The Eyes and Ears of Boarding School

By Elena Levin, Brown University, Class of 2022

In my first creative writing course as a freshman in college, I decided to write my final short story about sexual misconduct on a boarding school campus, exploring a world that I had become very familiar with during my four years attending a New England prep school. The main character, a freshman girl, is abused by her male math teacher who also served as her dorm adviser. When receiving feedback, I was taken aback by my classmate’s responses, surprised by their critiques. Their concerns were mainly rooted in disbelief around boarding school culture. My classmates questioned some of the details such as a male teacher living in a girl’s dorm, the jammed-packed schedule, and stringent rules, believing my depiction of boarding school to be exaggerated and completely fictionalized. They could not wrap their heads around the details in the story that were based on my personal experiences and observations: the lack of support from the administration, the rampant hookup culture, and most of all the inappropriate relationships between students and teachers. My classmates’ feedback and observations triggered something in me, drawing me down a rabbit hole of self-reflection.   

At 14, the people who were in charge of my safety shifted from my parents to my school’s administration. The vast manicured campus of my high school had the appearance of a college and the expectations the school has for its students are often that of a college student. What comes with going to boarding school is an accelerated transition into adulthood. When I arrived at college I was surprised by the way in some areas I felt over-prepared, but in others, I lacked important skills that seemed to come easily to my classmates. We were trained well in time management and leadership skills, setting us up for academic success in college. However, understanding and witnessing healthy romantic and sexual relationships and learning to trust the administration to have the student body’s best interest in mind were not part of my high school experience. While adults were ever-present on campus, there were many ways in which the faculty and staff left us without proper emotional support and resources to thrive in our future endeavors, leaving me feeling unseen and ill-equipped when I entered a college social environment. 

Hookup Culture

On a co-ed high school campus filled with overscheduled teens experiencing high levels of hormones and stress, students will ultimately find ways to let off steam, either in healthy ways, channeling stress into sports or the arts, or through unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, skipping commitments, or sexual deviancy. Attending a preparatory school, early on it became clear that our purpose at the school was to get into an “acceptable” college. This meant I had to spend my time wisely doing homework, excelling at my sport, and gaining leadership positions to put on my resume. The pressure increased as college application deadlines approached. With this extreme pressure, it is not surprising that each year a handful of students went on medical leave for mental health reasons, transferred schools, or were asked to leave campus for breaking the rules. 

The hookup culture that existed at my boarding school, despite the rules and risk of punishment, was ever-present and at the core of the social hierarchy. At the top were upperclassmen, mainly male athletes, often affluent and with family legacy at the school. Female students had to obtain attention from someone at the top in order to be deemed socially relevant. While for male students their sport was what often defined their social worth, there were many more social and physical expectations for girls. To receive the attention of the boys at the top, girls had to dress a certain way, never repeat an outfit, and have connections with male and female upperclassmen. Money is at the root of all of these expectations. Excelling at a sport often requires equipment, participating in travel teams, and private coaching. Dressing well required having the trendiest clothes, often designer brands. Having connections with older students meant that there was most often a previous connection to the school, whether through a sibling or friend. These connections were indicators of a family tie to the school which often comes with privilege through family donations and the ability to pay for years of tuition. As a result, it felt like the social hierarchy was determined before the first time I even stepped on campus, and I immediately felt as though I was playing catch up in order to be integrated into the social scene.   

It must also be noted that there was a lack of representation and resources provided to LGBTQ students, which made heterosexual relationships the norm.  All rules were based on heterosexual assumptions. The way that the school day was structured, only 30 minutes were given to students to interact with opposite-sex students in a non-academic setting. The time limits created pressure to engage in the hookup culture during the specified times, creating a sense of urgency in sexual activity which is a recipe for transactional sexual behavior. LGBTQ couples were able to interact freely with one another as long as the administration was not aware. The absence of clear policies provided LGBTQ couples with more freedom to explore those relationships but came with a tendency to hide to prevent the school from becoming involved which may have led students to hide or suppress who they truly are. The focus on heterosexual couples may have put LGBTQ students at risk with the lack of clear procedures and institutional support. 

