Prep School Rape Trial Puts Spotlight On High School Assaults

Originally published on August 29, 2015 10:37 am
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A graduate of an elite New Hampshire prep school has been found not guilty of felony rape of a freshman girl at the school. But he's been convicted of several misdemeanors, including having sex with a minor. As Paige Sutherland of New Hampshire Public Radio reports, the case has put the spotlight on sexual assault at the high school level.

PAIGE SUTHERLAND, BYLINE: St. Paul's School in Concord has a student-led tradition known as the senior salute, in which seniors try to hook up with as many underclassmen as they can before they graduate, which sometimes leads to sex. Owen Labrie had an encounter with a freshman girl, and the jury was asked to decide what happened and whether it was consensual. During the trial, state prosecutor Joseph Cherniske argued the 19-year-old Labrie took the senior salute too far. Two days before graduation, in 2014, the prosecutor said Labrie forced himself upon the girl in a secluded building on campus.

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JOSEPH CHERNISKE: He was accepted to Harvard and given a full scholarship. Nothing was going to go wrong, but he had just one thing left to accomplish at St. Paul's School.

SUTHERLAND: The defendant testified that he invited the girl to meet up as part of the senior salute and that their romantic encounter was consensual and denied the two had sex. In closing arguments, Labrie's attorney, J. W. Carney, blamed St. Paul's School for letting this so-called hook up tradition go on - a tradition, he said, that encourages boys to be studs and the girls to be flattered by the attention.

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J.W. CARNEY: St. Paul's School failed the children with their attitude toward senior salute. The idea that you would wink at a tradition that senior salute represents is shocking.

SUTHERLAND: The victim's family agreed. Here is Laura Dunn, a victims' rights advocate who read a statement from the family after the verdict.

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LAURA DUNN: We trusted the school to protect her, and it failed us.

SUTHERLAND: St. Paul's would not comment for this story. In a statement at the start of the trial, the school said, the allegations made about our culture are not emblematic of our school or our values.

Emily Rothman is a professor at Boston University who studies sexual violence and adolescent health. Rothman says sexual assault isn't unique to St. Paul's.

EMILY ROTHMAN: About 10 years ago, there have been cases in the Bronx in New York, in Richmond, Calif. - I mean, across the nation, there have been high school rape cases. And, you know, I think it's high time that we really pay attention to prevention and what we know works in order to stop these cases.

SUTHERLAND: Under federal law, most schools are required to adhere to Title IX regulations on dealing with sexual assault. But the majority of private schools, like St. Paul's, don't receive federal funding, so that law doesn't apply. Joe McTighe of the Council for American Private Education argues this is a good thing.

JOE MCTIGHE: I think private schools are, in many ways, the most accountable schools in the country, in that they are directly accountable to parents. And if they don't deliver what parents expect of a school, parents take their students someplace else and the school closes down.

SUTHERLAND: But when it comes to teaching about sex in the classroom, Rothman at BU argues all high schools have their hands tied. She says they have to walk a fine line between what should be taught about sex in school and what should be left to the parents. Rothman hopes the discussion around this case will help schools improve their sex education policies. For NPR News, I'm Paige Sutherland in Concord, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.