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11.22.10

The Prep School Facebook Scandal

The elite Choate boarding school is embroiled in a tabloid-ready scandal, involving catty Facebook postings about students drinking and taking drugs.

The elite Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school has long been a destination for the rich and fabulous, with so many big-name graduates and booted preppies—JFK, Ivanka Trump, a Bhutan royal, Ali MacGraw, Edward Albee, and Michael Douglas, to name a few—that it seems like an East Coast cauldron of money-meets-Hollywood-meets-international glamour.

Now the prestigious Connecticut prep school has its own tabloid-ready scandal. Again.

Last month, Choate officials banned access to Facebook through campus computers after discovering a 200-plus-page-long thread, crackling with Gossip Girl-cattinesss, penned by half a dozen Choate girls. "You know it is possible to say no when someone tries to have sex with you. Just throwing that out there. Like no is still an option, you whore," read one post.

While penning poison about classmates such as, "EWWW, SHE'S SO GROSS AND FAKED AND SPRAY TANNED," and, "Some ho kissing Herbie," the Choaties also detailed their own bouts of illegal drinking and drug-taking, according to two students who have read the thread but who wanted to remain anonymous because they said it was dangerous to be seen commenting, even if they were not involved.

The message board thread titled "Mwaahhahaha" has rapidly become a must-read in boarding school dorms across New England and in Manhattan circles. But it has also become a flashpoint in the growing American debate over Internet privacy, free speech, and civil society.

School administrators deleted the thread and hired a computer forensics expert to track how it had been made public, though not before it made the rounds among students and recent graduates. Two of the girls who wrote "Mwaahhahaha" were expelled last month and four were suspended, according to a school spokeswoman, Mary Verselli, giving the students a deadly mark on their academic records just as they prepare to apply to college.

None of the suspended or expelled students wanted to comment publicly. "It has been very traumatic for us," said Amy Buhl, the mother of Amanda Buhl, one of the seniors who contributed to the thread.

To some, reactions to the postings have been excessive.

"People think it can reflect on the school, but it's being blown out of proportion," said fifth former (junior) Kris Mack. Julia Herr, another fifth former, said the scandal had created unnecessary distractions as students prepare for exams. "It's nobody's business but the people who were part of it," she said.

The message thread titled "Mwaahhahaha," a private inbox accessible only by password, has rapidly become a must-read in boarding school dorms across New England and in Manhattan circles.

But others have little sympathy for those involved.

"If they graduate with us, our diplomas will be tarnished," an anonymous Choate senior wrote on the website of The New Haven Register. "Don't generalize all Choate students to be in the same category as those girls."

Local newspapers likened the thread to a "burn book" similar to the one in Mean Girls. But students reject that analogy. "Please don't compare it to the "burn book" in Mean Girls as the local papers have," posted Hayley Ricardo, a fourth-former, or tenth grader, on her Tumblr account. "It's not really anything like that, and we're sick of the comparisons." (Ricardo was not one of the six involved.)

The gossip is taking its toll at the academically rigorous school, which already has a certain reputation among top boarding schools for privileged excess and elitism. Tuition and board at the school, which includes a building designed by I.M. Pei, cost more than $45,000 per year. Dry cleaning and music lessons are extra. (Eight music lessons run $480—instrument and sheet music not included.) Edward Shanahan, Choate's headmaster, received a $1.9 million bonus in 2008, according to public records for the nonprofit school—apparently the highest level in private-school history.

In general, Choate girls "try to dress and act exactly like Blair Waldorf," of Gossip Girl, "with over-the-top headbands and unnecessary hostility," wrote senior Carolina Iribarren in the student newspaper this year. And a graduate who identified himself as a Goldman Sachs banker wrote on a message board a few years ago that "they have a great academic agenda, with some of the finest high-school teachers there are." But he added that the typical student who attends Choate "is a bland, drug-experimenting, 'shipped off by their wealthy parents,' teenage yuppie..."

The boarding school bans drinking and "dangerous pranks," such as "jumping from bridges," but in public postings, some students describe consuming vodka and other alcohol in the showers after check-in. As Brandon Sherrod, a P.G. (or post-graduate) from Bridgeport, Connecticut, tweeted with a virtual sigh last month: "just got here and there's a scandal already."

At issue is not just drinking but " cyberbullying"—topic A in educational circles in the wake of suicides by students, who seemingly killed themselves because of harassment through social media by other students.

But experts and some inside the Choate community argue that the cases of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old student who killed herself after being bullied, and Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman, who jumped off a bridge after his roommate allegedly secretly filmed him during a "sexual encounter," cannot be compared to what was essentially a private, electronic gossip chamber.

To describe the Choate postings as "cyberbullying" amounts to "P.C. hysteria," said Norm Pattis, a Connecticut trial lawyer who specializes in civil-rights violations. "Yes, what was written was mean, but it's not bullying—it's part of learning to grow up," he said, adding that he wondered whether the Choate seniors—who now face dire college prospects while dozens of their peers apply to Ivy League schools—had grounds to file breach-of-contract lawsuits against the school.

Moreover, Pattis said, in blocking Facebook access from school computers, Choate had sent the wrong message to its 850 students, who can still access social media like Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter on their iPhones and BlackBerries. Attempting to shield students from bilious talk, rather than instructing them on how to be civil on the Internet, meant that, "Choate was not teaching these kids how to be leaders," he said.

The scandal is nothing new for Choate, which endured national headlines on "The Great Coke Bust of 1984," when a ring of Choate students was indicted after one student traveled to Venezuela during spring break to buy 350 grams of cocaine for which he'd rounded up money around the dorms. Twelve of the 16, including the ringleader, Derek Oatis, were expelled; Oatis ended up not at Harvard or Columbia but at U-Conn-Storrs.

Two years later the school took a hit with the news of Robert "The Preppy Killer" Chambers, Jr., a one-time Choate student who in 1986 pleaded guilty to murdering an 18-year-old in Central Park.

One rumor floating around on campus is that an outside student may have hacked into the thread and disseminated it to some of the objects of its scorn, who then promptly turned it over to Choate administrators. But embarrassed administrators at Choate have been in lockdown on disclosing details.

Verselli, the school's spokeswoman, declined to answer any questions, saying only, "We do not wish to talk about this. We think we've handled it very well, and we're eager to move on."

Last month, Shanahan held a special 90-minute discussion with students about Internet civility. But some students did not find the talk all that educational. "Nobody found it informative, useful, or interesting," Evan Goldstein, a junior, told the school newspaper on Friday.

And the headmaster's message appears not to have gotten through to some Choaties, who, even as they post, tweet, and tumbl (sometimes in French, Mandarin, or Italian) about Voldemort, Glee, gay rights, squid and hipster fashion, still slip up. One student from Georgia tumbled in a public post about things she was craving, including "blatant racism, jack & coke, the company of chain smokers, free time to sleep, a nice long ride in a car, the new kid cudi ep…. not being sexually deprived, the ability to focus, self control, harry potter marathon."

Another public tumbl said, "haven't done my homework. personal achievement vs. academic achievement... and the verdict is: fuck school."

Correction: The 1984 cocaine bust was incorrectly marked as 1994 in an earlier version of this story.

Lynnley Browning is a contributor to the business pages of The New York Times and is a former Moscow-based correspondent for Reuters, where she covered energy and commodities. She grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, majored in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University, and is fluent in Russian. She lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with her son.