Prep School Rape Trial Now Over – Will the Culture Now Change?

A former prep school student faced a lengthy rape trial this summer for an incident that took place just two days prior to his graduation in May of 2014. Owen Labrie, a 19 year old from Tunbridge, Vermont, was facing charges for allegedly raping a 15 year old girl as part of a longstanding tradition at the St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. This tradition, coined as the “Senior Salute” encouraged senior male students at the prestigious prep school to compete in order to see who could have sex with the greatest number of underclassmen females prior to graduation. The entire trial unfolded as a he-said, she-said ordeal stemming from the Senior Salute invitation that Labrie extended to the alleged victim prior to the incident. Owen Labrie maintained that the two never engaged in sexual intercourse, but the unidentified victim has stated that she repeatedly told Owen “No” during various stages of their intimacy. Labrie was found not guilty of the felony rape charges he had been facing, but he is still currently awaiting sentencing on lesser sexual assault charges following the jury’s decision. They believed that Labrie had been lying and that the two did engage in sexual intercourse; an act that was illegal due to the girl’s age at the time of the encounter.

The spotlight surrounding the Labrie case has highlighted an issue that could possibly plague further prep schools in the future. Due to the nature of these schools, experts believe that students who receive their education at a boarding school may be at a greater risk to encounter sexual assaults. The children do not have legal guardians present during after-school hours—they experience a greater level of freedom than children who live at home while they are going to school. As one senior, Thomas Chou, from the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire has stated, “Our parents aren’t with us. We’re living in dorms.” This simple fact has caused a number of prep schools in the surrounding area to reevaluate the plans they have in place to prevent sexual assaults from occurring on their campuses.

The head of school for Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, John Palfrey, wrote a letter to parents addressing these issues prior to the beginning of the new school year. He stated, in part, “For high schools everywhere, this trial raised hard and important questions about sexual assault, adolescent decision-making and institutional procedures and policies.” Parents whose children are currently enrolled at the Phillips Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire received a similar letter from those in charge at the prep school. Both of these letters detailed to parents the new efforts that would be taken in order to prevent sexual assault from taking place on their campuses. The schools both stated that they had been planning these updates prior to the Labrie trial taking place—but perhaps the trial itself sped up the decision making process.

So far, the Phillips Academy in Andover has updated their rulebook to include a more specific section on sexual consent. They have made the decision to adopt a consent policy that has been prevalent in college campuses across the country for quite some time. This affirmative consent policy states that students who are of legal age to consent to sex may do so after receiving a clear, verbal “yes” from their partner before engaging in any form of sexual activity. Schools are also working toward adapting the rules they have in place at the dorms to now restrict the times students will have access to each other’s bedrooms. These new rules will also dictate that students must leave their doors open and their lights on when they have other students in their room. The only exception to this rule will apply to seniors who are on the verge of graduating from their respective school.

In addition to these new rules, the schools have agreed to provide a bystander intervention program for their students in an effort to train individuals on the best ways to prevent sexual assault from taking place around them. They will further work toward teaching their students how to act “honorably” and will educate them to act within the guidelines for consent highlighted within their updated rulebooks.

The scrutiny placed on prep school traditions following the St. John’s Prep rape trial is showing how these prestigious institutions may be leaving their students vulnerable. Karen Gross, the former president of South Vermont College as well as the former senior policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, said in a statement that, “There’s enormous pride in these institutions and their histories, and I think there’s a deep reluctance to change tradition.” And while some of the twenty schools contacted to make comments regarding the matter refused their calls, others such as the Phillips Academies are leading the charge in breaking down these traditions. The hope is that other respected prep schools will soon follow suit before more young lives are compromised at the hands of consent.


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