The way things were written in the school’s handbook, it appeared that the school thought all private interactions were inherently sexual. While there were a few locations that permitted male and female students to interact, such as the dining hall and student activities center, these locations came with a lack of privacy that is often necessary to form meaningful and healthy relationships. In order to visit one another’s dorm room, heterosexual couples would have to receive approval from an on-duty dorm adviser, and were required to keep their dorm room door open and have three feet on the floor at all times. Dorm advisors would periodically check in on students to ensure that no inappropriate behaviors were occurring. Students were put in an uncomfortable position having to ask for permission as the advisor on duty could very well be their teacher or coach. The process of requesting permission ultimately required that teachers involve themselves in the student’s social life and, consequently, to have an opinion on the relationship by either approving or rejecting a visitation request. As the faculty fills the parental role, this process blurs the line between faculty and students in a way that does not happen at day schools. By involving the faculty in the student’s social decision-making, it’s not surprising that many students broke these rules to prevent the school from getting involved. The tendency to sneak around in this sense is not specific to boarding school culture but becomes more complex when teachers are acting as the authority figure in and out of the classroom. 

Although sex was decriminalized my junior year in the student handbook, the rules to prevent sexual activity were still in place. This meant that students were punished for breaking visitation rules rather than the sexual activity itself. These rules were created to keep students from “fooling around” in school buildings and naturally, students had to get creative to get around this rule. Unfortunately, the rules that were in place to prevent sexual misconduct and sexual activity on campus put students in unsafe situations where they were not only sneaking around the rules but isolating themselves in places where they couldn't be caught. In occurrences of sexual misconduct, students may have avoided reporting incidents and utilizing the existing resources since early on we were taught, breaking rules will prevent you from getting into a good college.

Indoctrination 

I remember my first night freshman year of high school, listening to girls describe their plans to hook up with junior boys on the hockey and lacrosse teams. They planned on going for a “walk” around campus, which I quickly learned meant sneaking to a dark corner of campus to hook up. The pressure to engage in the hookup culture was intense from all angles. Mealtime conversations were often centered around the previous night’s hookups discussed or debunked. Many of these conversations were focused on how far the female student was willing to go to please the male. The “further” women were willing to go, the more social capital they received. I watched female students climb the social ladder seemingly overnight after hooking up with the “right people” and doing the “right things.” 

I was even was given unsolicited advice from a sophomore dorm-mate who told me that if I wanted a boyfriend I would have to perform oral sex. This ultimately created a power dynamic between the male and female-identifying students placing male pleasure above female needs. I was taught that a successful sexual encounter in the eyes of my peers would have to leave the male satisfied. The rules in place to protect students ultimately taught me that interactions with the opposite sex have a time limit and ultimately made sexual activity transactional and a form of rebellion. This combined with the social pressure to engage in the hookup culture created an unhealthy pressure to engage and, for many, also a fear of engaging.

It is essential for school leaders to understand that early on students are indoctrinated into this hookup culture and begin to develop a foundation for their intimate relationships in adulthood. During adolescence, social experiences and sexual exploration are a significant and healthy part of the developmental process. Teaching students that sex is unacceptable and will derail their future is an unhealthy lesson that many students will carry with them after graduation. In my experience, this detrimental relationship with sexual behavior led me to believe that the rules and culture that existed at my high school would be the same in college. I never had the opportunity to unlearn what my high school had taught me, which I now can see led me down a dangerous path when I got to college. I carried the belief that my social worth was dependent on not only sex but also who my peers would deem an acceptable mate. It was ingrained in me that my self-worth was directly tied to external validation from men. It made me believe that in order to be accepted by my peers, sometimes I would have to do things I may not want to or be ready for. This left very little space for me to account for my own needs, desires, and sexual identity. 

Realizing I received little to no official sexual education during high school compared to some of my college classmates was a disturbing revelation. Although during sophomore year, we were required to take “Sophomore Seminar,” which was meant to serve the same purpose as a traditional sex-ed course, my section occurred during a massive lice outbreak, and our instructor was forced to cancel our section multiple times. The sections that we did have included us watching clips of college students dying from alcohol poisoning and playing a bowling game about STD names and symptoms. Not once did we discuss safe sex practices or what a healthy relationship looks like. In fact, going into college, the only “sex talk” I received was in middle school, and it focused solely on female menstruation and male pleasure. This gap in our curriculum, combined with the toxic hetero-normative hookup culture, created an unsafe school environment that was only perpetuated by the administration. The school’s active avoidance in engaging the student body in these important conversations created a disconnect between the students and adults who were supposedly there to keep us safe and have our best interest in mind.

