Elite prep school tackles 'hook-up' culture amid rape case

August 21, 2015

Third day of testimony in the trial of Owen Labrie

CONCORD, N.H. —A New Hampshire prep school that has educated some of the nation's elite for more than a century and a half is confronting a campus practice of sexual conquest after a senior was charged with raping a 15-year-old freshman girl.

In a series of letters over the past year to students, parents and alumni, St. Paul's School Rector Michael Hirschfeld candidly acknowledged the sexual assault charges and vowed to re-examine campus culture to see how a practice known as "Senior Salute" had been allowed to develop.

"While the allegation and the people it involves will not be a topic of conversation at the school, the broader issues it raises - the use of social media to perpetuate unhealthy relationships, the 'hookup' culture and unsanctioned student 'traditions' - will be," Hirschfeld wrote on Aug. 7, 2014, a month after Owen Labrie was charged with rape and other felonies.

Labrie is on trial in Concord, home to the Episcopal prep school founded in 1856.

Set on a leafy, shaded campus on the hem of New Hampshire's capital city, St. Paul's looks more college than high school. Red brick buildings with soaring arches and columns dot rolling hills and athletic fields are emerald in mid-August heat. The school has seen future Nobel winners pass through its doors, along with Pulitzer Prize winners, senators, international business executives, bishops and diplomats.

Prosecutors say Labrie, now 19, of Tunbridge, Vermont, enticed the girl to the roof of an academic building last year as part of "Senior Salute," in which seniors try to have sex with underclassman. Labrie has pleaded not guilty and says the two had consensual sexual contact, but not intercourse, which would be a crime given their age difference.

Katherine Tarbox, who graduated from St. Paul's in 2000, said the "Senior Salute" is a new phenomenon - after speaking with recent graduates, she believes it arose within the past two to three years - that underscores an old problem. She says it shows that the well-educated and privileged don't discuss sexual crimes and don't understand the consequences of their behavior.

Tarbox, who wrote a book about her own sexual assault at the hands of a man she met online, has been a national advocate for sexual violence prevention. She told The Associated Press that she reached out to Hirschfeld a year ago to recommend the school hire an independent investigator.

"It was clear to me the school didn't have a good hands-on grasp on the scope of the problem," she said, adding that she thinks the intense current scrutiny of the school will lead to change.

Students don't start returning to the campus until after Labor Day.

Shamus Khan, a 1996 St. Paul's graduate, wrote a book about the school detailing some of the traditions spawned by its hierarchy. He doesn't mention "Senior Salute" but writes of "newb nights," when older girls order new girls to talk about their sexual activity, sometimes with boys invited to listen. He also wrote of how sex was used as currency at the school.

"If a desirable older boy is interested in a new girl, this means a lot for her status and the status of her dorm," Khan wrote.

School officials declined requests for interviews, but in Hirschfeld's letters, he outlines actions the school took.

After Labrie's arrest, school officials said they would expel anyone participating "in any game, 'tradition,' or practice of sexual solicitation or sexual conquest under any name" and those possessing keys or access cards they aren't entitled to. Labrie is said to have used a key that was shared among seniors to get to restricted areas.

The school, which first admitted girls in 1971, also brought in experts to discuss topics including substance abuse, harassment and building healthy relationships. It also teaches students how to recognize and interrupt behaviors to prevent sexual violence.

In one letter, Hirschfeld told students and parents the past year has been painful but productive.

"Introspection has not only fostered important conversations about the nature of our common life - its blessings, as well as its pitfalls - but importantly this introspection has prompted positive change, change that has been effected by our students," he wrote.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.