The First Step in Recovery from the St. Paul’s Rape Case: Changing the Language

In May 2014 at St. Paul’s School, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, a fifteen-year-old freshman girl accused senior Owen Labrie of sexually assaulting her. The encounter was part of the “Senior Salute,” a reported ‘tradition’ at St. Paul’s during which graduating seniors engage in a competition to target and kiss — or go farther with — younger students. A senior at St. Paul’s described, when asked about the Senior Salute in an anonymous interview with the Paper Tiger in September, that “the tradition had kind of stopped happening in the last couple of years. Owen was kind of holding on to that old culture. All the news says ‘oh, the senior salute is this age-old tradition,’ but it really only became part of St. Pauls’ students’ vocabulary six or seven years ago.” She continued, “but I’d say [the Senior Salute] is a thing that a lot of people did.” During the Spring of their freshman year, she and many of her friends were propositioned by seniors (who were eighteen and nineteen at the time) asking if they wanted to meet up and “make out.” Labrie had initially asked the girl to meet up over email, and the two flirtily exchanged emails and Facebook messages after the assault. According to the senior, it was common, before the Labrie case, for students to “proposition each other over email.” The vocabulary surrounding hookup culture, in addition to the Senior Salute, was unique to St. Paul’s. To say someone “hooked up,” the common term is “they scored,” or “he scored her.”

Owen Labrie was charged with felony sexual assault, misdemeanor sexual assault, endangering a child, and using a computer to solicit a minor under the age of sixteen. He plead guilty to all charges and claimed there was no sexual penetration: according to Aaron Cooper for CNN, Labrie told the court that “it wouldn’t have been a good move to have sex with this girl.” On August 21st, fourteen months after the reported incident, Labrie was acquitted of felony sexual assault charges and convicted of the misdemeanors of having sex with a minor and using a computer to proposition her. His sentence will be officially determined on October 29th, and could face up to seven years in jail on the computer proposition conviction. He is required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

St. Paul’s— a school that has produced congressmen, three Pulitzer prize winners, thirteen United States ambassadors, senators, lawyers, and a Nobel Prize winner — has been a target of negative media attention since May 2014. “The trial has been deeply painful for all of us in the St. Paul’s community, but especially for the young woman who has suffered through this nightmare,” read an email signed by Board of Trustees President and obtained by The Huffington Post. “People have said that their parents sent them to school with rape whistles” said the St. Paul’s senior, and “one of my best friends said that he was introducing himself to a freshman girl and she [seemed] afraid of him. He saw fear in her eyes when he said he was a senior.” The effects on the school are, of course, further affecting families of St. Paul’s students. The Paper Tiger’s student contact at the school also reported that “younger students have said, ‘I’m not scared, but my parents are scared something will happen to me.’ That’s definitely something that’s changed.”

St. Paul’s’ first step in mending the community? Trying to change the vocabulary and hookup culture in the teenage community they’re fostering. A letter from St. Paul’s to the alumni after the outcome of the trial was announced read: “sexual contact is now seen as the point of origin of many relationships, not a part of an emotionally developed relationship. These issues have highlighted some of the differences in educating students in the 21st century.” The casual hookup culture in the 21st century breeds potential situations such as that of Owen Labrie and his alleged victim: reported by Jamie Novogrod for MSNBC, Labrie claimed in his testimony that the two “had a passing, social relationship,” and the encounter was initially arranged via emails exchanged between the senior and the freshman. At St. Paul’s, and most high schools today, this type of relationship — and attitude towards it — is not uncommon. The accuser’s reaction— “I wanted to not cause a conflict,” she said, according to the NYTimes. “I felt like I was frozen” — was likely bred from both her lack of comfort (and lack of a relationship) with Labrie as well as the drastic age and power gap. The St. Paul’s senior addressed the school’s response to this issue: “Something that the school is really aware of now are power dynamics between the older and younger students, between boys and girls. It can have an affect on the way they talk to each other. We’re learning how to approach a problem with someone who might be in more of a position of power that you without putting them off or getting yourself into trouble. It was more tailored to that rather than the case itself,
we’re trying to improve the school’s culture and that was one way to do it.”

The school’s letter to the alumni continued in addressing the environment’s hookup culture vocabulary: “Many terms, including “senior salute” and “score” that are part of the student vernacular, have been discussed as part of the trial. These terms, and the behaviors they suggest, have and will continue to be addressed by the School community.” The St. Paul’s senior commented on the terms as well — the administration is working towards a reshaping of the culture, but the students are also invested in the change. “We’re working a lot on the vocabulary that we use surrounding relationships. People used to say ‘I scored her,” or “I scored him,” and now we’re kind of trying to move away from that and more towards healthy relationships. I think there’s definitely a culture change in the way older students and younger students interact. In the dorms, especially, we’re really careful with the younger students, to not use the word ‘score’ and to not talk about casual hookups, and to not address that part of the culture to them even though they do know it exists.” When she was asked about the term by a younger girl in her dorm, she responded “actually, we’re not going to partake in that part of the culture anymore.”

A community that values relationships and serious language referencing hookups is a community moving away from cases such as that of Owen Labrie. As St. Paul’s reshapes policies and fosters older students who will use this case to guide their conduct, it gives the school the tools it needs to move forward. Changing the vocabulary and attitude towards sexual conduct, St. Paul’s maintained a space to reflect upon, rather than ignore, the atrocity that befell it last May. Said the senior, “as soon as we got here [this Fall], the school was like, ‘let’s address the elephant in the room, we’re going to talk about this for as long as it takes.”

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About Zoe Harris

Zoe Harris, a senior, is celebrating her third year as co-managing editor of the Hyphen and as a reporter for the Paper Tiger. She is a leader of the literary magazine club, Lit Mag, and has written far too many weird poems. Zoe loves writing by Junot Díaz, David Sedaris, Mary Oliver, and Richard Siken, and the Harry Potter character she most closely identifies with is Luna Lovegood. She loves the Hyphen dearly and hopes readers do, too.

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