St. Paul's School Rector Michael Hirschfeld on Friday tried to reassure alumni that the elite New Hampshire boarding school is taking strong steps to protect students in the wake of a high-profile sexual assault case. Hirschfeld staunchly defended the survivor of the alleged assault, but his words also suggest that St. Paul's leaders are still struggling a bit with the concept of "consent."
Former St. Paul's student Owen Labrie was acquitted of felony sexual assault charges on Friday, but convicted of misdemeanor counts involving sex with a minor. Labrie had been accused of assaulting a freshman girl when he was a senior, as part of a sexual score-keeping ritual known as the "senior salute."
"The trial has been deeply painful for all of us in the St. Paul’s community, but especially for the young woman who has suffered through this nightmare," Hirschfeld wrote in an email that was also signed by Board of Trustees President James Waterbury Jr., and obtained by The Huffington Post.
"From the beginning – some 15 months ago – to the conclusion of the trial, she and her family have shown remarkable moral courage and strength. Her resolve and unwavering commitment to the pursuit of the truth have been inspiring to us and to many outside our School community."
The letter from Hirschfeld and Waterbury details the steps the school has taken in response to the case. While it does not directly address the idea of consent, it does reference "teen hookup culture," appearing to suggest that 21st century sexual norms have somehow made sexual assault a more complicated issue than it was in past decades.
"We have learned that what was once termed 'dating' or 'courting' behavior has been inverted in some instances from our traditional sensibilities – sexual contact is now seen as the point of origin of many relationships, not a part of an emotionally developed relationship," the email reads.
Read the full text of the letter below.
August 28, 2015
Dear St. Paul’s School Community,
By now you have likely learned of the verdicts in the trial of Owen Labrie ’14. The trial has been deeply painful for all of us in the St. Paul’s community, but especially for the young woman who has suffered through this nightmare. From the beginning – some 15 months ago – to the conclusion of the trial, she and her family have shown remarkable moral courage and strength. Her resolve and unwavering commitment to the pursuit of the truth have been inspiring to us and to many outside our School community.
In June of 2014, when we first learned about these disturbing events, and informed you of the arrest of Owen Labrie, we pledged that we would use this case and the issues raised by it to learn more about ourselves and to make our School better. We began more than a year ago by conducting a comprehensive review of the safety of our School environment and of our reporting procedures to ensure they continue to meet the highest standards. We also made policy changes and enhanced programming in several key areas to further support our students in making St. Paul’s the healthiest residential learning environment possible. In addition, we invited independent experts and researchers to our campus to advise us on the best ways to strengthen the trust, respect and understanding that is so critical for a tight-knit, fully residential community like ours. More information about the speakers and the topic areas they covered can be accessed on the “From the Rector” page of our website under the “Focus on Healthy Community” section.
With advice and guidance from a team of public health professionals, we developed and began implementing additional programming to strengthen our community through enhanced education and prevention efforts in such areas as harassment, bullying, gender-based violence, and substance abuse. Our work continues as we strive to strengthen our Living in Community curriculum, develop new bystander intervention training for all students and heads of house, and conduct a review of School policies and practices surrounding student conduct and discipline. Our expectation is that these efforts will allow our faculty, staff, administration, and students to continue to be engaged in critical introspection with an eye to improving how we live together.
The topics raised by the trial have been an area of focus for the School for some time, and these same issues have been highlighted for the broader St. Paul’s community through testimony in court and recently in the press. To the frustration of many, the public discussion of the trial over the past two weeks has inaccurately portrayed St. Paul’s School and our culture. The allegations about our culture are not emblematic of our School or our values, our rules, or our student body, alumni, faculty, and staff.
Many terms, including “senior salute” and “score” that are part of the student vernacular, have been discussed as part of the trial. These terms, and the behaviors they suggest, have and will continue to be addressed by the School community. There is no place for inappropriate and hurtful behavior that disrespects any member of our School. Conduct that is damaging to the fabric of our community and inconsistent with our values has never been – and will not be – tolerated.
The Rector first heard about the “senior salute” in the spring of 2013. It is not a decades-old “tradition” as some have alleged. As you have learned throughout the trial, the phrase “senior salute” describes a wide range of behaviors. It was never understood to include the conduct engaged in by Owen Labrie. That behavior was never condoned by the School, and we took action when it surfaced. Owen Labrie was banned from the School and his Rector’s Award was rescinded. We also revised the Student Handbook to state more explicitly that participation in any “game” of sexual conquest by any name or unauthorized possession of School keys or swipe cards would be grounds for expulsion.
During the last 15 months, we have continued to learn much about our School and the students it serves. We have learned that we must do more as a School community, students and adults alike, to support those who stand up for themselves when they feel they have been wronged. Our ongoing work will be even more difficult having witnessed the challenges of the trial, but it remains our responsibility to make our School the safest place possible.
We have been painfully reminded of the fact that social media can provide an adult-free space for negative student culture to form and perpetuate itself. We have learned that what was once termed “dating” or “courting” behavior has been inverted in some instances from our traditional sensibilities – sexual contact is now seen as the point of origin of many relationships, not a part of an emotionally developed relationship. These issues have highlighted some of the differences in educating students in the 21st century.
We need to continue to teach all our students about self-respect as well as respect for others. The lessons we have learned are critically important to our growth as a School community. The mark of our success in this area will be a School in which each child feels comfortable being him- or herself, a goal we have been pursuing and will likely continue to pursue forever.
The School has changed in a number of ways over its 159-year history, but it has never wavered in the expectations it has of its students – that they live honorably and respectfully and that they never forget to be kind. These are our core values – ones that will continue to guide us.
Michael G. Hirschfeld ’85, P’14,’17
James M. Waterbury, Jr. ’75, P’11
President, Board of Trustees
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