Obviously, pre-Ivy League prep schools such as St. Paul's in Concord, N.H., have their share of traditions. One of the buzz-worthy and truly distressing Washington Post stories of the week so far focused on the tradition of the "senior salute" at this elite campus, in which senior men compete to see who can sleep with as many younger girls as possible.
How elite? The Post report notes that a year on the 2,000-acre campus costs $55,000-plus and other media outlets put the figure at more than $60,000. Alumni include legions of executives, Pulitzer winners, three major candidates for the presidency, ambassadors, various members of Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry and legions of clergy, including a former Episcopal Church presiding bishop. Oh, and Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau.
The chapel is really beautiful, too, which is fitting for a school with a strong religious history. Hold that thought.
So what happened when senior Owen Labrie met with that 15-year-old girl in an attempt to add her name to his online "score" spreadsheet? Labrie insists that he did not sleep with her. Drawing on information from The Concord Monitor, the Associated Press, The Boston Globe and other sources, the Post noted:
According to the affidavit obtained by the Monitor, Labrie sent the freshman girl a “senior salute” e-mail asking her to “hook up” with him four days before graduation. She initially declined, but then agreed on the understanding that “hook up” referred to kissing. Two days later, on May 30, 2014, Labrie allegedly took the girl to the top of the school’s math and science building.
They kissed, then Labrie allegedly began to pull off her underwear. She resisted several times and twice told him “no,” according to the affidavit.
Labrie denies having sex, but the sexual-assault nurse at the local hospital claims otherwise. The media description of the critical encounter also includes a strange and fascinating statement:
According to the AP, he told police that the freshman girl had wanted to have sex, but he had a moment of “divine inspiration” and stopped.
Labrie said that he tried to encourage other students not to engage in “Senior Salute.” As a prefect in his dorm, he had received training in statutory rape laws and consensual sex.
Wait, what was that part about "divine inspiration"?
Is there a chance that this school is named "St. Paul's School" for a reason? And why is the head of the school called the "rector," thus making it significant that Labrie received the Rector's Award for "selfless devotion to school activities." Also, the name of school's current leader -- Rector Michael Hirschfeld -- rang a bell, for me.
Thus, I did what the Post team apparently did not do, which was dig into the school's religious roots.
Maybe that statement is not fair. Perhaps Post editors were aware that St. Paul's is part of the Episcopal Church establishment. Maybe they simply didn't think that the "divine intervention" in this case had anything to do with the content of a St. Paul's education or what happens in the campus chapel?
Oh, and I recognized the rector's name because he has a very famous relative. Rector Robert Hirschfeld is the brother of the current leader of the tiny, but highly symbolic, Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.
And there was this, from a 2013 story in The New Hampshire Union Leader:
Hirschfeld, 52, leads a diocese that counts 47 parishes, nine seasonal chapels and two boarding schools under its direct control -- White Mountain School and Holderness School. The most famous, St. Paul School, is not formally tied to the Diocese, although the Episcopal bishop holds the title of chaplain at the school. ...
Hirschfeld was born in Minnesota and grew up in Connecticut. He graduated from Dartmouth College, and has worked at parishes in New Haven and Storrs, Conn., and Amherst, Mass.
He is married to Polly Ingraham, who currently teaches English at a charter school in Fitchburg, Mass. They have three children, two who are in college and the third an eighth grader. His brother, Michael Hirschfeld, is the rector of St. Paul School.
In other words, St. Paul's became so rich and powerful that it separated from the church, while retaining the ties of heritage.
So what is my point here?
I am asking if it is strange that the word "Episcopal" does not appear in the Post story, in light of these institutional ties and the moral questions raised in the story. The Post reporting is -- this is strange in its own right -- heavily based on work by other newspapers. Note that the word "Episcopal" is quite common in other news coverage.
So, does a St. Paul's education retain any ties that bind it to its elite New England Christian past? What goes on in all of those weekday chapel services? And are other media correct in noting that Labrie is, or was, an "aspiring divinity student"? Why didn't the Post team mention that poignant fact?
So what is the moral culture of St. Paul's school, in this day and age?
That is also, in a way, the question that drove the Post story, only it does not appear that religion entered into that equation. Thus, the story ends like this:
When Labrie’s trial begins this week, prosecutors are expected to call several witnesses to testify about the sexual culture at St. Paul’s. ... One current student told the Globe that the school’s sexual culture was “really casual,” and that the “senior salute” was a way for graduating students to connect with classmates they’d always liked.
But in an e-mail to the Boston Globe, 2011 alumna Carolyn Forrester wrote that many details of the case seemed like “business as usual” for the campus culture.
“This incident felt both out of the blue and like it had been waiting to happen for a long time,” she wrote.
One more time: what was the content of the "divine inspiration" that Labrie claims stopped him from raping a 15-year-old student? Perhaps the trial will offer details worthy of inclusion in a Post report.
THUMBNAIL IMAGE: The chapel at St. Paul's School.