In Defense of St. Paul’s

During late August of this year, the media was in a wild frenzy over the trial of Owen Labrie, a graduate of St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. From Teen Vogue to The New York Times, journalists have cashed in on the buzz a prep school scandal can generate, riddling their headlines with words like “elitism” and “privilege.” It is very easy to point a finger and label the school community as the true culprit in this case, and that is what a lot of periodicals have chosen to do. Yet, as a proud graduate of the St. Paul’s Class of 2012, I must take a stand to defend my high school.

The media’s coverage has made St. Paul’s the poster child for adolescent sexual assault, and has done so in an egregious manner. St. Paul’s is not the enemy that it has been painted to be. The school’s culture has been investigated and viewed around an unfortunate context. Certain vernaculars have been latched onto, ridiculed, and morphed into alleged traditions that wrongly make it seem as though the community encourages things like sexual conquest.

The term “senior salute” has been thrown around as some ancient tradition in which boys compete to take the virginities of younger students, and it has become the focus of the many articles’ attention. This particular piece of slang does not connote an ingrained rite in which the students partake. It is a term made popular within the last five years, and is not understood to mean seniors having sex with minors.

Similarly, the word “score” is not as dirty and promiscuous as some writers have made it out to be—it is a school colloquialism for any type of act within a relationship, meaning to date, or simply to hold hands. Of course relationships were taken farther than a sweet kiss on the cheek, but it is undeniable that adolescents everywhere are choosing to engage in a more mature relationship, not simply the students of St. Paul’s.

As someone who fostered a healthy, intimate relationship at St. Paul’s, I can assert that the “sex culture” referred to in the news is not any more sordid than the “sex culture” at high schools nationwide. I cannot deny that St. Paul’s has its imperfections, nor can I deny that the school is surrounded by a unique amount of opportunity and privilege. The school boasts enormous resources, maintains a college-level endowment, and is attended by students who have been blessed with many advantages.

Yet, the media has failed to mention that over $9 million per year is allotted to financial aid alone, with a large amount of students receiving it, including Labrie himself. St. Paul’s students have very high expectations to meet, as they balance rigorous academics, uphold a strictly enforced honor code, and navigate their way through the confusing territory that is puberty. St. Paul’s is not a community where students run free and are not held justly accountable for their actions. On the contrary, St. Paul’s has a very thorough disciplinary system, and very little tolerance for mistakes. Labrie went to trial as a consequence of his personal choices, and I am not defending his actions, but I am defending the integrity of this institution. His particular case is not exemplary of the community, and it should not be represented as such.

What has been conveniently left out of this conversation is that St. Paul’s students are not alone in journeying through adolescence, and high schools everywhere face similar problems which need to be addressed. We cannot hide the real issue: the need to re-examine campus culture, be it high school or college, under the facade of prep school debauchery. St. Paul’s has many imperfections and room for improvement, especially in the way in which it treats issues like gender, sexuality, its culture of wealth, and the diversity of the student body.

Yet the school has left me with many genuine lessons, and has instilled in me the belief of its school prayer, which implores us to be “unselfish in friendship, thoughtful of those less happy than ourselves, and eager to bear the burdens of others.” By acting in this way, the school community can uphold a vow to progress and foster a healthier atmosphere. Although many members of the SPS community have been hurt by the recent coverage, especially that of The New York Times, which exposed, somewhat wrongly and unfairly, very intimate details about the lives of young adults and their secrets, it has forced us to open the doors to a much-needed, long over-due dialogue about sexual assault in general and on campuses.

There is an obvious need to more strictly codify our definition of what is required in “consent,” and to address the very-real problem of sexual violence. Otherwise, we may be in danger of allowing the already prevalent epidemic of sexual assaults among youth to keep on spreading. Let us not turn our backs on the conversation, but welcome it, and encourage students and administrations everywhere to reconsider the measures they are taking in education, prevention, and outreach regarding this matter. It is high time that we transform our educational environments to better meet the needs of victims of sexual assault, and to moreover stop this phenomenon at its source—it should not take scandal after scandal for us to reevaluate what it is that we are clearly doing wrong here, and we must not keep silent, lest we remain complacent in jeopardizing the safety that each student deserves.

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