An elite boarding school in New Hampshire that’s considered to be an “Ivy League” among prep schools has been thrust into the national spotlight this week, as a former student is standing trial for allegedly raping his 15-year-old classmate.
The case is bringing more scrutiny to the world of private prep schools, where high school students pay more than the cost of college tuition to receive a prestigious education.
Prosecutors are pointing to the underlying sexual culture at St. Paul’s School — an Episcopal institution that boasts “lush, 2,000-acre campus, studded with imposing stone Gothic buildings, pristine athletic facilities, an observatory and a pond” — to explain why a student says that alleged perpetrator Owen Labrie didn’t listen to her when she repeatedly said “no.”
Here are the central details about the school and the alleged assault that have emerged during this week’s trial:
St. Paul’s seniors compete to see who can have the most sex with younger girls before they graduate.
The ongoing case has exposed an alleged tradition at St. Paul’s called the “senior salute.” Essentially, it’s a competition among senior boys to see who can convince the largest number of younger female students to have sex with them before they graduate from the school. The specific goal is reportedly to take the girls’ virginity.
According to the Associated Press, Labrie spoke openly about this practice when he was first interviewed by the police in New Hampshire. Labrie said that boys kept a running tally of who had “scored” with younger girls on a wall behind washing machines. After the school repeatedly painted over it, they moved the scoreboard online.
Police records indicate that Labrie said the upperclassmen at the school “take great pride” in sleeping with younger students and he was “trying to be number one.”
The ‘senior salute’ competition is all about pushing girls’ sexual boundaries.
The New York Times reports that the senior salute involves experimenting to see just how far the boys can get. Seniors may reach out to a younger girl and ask her to go on a walk, or ask her for a kiss. Then, they push to keep going.
The girl at the center of this case — who is not being named in the press — says that this exact situation happened to her. According to a police affidavit, she received an email indicating that Labrie wanted to participate in the senior salute with her, and she declined. After Labrie asked a freshman boy to “put in a good word” for him, she eventually agreed, but only under the impression they would just be kissing.
When the girl, now 16 years old, took the witness stand this week, she said she didn’t object at first when the two of them went into a dark maintenance room and started kissing. But Labrie allegedly kept pushing her. The girl said Labrie began to grope her, bite her chest, and attempt to remove her underwear. At that point, she recounted, “I said, ‘No, no, no, keep it up here,’” signaling above her waist.
The girl says she struggled to know how to respond to an older boy’s sexual advances because she wanted to be polite.
When recounting the alleged assault on the stand, the 16-year-old girl said she felt Labrie penetrate her with his hands and his penis, but she wasn’t sure how to resist him. She said she had initially felt flattered that an older and popular senior boy was paying attention to her, and she was worried about making a bad impression on him.
“I tried to be as polite as possible… I didn’t want to offend him,” she said. “I thought, I’m at St. Paul’s right now, this is graduation weekend, I cannot be dramatic about this.”
“I wanted to not cause a conflict,” she added, noting that she didn’t want to come across as “an inexperienced little girl” and was worried that Labrie would tell their classmates about the incident.
Her testimony this week echoes what she told New Hampshire police when she first reported the assault. “I was trying to be cool,” she told the police offer.
Defense lawyers are trying to paint the girl as a liar.
Rape trials typically involve the defense attempting to undermine the victim’s credibility, and this case is no exception. When Labrie’s lawyers questioned the girl this week, they strongly suggested that she sent misleading signals and is now lying about whether the encounter was consensual.
J.W. Carney Jr., the lead defense lawyer, pressed the girl about why she didn’t resist Labrie as he removed her clothing, as well as asked her why she laughed during the incident in the maintenance room. She maintained that was nervous laughter because she was trying to diffuse the situation. “Did you ever tell Owen Labrie that if you were laughing during this encounter, it doesn’t mean what the rest of the world thinks laughing means?” Carney asked.
Later, Carney pointed to text messages exchanged between the girl and Labrie as potential evidence that their sexual encounter was amicable (a line of argument that’s been deployed against college women who have recently come forward to say they were sexually assaulted, too). He said that if she was upset with Labrie, she didn’t truthfully show it in those exchanges. The girl said they were “conversation fillers” and she tries not to lie as much as possible.
“You try not to lie as much as possible,” Carney responded. “Sometimes I guess you’re unsuccessful.”