What Kind of School Abuses Its Students?

Depressing news: No matter how hard you try to insulate and protect your kids, you can’t rely on schools to help. From the fanciest prep schools to the firmest fundamentalist redoubts, no school is safe.

You may have seen the news. Recent self-investigations at elite prep schools have turned up sordid but depressingly unsurprising news. Institutions such as Andover and Choate looked the other way at sexual abuse of students by faculty members, even writing strong letters of recommendation so that abusers could move on to fertile new fields.

frederic lyman

Preying on the elite…

The New York Times reported recently, for example, that Frederic Lyman serially abused students at a string of fancy prep schools. When he was found out, he was asked to leave and given a glowing letter of recommendation.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sadly aware, evangelical schools have similar ugly histories. Institutions such as Bob Jones University have engaged in their own processes of self-examination and come up with some alarming results. Time after time, victims were blamed, abusers were enabled.

It forces us to ask the tough question: Why can’t schools protect students? After all, institutions such as Bob Jones University and Choate rely on their reputations as peculiarly protective places. BJU promises to keep students safe from any hint of liberalism. Choate promises to insulate students from any hint of the hoi polloi. Yet neither of them protect their students in this most basic way.

I’ve argued earlier in these pages that this is more than just a weird irony. Rather, it is precisely because of their peculiar status that these sorts of unusual schools cover up sexual abuse. After all, the pattern holds for other types of schools as well. It was not in spite of, but because of, their unique status as football powerhouses such as Penn State and Florida State covered up shocking sex-abuse revelations.

Perhaps it is due to the fact that niche schools have the most to lose—in terms of their all-important reputations—that they have such terrible records when it comes to sexual abuse.

Why Do Schools Cover Up Rape?

Is it the “private” part? Or is it the “fundamentalist” part?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, we’ve gone back and forth in these pages about the troubled history of evangelical colleges and sexual assault. Leading fundamentalist institutions such as Bob Jones University have finally admitted to their own shocking denialism. At BJU and other fundamentalist schools, a cocktail of “purity-culture”-fueled attitudes and diehard loyalism fostered a legacy of abusive cover-ups.

As we see again today, though, fundamentalist schools are depressingly similar to non-fundamentalist schools when it comes to institutional cover-ups. Plenty of closed-mouth schools relegate the suffering of sexually abused students to secondary status.

In the New York Times, Alan Feuer relates the charges against Choate. Choate Rosemary Hall is an uber-elite boarding school in Connecticut. As Feuer reports, decades of student complaints about abusive teachers were hushed up. Predatory teachers were transferred or disciplined, but never reported or arrested.

choate

Idyllic? …or menacing?

It’s not that students didn’t complain. One student contracted herpes from her teacher. The school allowed the teacher to finish out the school year, then the teacher transferred to a different private school in Colorado. Another student was coerced into having sex with a teacher by threats of bad grades and bad college recommendation letters.

In one case, according to the outside report released last week, a student who accused his former faculty advisor was told that the situation was complicated. After all, grateful alumni had just donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to honor the teacher. Had the teacher been sexually aggressive with students? Maybe, the school’s alumni director wrote, but “his teaching did reach a lot of kids since 1944, and I’d rather let it go at that.”

The problem, it seems, ranges far beyond the insular world of fundamentalist schools. As Yvonne Abraham noted in the Boston Globe, “you have to wonder how parents could ever again entrust their children to this school — or any boarding school.” She repeats the central question from attorney Roderick MacLeish: “Do these schools have the moral authority to continue to exist?”

Of course, the details of every nauseating case are different. Catholic schools suffer from their antiquated celibacy rules for clergy and their ingrained institutional denialism. Football schools suffer from their anything-for-the-win tradition of hero worship. Private academies like Choate suffer from their addiction to alumni loyalty. And fundamentalist schools suffer from their slanted gender assumptions and us-against-them mindset.

The depressing truth, though, is that when it comes to sexual abuse, fundamentalist schools are more similar to than different from the rest of the school universe. Institutional loyalty trumps care of students. Complainers are hushed up. Abusers are talked to, not punished.

