Opinion

JOANNA WEISS

How to teach the Owen Labries

Defendant Owen Labrie, left, and his attorney J.M. Carney, in court in Concord, N.H., where Labrie is on trial for rape.

Geoff Forester/Associated Press

Defendant Owen Labrie, left, and his attorney J.M. Carney, in court in Concord, N.H., where Labrie is on trial for rape.

However things end in this riveting, disturbing, he-said-she-said rape trial involving St. Paul’s boarding school, one thing is clear: Two teenagers, half-dressed in a dark mechanical room, were wholly unprepared for the situation they were in.

She was 15, insecure, afraid to look “bitchy” when she wanted the encounter to stop. He was 18, playing a very old boys’ game of hormones and bragging and entitlement, unable to grasp that the ground rules have changed since “The Catcher in the Rye.”

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Thanks to dogged activism and increased compassion, the invincible, bragging boy isn’t always so invincible anymore. Dramas and traumas that used to play out in the shadows are increasingly in the public eye. The federal government is cracking down on how colleges handle sexual assault. As institutions compete for students — and cling to federal dollars — their public stances have changed. A tasteless “Freshman daughter drop off” banner, hung on a fraternity building in Virginia, was cause this week for harsh discipline and widespread condemnation.

But while we’re steeped in news about the dangerousness of boys, we’re surrounded by a culture that celebrates their conquests — in movies and music and, often, the hallways of their schools. As Owen Labrie’s defense attorney noted in closing arguments, St. Paul’s officials knew full well about the “Senior Salute,” a ritual of older boys seducing younger girls that may or may not have been mostly talk, but was destined to get out of hand.

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It’s not absolving Labrie of responsibility to imagine how those mixed messages might have played out in his 18-year-old mind.

And it’s not letting any single student off the hook to imagine that adults can do better.

“There has to be something that’s bigger and louder and more real than all of that misinformation,” said Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University. “And maybe what that’s going to be is actually sitting around and talking about it.”

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It’s not that institutions ignore sex ed or sexual assault. But often there’s something perfunctory about the way the information is delivered, from start to finish. Englander recently studied how college campus websites handle information about sexual assault — figuring that, these days, a rape victim would probably turn online for help. Most colleges, she found, simply link to a legal policy, with scant practical information about medical care or police procedures.

And while today’s college freshmen are bombarded with warnings, not all of that training is effective, said David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. Research shows that posters, videos, and one-day-only lectures aren’t nearly as helpful as role-playing exercises and programs that teach bystanders to step in.

And the earlier the training starts, the better, he said. Research suggests that kids are most vulnerable when they’re 14 or 15, like the girl in the Labrie case — relatively new in school,
low in status, unsure of who their allies truly are.

In the wake of the Labrie indictment, St. Paul’s has sprung into action, bringing in speakers and training programs, efforts to “enhance healthy relationships,” according to letters from the school rector to parents and alumni.

A good start, maybe, but too late — on many levels. Finkelhor says relationship training should start in middle school. Englander votes even earlier.

“I really think these conversations should begin in fourth grade,” she told me. “This is like the birds and the bees. This is a fact of life.”

How to handle rumors, texts, and propositions. How to effectively say “no” and navigate the meaning of “yes.” Imagine if those two teenagers in the St. Paul’s mechanical room had been talking out these issues for years. Would she have walked away unscathed? Would he have realized that his power, such as it was, came with a powerful asterisk?

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.

Related:

While we’re steeped in news about the dangerousness of boys, we’re surrounded by a culture that celebrates their conquests.

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Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified where the couple was located when the alleged rape occurred. They were in the mechanical room.

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