As news of a guilty verdict in the St. Paul’s School rape case spread from a small Concord courthouse by way of news websites, live broadcasts and social media, Kathleen Giles, then-head of a Massachusetts boarding school, took notice.
On that Friday in August 2015, a jury of nine men and three women found graduate Owen Labrie guilty of statutory rape and of using a computer to solicit sex from a 15-year-old freshman as part of the now-infamous “Senior Salute.” The verdict meant Labrie, then 19, would have to register as a sex offender for life, even though he was acquitted of the most serious felony sexual assault charges.
At the time, Giles, who was in her 12th year as head of Middlesex School, felt a sense of urgency to reach out to students and parents about what had unfolded at the New Hampshire boarding school, roughly 60 miles away.
“These issues are adult in their context and demand maturity that often even the smartest and most talented young people lack,” she wrote in her letter dated Aug. 31, 2015. “These events happen everywhere, not just at boarding schools, but in libraries, gyms, movie theaters, everywhere young people are together – whether in person or online via social media. It’s an important part of growing up to learn how to develop a respect for one’s self and for others that is stronger than whatever thrill beckons by whatever means, to learn how to build relationships that are based on respect and moral values and not on notoriety or popularity.”
Now in her first week as the 14th rector of St. Paul’s, Giles reflected on her letter and her decision to write it almost four years ago.
“To have this going on at a school that is a competitor school, a peer school and not say anything was not responsible,” Giles said during a sit-down interview at the Scudder House on St. Paul’s campus. “Communication like that is designed to show parents that we see it, we’re working on it and we’re happy to talk with you about it.
“Parents always need to know that we are paying attention to what’s going on in the world of kids, whether it’s our kids or other people’s kids,” she continued.
As head of St. Paul’s, Giles recognizes that she will face challenges but said she sees opportunities to better the school and create a safer and more comfortable learning environment for current and future students. She becomes the school’s first female rector at a time when the prep school continues to capture headlines for its handling of sexual assault and misconduct allegations, spanning decades.
“There has been a lot of learning that’s gone on and a lot of learning still ahead of us,” she said. “We’re eager to continue to grow and learn and give people what they need.
“The school’s reputation is only as good as the students’ experience,” she continued.
Giles, a native of Portland, Maine, was chosen to lead St. Paul’s following former rector Michael Hirschfeld’s decision to step down for personal reasons in early 2018. During this past school year, interim rector Amy Richards took the helm, leading the institution through a transitional year until Giles could assume the role on a more permanent basis.
Leaving Middlesex after 16 years, she begins her tenure at St. Paul’s at the start of a period of government oversight of the institution. A 14-month-long criminal probe into the school’s handling of sexual misconduct and assault allegations, both years ago and decades past, found evidence to support charges of child endangerment. However, in lieu of prosecution, the New Hampshire attorney general called for an independent overseer to monitor St. Paul’s and its compliance with mandatory reporting laws for up to five years.
Jeffrey Maher, a former Title IX coordinator at Keene State College and retired Nashua police captain, took on the job of overseer this past February. The settlement requires St. Paul’s to report alleged abuse of students to Maher who is available to respond as needed, 24 hours a day. Maher must ensure compliance with the agreement and issue a public report on a biannual basis.
Giles said Maher’s experience in investigating crimes of sexual assault and interpersonal violence as a police officer, in addition to his knowledge of Title IX laws will be of great benefit to St. Paul’s as it continues to work to educate staff and students about mandatory reporting responsibilities, healthy relationships and the resources available to victims. She said the school will continue to partner with local and national organizations as part of that process, including Campus Outreach Services and its development director, Katie Koestner, a survivor of sexual assault, who will address students.
“We know that it’s not enough to have a speaker come in once,” Giles said, noting that the conversations must continue so that students incorporate what they learn as a part of their daily lives. “Kids will make fun of it and kids will push back. But what I tell people is that we’re planting seeds.”
While technology can enhance learning, it’s also changed how students communicate with one another and how they see the world, Giles said. The job of today’s educators is to make “real life more compelling than screen life,” she said.
She acknowledged there is growing recognition about the hidden dangers of technology, particularly as it relates to instances of predatory behavior. She said the #MeToo movement has sparked conversations at schools and homes, both locally and around the country, and captured the attention of teenagers where they spend a majority of their time: online.
While students so often communicate with their peers through text and social media, the content of those conversations can sometimes raise concern, push boundaries and even violate state laws. Giles said educators need to be cognizant of that changing landscape and ready to respond.
The issue of online communication was at the forefront of Labrie’s case as his lawyers argued post-conviction that the computer-use statute had been misapplied. His trial team, led by high-profile Boston defender J.W. Carney, argued after the verdict that Labrie’s use of a computer fell outside the intent of the criminal statute, which they said was to target pedophiles using the internet in search of underage victims. Labrie, they countered, merely used his email and Facebook to schedule a date or “salute” with a fellow student who already knew him. However, the argument failed to sway the trial court or the New Hampshire Supreme Court on appeal and his conviction remains.
When Attorney General Gordon MacDonald announced the investigation into St. Paul’s in summer 2017, he cited the Labrie case in addition to the first of three written reports commissioned by the school that detailed student-faculty abuse as far back as 1948.
St. Paul’s hired Boston-based law firm Casner & Edwards to conduct an independent investigation in 2016 following news reports about Rev. Howard “Howdy” White, a former St. Paul’s teacher who was fired from St. George’s School in Rhode Island for sexual misconduct in 1974, later convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Since the law firm’s work began, attorneys have documented claims spanning six decades of the school’s history. A total of 67 victims of sexual abuse have come forward about inappropriate touching, sexually suggestive comments and rape committed by 20 named faculty and staff and more employees not identified. Victims, who remained anonymous in the reports, also went on to publicly sue St. Paul’s.
In her first days on the job, Giles said she foresees the difficult road ahead but is embracing the challenge with the goal of bettering the school and regaining lost trust. The disclosures of abuse that continue to surface have required the school to look inward, reevaluate and recommit to its mission, she said.
A service of repentance, held at the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul this past May, was an initial step in a long process toward healing, school officials said. At the outset, plans for the service were scrutinized by survivors and alumni; some felt it was too soon because the school was only beginning to confront its longstanding history of sexual assault and misconduct, and others said it was far too late because they disclosed abuse decades ago and were ignored.
Giles said Tuesday that the service was a step forward for the school, even if a highly criticized one, and that it was never intended to be an ending.
“I think in this area of survivorship there is not one right answer – there is not a formula, there is not a timeline and there is not a budget,” she said. “You can’t erase that kind of hurt, whether through a settlement or other means; it doesn’t go away. We have to figure out a way to reach people with a broad range of personal experiences.”
The school announced in summer 2018 new resources available to survivors of sexual abuse to include a victim therapy fund, as well as new partnerships with a New Hampshire-based independent victim advocate consultant and RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), which operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline and has a dedicated phone line for St. Paul’s. Those services continue to be available, Giles said.
“There is no timeline for people coming forward with their experiences,” she said. “You have to be ready to catch it whenever it comes – that’s a human commitment.”
(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at [email protected])