The problem is more deeply ingrained than any of us want to acknowledge. It lies at the heart of the way schools work. In addition to teaching and caring for students, schools have to control them in a variety of ways. Once students are in that kind of situation, the possibilities for abuse will always surface. From fundamentalism to football to financial contributions, schools have always had plenty of reasons to hush up allegations of sexual abuse.

Why do schools cover up rape? Two reasons. First, schools rely on taking power and authority away from students. If every student were allowed to accuse every teacher, the authority structure of schools would collapse. And second, schools are at heart self-perpetuating institutions. Like most institutions, they will tend to protect themselves first and their students later.

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.

Investigative Report: Sex Abuse at Fundamentalist U

HT: DW

Are fundamentalist universities guilty of encouraging sex abuse? Does “purity culture” encourage predators? Does the environment at fundamentalist universities force victims, at best, to suffer in silence and shame?

We don’t have all the answers, but the GRACE report of sex abuse at Bob Jones University offers a few clues. Short answer: BJU is guilty of establishing an idiosyncratic administration and campus culture that punished victims and rewarded loyalty over caring and competence.

I’ve taken some heat in the past for wondering if fundamentalist universities had been targeted unfairly on this subject. Certainly, fundamentalist schools have done a terrible job in handling sexual assault and abuse. But so have secular and liberal schools. Wasn’t it possible, I asked, that the no-drinking, no-partying culture at fundamentalist colleges helped deter some cases of assault? Given the large number of alcohol-fueled assault cases recently, I still think these are fair questions.

In spite of such questions, however, the recent GRACE report paints a damning picture of Bob Jones University. I’ll repeat: I do not think it is fair to assume that conservative schools will somehow automatically do a worse job of handling abuse and assault cases than other schools. However, the GRACE report points to systemic problems at BJU that are likely shared by smaller, less prestigious fundamentalist colleges and schools.

As I see it, BJU has failed in two significant ways. First, it has insisted on a climate in which student complaints of any kind were viewed as a moral failing for the complainer. Second, since the 1930s BJU has maintained a policy of rewarding staff loyalty over any other concern. As a result, leading administrators were woefully—perhaps even criminally—incompetent to deal with student victims of sexual abuse and assault.

I do not make these charges lightly. Nor do I have any personal animus toward BJU or other fundamentalist colleges. But the record is clear.

First, some brief facts of the case. Two years ago, administrators at BJU commissioned an outside study of their response to abuse claims. In itself, this sort of outside examination made a clear break with BJU tradition. The assembled commission, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or GRACE, recently published its findings. BJU’s current leader, Steven Pettit, has apologized for any suffering the university has caused or ignored.

That is a start. The university, in my opinion, has two main faults for which it needs to apologize.

First, the leaders of the school have insisted for decades on one cardinal rule: No “griping.” Students who complain have been consistently treated as disloyal, or at least suspicious. For example, in one statement made by the founder, Bob Jones Sr., on June 19, 1953, Jones advised the BJU community of the first rule: “Griping not tolerated, but constructive suggestions appreciated.”

In practice, the culture at BJU has promoted a suffer-in-silence mentality.

Second, and perhaps more problematic, hiring and promotion practices at BJU have encouraged loyalty above all other factors, including competence. In cases of abuse and assault, this has led to terrible consequences. As the GRACE report documents, administrator Jim Berg handled many abuse reports since 1981. Time after time, Berg demonstrated his lack of preparation. For a while, Berg was unaware of South Carolina’s mandatory-reporting law.

The blame here belongs to more than Berg alone. Berg’s leadership role was the product of an institutional culture that valued loyalty first. Berg’s decisions and professional intuitions were the product of a culture that saw itself as removed from all obligations to the outside world.

The evidence for this loyalty-first culture is abundant. In the same 1953 statement referred to above, Bob Jones Sr. warned faculty that he had an obligation to fire anyone “who is not loyal.” This statement came in the wake of mass resignations at the school in 1952 and 1953.