I believe that these unhealthy perceptions of sex that were embedded in my mind by my high school’s hookup culture put me at risk. I was assaulted my sophomore year of college by a male varsity athlete. While I know I was not at fault, I can’t help but question how I ended up in that situation and what role my high school experiences played in leading me to that point. While my college gives students information on how to take action against perpetrators, there is still room for improvement. I was encouraged by the Title IX office to informally report the assault because of the nature of the incident. Taking the informal route, the office contacted my perpetrator requesting that he come into the office to discuss the incident and have a conversation about consent. When he didn’t respond to Title IX, I was left without support. No faculty member reached out or followed up with me following the initial report. It is unsettling to know that my perpetrator continues to walk free, without receiving any knowledge of why what he did was wrong or any education to prevent him from doing what he did to me to someone else. While it’s the student’s choice to take action against their perpetrator, it’s the school’s obligation to maintain contact and follow up with students who may not take formal legal action. Although I took action against my perpetrator, many students do not have the tools to do so. I believe that my experience as a peer educator, consent educator, and prefect in a freshman dorm during high school, is what allowed me to understand the importance of speaking up when misconduct occurs. It is important to note, though, that I sought out these opportunities: my experience should not be taken as the norm. 

The School’s Role and Reactions 

During my 10th grade year, word got around that multiple women came forward to report a junior male track star who assaulted each one of them on different occasions. This moment should have been a sign to the school that reform was needed. The administration failed to see this as an opportunity for the student body to be educated on consent, safe sex behaviors, and available emotional and legal resources. Since the majority of the student body seemed to know about what occurred, mainly because the perpetrator posted on social media defending himself against the allegations, we were all waiting for our headmaster or dean of students to speak up during this tumultuous time; however, they never did. School meeting after school meeting we waited for someone, any familiar adult, to provide us with clarity and support. Many students took the perpetrator’s side and doubted the women who came forward, feeding the women’s pain and creating a culture unsafe for victims and survivors. As a result of the social hierarchy where male athletes lived at the top, the perpetrator’s point of view was prioritized in the conversation about the incident and perpetuated the culture of placing male students’ needs and long-term success above the females. It was the school’s responsibility to gauge the campus conversation and work to fill the knowledge gaps that were reinforcing victim-blaming and toxic relationships.

Instead of the administration using its voice and power to gain the student’s trust and educate us, they responded by bringing a play on campus that dealt with issues of sexual assault and victim-blaming. Many of the students found the play powerful and educational, but many did not take it seriously. If the administration had shared their thoughts and given the student body a clear sense of the school’s position and expectations around these topics, the play may have had its desired effect. Because the administration remained mostly silent, avoiding these conversations and teaching moments with the student body, our needs and safety were overlooked.

The following year, I observed students making efforts to reform the school’s culture only to be shut down by the administration. Junior year, a group of female students in my class created a student-run organization that educated students on sexual misconduct, consent, and the school’s resources - a clear reaction to the lack of leadership from the administration who avoided these topics, at the expense of the students. These amazing women approached the Dean of Students to receive approval for the organization. The Dean rejected their pitch multiple times claiming “it wasn’t the right time.” It wasn’t until the fall of my senior year, right before the 2016 Boston Globe Article was released, that their efforts were accepted by the administration and the organization was approved. Why did it take so long to receive approval from the school? The students were able to see the need for education around safe-sex practices while the administration turned a blind eye. This sent a message to me and other students who wanted to be involved in educating the student body on prevention and intervention on this topic, that our safety was not a priority.  

