Attraction

08.18.15 5:15 AM ET

Boarding School Sex Scandal: When Bro Culture Becomes Rape Culture

Was the tradition of the ‘Senior Salute’ at St. Paul’s, a top New Hampshire private school, an innocent sexual game, or did it have a much darker side?

Did the frenzied hook-up culture of a top private school lead to a 15-year-old female student being raped?

Owen Labrie, a 19-year-old former student of St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, has denied sexually assaulting the female student in May 2014.

The trial began on Monday, with prosecutors expected to call current and former students to testify about the sexual culture at St. Paul’s School.

Testimony is expected to be heard about the so-called “Senior Salute,” a long-standing tradition at the New England boarding school that involved senior students attempting to sleep with lowerclassmen and keeping score of their conquests.

Labrie told police he was “trying to be number one” in the “Senior Salute” contest when he ended up on the roof of a building on campus one night with the alleged victim.

Labrie has pleaded not guilty to three felony charges, and repeatedly denied having intercourse with the girl, though he told detectives he did put on a condom.

He claimed she wanted to have intercourse, but that he stopped himself from going all the way in a “moment of self-restraint.”

But a sexual assault nurse at Concord Hospital found that the alleged victim had “a laceration that would be consistent with penetration having occurred,” according to a police affidavit.

The affidavit also states that St. Paul’s told police they had been “trying to educate against” sexual “scoring” on campus.

The case at St. Paul’s School is an outlier not just because it occurred at a private high school, but because it will be settled in criminal court at a time when many private and public higher education institutions are adjudicating rape cases in kangaroo campus courts.

After the widely publicized controversy of Emma Sulkowicz’s alleged rape by a fellow student at Columbia University, college campuses are addressing what many have declared an “epidemic” of sexual assault. Activists are working hard to combat so-called rape culture, systemic both on and off campus, that they believe is the root of this epidemic. Mandatory affirmative consent programs—even presented as apps—are being touted as a potential solution.

In the St Paul’s case, it remains to be seen how much prosecutors will cite the “Senior Salute” tradition, but several former St. Paul’s students have confirmed its existence to The Daily Beast.

One former student, Mike (not his real name), said the tradition is “very real” and described it as a kind of “send-off” that involved both male and female seniors hooking up with freshman or sophomore students.

“If it wasn’t a freshman or a sophomore, it didn’t count as a send-off,” Mike, 20, told The Daily Beast.

He had heard about the tradition throughout his freshman year at St. Paul’s and finally saw proof of it at the end of his second semester: a chalkboard in the basement of one of the larger buildings on campus that he described as “an enormous web of names, with lines connecting the people that had hooked up.”

Mike, an upcoming sophomore in college, recalled talking about one send-off for days after one of his senior friends, “a very good looking kid,” hooked up with a female underclassmen.

“No one could believe it. It was like Christmas,” he said, adding that when he was a student at St. Paul’s, the “Senior Salute” was “never about going all the way.”

While Mike and Labrie never overlapped at St. Paul’s (Mike transferred from St. Paul’s to Kimball Union in 2010 at the end of his sophomore year), he said they played soccer together at summer camp and on various pickup teams throughout high school.

He described Labrie as a quiet kid who was reputed to be extremely intelligent.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

“Everyone knew that Owen was a freshman in junior-level classes,” he said, noting that Labrie came from a modest background relative to most St. Paul’s students.

“St. Paul’s is all about how elite you are, and the thing that I really remember about Owen was that kind of culture wasn’t important to him.”

“Everyone loved him,” said another St. Paul’s alumna, Emily (not her real name), who graduated in 2013 and was friendly with Labrie. “He was a well-rounded kid, very personable, and was going to Harvard on a full scholarship. He wasn’t a spoiled, pretentious, typical prep school kid.”

Emily defended her alma mater and denied media reports that the “Senior Salute” tradition at St. Paul’s is “sordid” and predatory.

“There’s no peer pressure or student-sanctioned event surrounding it,” she told The Daily Beast. “It was a coined term and tradition, but it’s really just hooking up with underclassmen. People at St. Paul’s call it ‘scoring,’” she said, which encompasses “everything from holding hands to having sex.”

Emily acknowledged that both male and female friends at St. Paul’s would joke about “scoring,” but said she believed both the jokes and the tradition were relatively innocuous and anodyne.

“It’s nothing out of the ordinary as far as these things go in high school,” she said, adding that upperclassmen viewed it as a chance to “score” with younger students whom they fancied before graduating. “It’s a realization that you likely won’t see these people again and now is your chance to hook up with them or date them if they’re interested.”

Neither Mike nor Emily knew exactly when the tradition was given a name, with points and a tallying system. And it’s unclear when the tradition started. One anonymous alum who graduated in 1998 said he never heard of it during his four years at St. Paul’s.

“There were some students, boys and girls, who wanted another notch on their bedpost before graduation, but I would classify those individuals as outliers rather than the norm,” he told The Daily Beast.

In a statement issued on Monday, St. Paul’s Rector Michael G. Hirschfeld wrote that the school does “not tolerate conduct that is at odds with our commitment to a safe and welcoming environment for everyone” in the school community, and that “current allegations about our culture are not emblematic of our School or our values, our rules, or the people who represent our student body, alumni, faculty, and staff.”

Labrie’s lawyer declined to comment for the story.