That was not the only time the school’s leaders made their emphasis on loyalty clear. In 1936, just before another group firing, Bob Jones Sr. warned one faculty member,

First: There must be absolute loyalty to the administration. If something happens in the administration which you do not like, your protest is your resignation. If you stay here you must not under any circumstances criticise [sic] the administration.

The results of such a sustained policy are clear. Those who remained in leadership positions at BJU were rewarded for loyalty first, competence second. In the case of student abuse and assault, such an emphasis left students in the hands of utterly unprepared administrators.

All schools—all institutions—can suffer from incompetence, of course, but the BJU policy of loyalty-first intentionally undervalued professional competence.

It bears repeating that BJU’s current leader has apologized for these faults. As he put it,

I would like to sincerely and humbly apologize to those who felt they did not receive from us genuine love, compassion, understanding and support after suffering sexual abuse or assault …To them I would say—we have carefully listened to your voice. We take your testimony in this report to our hearts. We intend to thoroughly review every aspect and concern outlined in the investigation and respond appropriately.

And, sadly, we must remember that fundamentalist institutions are by no means alone in establishing and protecting cultures of abuse. Other religious groups, such as the Catholic Church, and other colleges, such as Penn State University, have similarly criminal histories.

As it might at those institutions, perhaps the future at BJU and other fundamentalist universities will be brighter than the past.

Lesbian, Feminist . . . Christian?

Student demonstrations aren’t big news.  But recently evangelical Christian students at evangelical flagship Wheaton College came out to agitate for, well, for coming out.

Student Demonstration at Wheaton

Student Demonstration at Wheaton

Wheaton College had invited Rosaria Champagne Butterfield to give a chapel talk.  Students protested that Butterfield’s message, her “train-wreck conversion” story, promoted damaging messages about homosexuality and Christian faith.

Butterfield attracted attention last year with her conversion story in the pages of Christianity Today.  As she told the story, she was a happy, moral, engaged citizen who happened to be a lesbian.  In her earlier career as a feminist academic, she pitied and pilloried evangelical Christianity for its anti-woman, anti-homosexual attitudes.  But after engaging with a local evangelical pastor and his family, Butterfield felt herself drawn to the faith.  She felt herself drawn to Biblical truths, to promising obedience before asking for understanding.  She fought against this conversion.  As she put it,

But the Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world. I fought against it with all my might. Then, one Sunday morning, I rose from the bed of my lesbian lover, and an hour later sat in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church.

As we’ve seen in these pages, the tangled mess of morality, sexuality, and Christianity has caused heartache and abuse, and college campuses often become the stage on which these questions find themselves played out.  Last month, Butterfield’s chapel talk at Wheaton College became the focus of a silent student demonstration.  Christian students at the evangelical school wanted the world to know that Christianity did not require “healing” from homosexuality.  Student Justin Massey told the student newspaper,

We feared that if no conversation was added to the single message of the speaker that students who are not very well informed were going to walk into chapel, hear the message, and have misconceptions confirmed or that students who are LGBT would be told that this story is the absolute way that things happen.

After the chapel talk, Butterfield met with student demonstrators.  The student newspaper published a short interview.  Butterfield explained that she was a feminist on issues such as equal pay for equal work, but that feminism as a “worldview” did not work.  She insisted that she viewed sexuality through a Biblical lens, one that condemned both homosexuality and homophobia as sins.

Students disagreed.  They thought Butterfield misinterpreted the Bible, and that her attitude gave a pass to the sorts of patriarchal sexual abuse cases that we’ve discussed in these pages.

For those of us outside the world of evangelical Christianity, the discussion was illuminating.  First of all, we see how both sides of the issue use the Bible to buttress their arguments.  Students at Wheaton did not lambaste Butterfield for making arguments based on an ancient book.  Rather, they insisted that Butterfield relied on bad interpretations of that text.  Also, we see, as the student protesters insisted, that there is “more than a single story” about sexuality in evangelical higher education.  Some of us were surprised recently to find that Christian professors do not universally condemn homosexual students.  Many of us, like Dr. Butterfield in her earlier life, assume that homosexuality is something on which evangelical Christians agree.  This story shows us the true complexity of sexuality in evangelical thinking.