuss sexual crimes, therefore, consequences of such behavior are misunderstood or ignored. How else can we explain how male students felt so justified, perhaps even entitled, to tally the number of virginities they can claim?

Last year, a friend of mine toured the University of Pennsylvania when a fraternity came out of their house naked, and circled the group, chanting, “We want your daughters.” This is the mindset that allowed the young men of St. Paul’s to develop the “senior salute.” When my friend called the school to report the incident, she says she was essentially hung up on by the administration.

This response is similar to the treatment a rape victim received at Harvard, who penned her experience in an anonymous letter in the school’s newspaper, called “Dear Harvard, You Win.” She says she was taken to counselors, and the whole thing was kept silent – until she went public. Quiet, private, and dismissive is how many prestigious schools choose to initially respond to sexual crimes, to keep up this aura that there is no elite side to rape. (Harvard says it has taken steps to update its policies and response in such cases.)

Almost every school in the Ivy League is now under scrutiny for tolerating sexual assault on campus. Recently, 28 students at Columbia University filed a federal complaint for the school’s mishandling of rape claims and the mistreatment of victims. (Columbia has said it will cooperate with any investigation.) Many students at Brown University were outraged when the school allowed an accused rapist to return as a student, after committing a crime that usually comes with a sentence of five to seven years in prison. (The student chose not to return in the end, and the school created a task force to update its sexual assault policy.)

No school wants to give parents any indication that their children are potentially at risk. But institutional silence is exactly what increases risk and enables events like those mentioned above to happen in the first place.

 It’s estimated that one in three girls before the age of 18 will become a victim of sexual assault, and that perhaps 80% of these incidents will never be reported.  Sexual misconduct is not limited to students. More than a handful of faculty members at St. Paul’s and other boarding schools have been allowed to quietly resign after being accused of inappropriate contact with students. Reporting sexual crimes to the police is still a novelty, and is too often still considered a last resort.

When I was enrolled at St. Paul’s, I was also involved in a federal landmark case as a victim of sexual assault, which tested the 1996 Communications Decency Act. I met the perpetrator over the internet, and through my advocacy and book on the subject, I essentially became a poster child for online safety.

I unequivocally attribute most of my success to St. Paul’s School, a sacred ground that pushes students to pursue their passions to achieve at the highest level. If I’m being honest, however, those days were often dark and lonely because the culture of the school and of my hometown in suburban Connecticut forced me to be quiet. Often, I was actually even told to be quiet. I would later learn that the girl sitting behind me in my calculus class was being raped by one of her teachers. We both flourished out of desperation, but I only wonder how different things would have been without the burden of isolation around us.

It’s estimated that one in three girls before the age of 18 will become a victim of sexual assault, and that perhaps 80% of these incidents will never be reported. I’ve spent too many airplane rides having conversations that include, “I’ve never told anyone this, but since you’ve been so public about your case.” Sexual assault is not limited to certain echelons of education or economic backgrounds. I am not sure why we have to pretend that it does.

I’ve asked the current head of St. Paul’s School, Michael Hirschfeld, my former English teacher, to hire an independent investigator to look into the scope of the problem on campus, which I am told the school has done. Now that a student is standing trial for rape and another just plead no contest for simple assault, it’s clear that the school doesn’t understand the extent of the matter. And to be sure, I am not sure any of the elite schools do. The problem at St. Paul’s has become too atrocious that it has no choice but to be transparent and address it.

I have confidence that the headmaster will step up to the challenge to make sure that victims are treated with dignity and these crimes are punished appropriately. And in some ways this case represents a huge victory for future victims of sexual assaults, in that the case is being handled within the judicial system and not quietly within St. Paul’s. But I am also confident that other schools will allow more victims to be raped before they step up to the task.

Over the years, I’ve learned that one shouldn’t be ashamed for being a victim of sexual assault no matter what your background. But the Catholic Church and others have shown that eventually there tends to be great shame for the institutions that operate in a willful cloud of denial.

Katherine Tarbox is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and distinguished alumna of the St. Paul’s School. She is the bestselling author of “A Girl’s Life Online,” and has written for the New York Times and Time.

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