Are Schools Guilty in Sexual Assault Cases?

It is a sobering question to ask: Do schools—all schools—put kids in danger? Another terrifying news story of rape at school demonstrates the point. Because schools take authority over young people, because schools put young people together, because schools necessarily put students in close private contact with peers, coaches, and teachers, schools of all sorts become the arena for rape, assault, and abuse. No type of school seems immune, but each type of school has its own unique blend of dangerous cultural components.

Exception?  Or rule?

Exception? Or rule?

The story of Owen Labrie at the elite St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire proves that parents can’t buy themselves out of this dilemma. Labrie was accused of participating in a tradition of a “senior salute,” in which students target younger students for sexual conquests.

Before we look more closely at the Labrie case, though, we need to ask some uncomfortable questions:

  • Do all schools inadvertently support rape culture?
  • Is there no way to protect vulnerable young people?
  • Does the culture of school push administrators to downplay the sexual dangers of their institutions?

In recent years, I’ve been exploring the troubled history of evangelical colleges and universities. As we’ve explored in these pages, such schools have a history of sweeping cases of sexual assault under the rug. At some of the more conservative schools, loyalty to the administration has trumped care for victims of assault and abuse.

But such schools are not alone. Though I’ve been accused of ignorance and insensitivity for pointing this out, secular and pluralist colleges also have a terrible record of ignoring sexual crimes on their campuses.

What’s worse, these things are not incidental or accidental. The history and culture of these schools contributes directly to the atmosphere of sexual aggression. In some schools, for example, football coaches and players have been elevated to godlike status. They have been protected from punishment for terrible crimes. At other schools, administrators pointedly ignore an alcohol-soaked “party culture” that attracts students but leaves them woefully vulnerable to assault and abuse.

As the recent case at St. Paul’s School shows, even the fanciest private prep schools haven’t avoided this dilemma. Though the school has denied it, some involved parties have accused St. Paul’s of fostering a culture of entitlement, a culture of callous arrogance, which turned vulnerable students into sexual targets.

Both sides agree that Owen Labrie and a younger student met on a school rooftop. They engaged in some kissing at first. Then the sexual activity escalated. The victim accused Labrie of ignoring her repeated attempts to stop. Labrie denied that they had had vaginal intercourse and denied that the victim had said “no.” The jury seems to have split, acquitting Labrie of the most serious felony rape charges but convicting him of several counts of electronic predation.

Who is guilty here? The victim’s family charged that the school “allowed and fostered a toxic culture that left our daughter and other students at risk to sexual violence.” As the New York Times reported, even Labrie’s defense accused the school of creating “an educational haven with a troubling culture of sex, entitlement and misogyny.”

Is the school culpable? Even more troubling, we need to ask if schools in general are culpable. Elite schools create environments of entitlement. Football schools create environments of hero-worship. Fundamentalist schools create environments of victim-blaming. Secular schools created environments of drunken hook-ups.

All schools, it seems, have their own dangerous mix of cultural factors. It can’t be enough for school administrators to issue statements of remorse, if those same administrators have tacitly condoned the things that encouraged sexual assault and abuse in the first place.

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2 Comments

  1. Everyone lost in this one!

    Reply
  2. If this “tradition” was well-known and tolerated, then yes the school is responsible for playing an enabling role. This does no take away from the responsibility of the accused rapist if he is in fact guilty, and if he is found not guilty the school is still in the wrong.

    Reply

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