My high school missed many opportunities to educate me and my peers in important relationship skills that would have set me up for social and emotional success in and out of college. When I arrived at college, the freedom to interact with members of the opposite sex, and even share a bathroom with them, came as a shock to my system. After years of being monitored and fearful of punishment, the independence that came with going to college was a blessing and a curse. Learning to live without constant supervision is a difficult transition for any adolescent, and for me, it was as if I had broken the chains that tied me to my high school’s rules, but I continued to be weighed down by the social expectations that had been ingrained in me for four years. I am forever grateful for the opportunities that my high school provided me which allowed me to develop interests and interpersonal skills that set me apart from my peers; however, as I enter my senior year of undergrad, I am still doing damage control when it comes to my self-worth and understanding my womanhood outside the context of my high school’s toxic hetero-normative hookup culture.  

Solutions 

It is essential that administrators at the high school and college level take into consideration not only the prevalence of sexual misconduct but also the campus culture that feeds these behaviors. I believe that the students at boarding schools are the only members of the community that truly know what’s going on, especially when it comes to the hookup culture since engaging in those behaviors is often against school rules and hidden from the faculty and staff. The neglect on the part of the administration to address these issues with the student body despite their knowledge of the culture and the student’s concerns is unacceptable and damaging to students during their formative years. 

On the high school level, school leaders should clearly lay out the resources available to students and teach them about healthy relationships. All students should also receive comprehensive sex and consent education, focused on preventing sexual assault and understanding the resources available to students. By placing focus on education and prevention, teaching students respect and compassion, the campus culture will improve over time. I was lucky that my peers in high school took action and started the conversation, expressing the importance of reporting misconduct, which led me to my university’s Title IX office in my time of need. 

On both the high school and college level, it is essential that all schools acknowledge that in order to change their culture, prevention must be prioritized equally, if not more, than intervention. These preventative measures will teach students the skills to engage in healthy and safe sexual activity, and if misconduct occurs, they will be able to note inappropriate behaviors in reference to their understanding of what is right and wrong.  This will hopefully lead them to the appropriate resources in times of need.

Conclusion 

During my time at boarding school, I saw improvements from year to year as more student groups seemed to pop up around helping individuals with issues related to sexual safety. Many, if not all, of these efforts, were student-driven. It seems that during my time at boarding school, the students were ahead of their teachers knowing the true climate of the school and seeing the gaps in education, and filling those with clubs and community conversations. The students are the eyes and ears of campus culture since they are the people experiencing the school firsthand. It is the responsibility of the faculty and staff to prioritize the needs of the students as they are in loco parentis. Making sure that students are mentally and physically healthy should be a priority of the faculty and staff when our parents are not present to check in with us daily. Dorm advisers, coaches, teachers, and administrators should work to get to know the student in a healthy way. Teachers, coaches, and advisors should work to identify where each student needs emotional and academic support, and lead them to the proper resources to succeed. This effort requires the school to have a comprehensive knowledge of the campus climate and culture to identify and assess threats to students’ emotional and physical wellbeing. 

It is important to create a culture of trust between the students and the administration, rather than one of fear. Too often in my experience, students took action that would have improved the state of the school, but they were shut down by administrators. It is easy for the school to brush off students in times of need by mislabeling mental health issues, avoiding tricky conversations, or blaming timing. In order to empower and prepare students to take on life post-grad, the students need to be and feel heard and obtain the necessary skills to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally. The students are the school’s most valuable resource for community improvement and should be seen as such in order to create a culture of trust and respect. 

Disclaimer: 

​​The views and opinions expressed through this blog are solely those of the original author. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Learning Courage staff and/or any/all contributors to this site.

The Board's Role in a Sexual Misconduct Investigation

By Lisa Donohue, Board President, Milton Academy

In 2016, my second year as board chair at Milton Academy (MA), we launched a sexual misconduct investigation. There was no manual to guide us through that journey. There was no resource to answer our questions and help ensure that we were taking the right approach. And there wasn’t a resource about what to expect and, more important, how to deal with the unexpected. Through the process, however, I learned that the board and the board chair play a critical role in ensuring realistic goals are established and achieved. 

The board’s role is one of governance—upholding the mission and serving as fiduciaries of the school, thinking long range and strategically. This is distinctly different than the head’s and administrators’ responsibilities of handling the day-to-day operations. However, in times of crisis, the board and the administration may work more symbiotically, and the board and board chair may assume a more direct role. This ensures that boards understand the details of the situation, can accurately assess and authorize necessary resources, and provide informed guidance to the head and administration and respond nimbly to changing circumstances. 

The board’s role is complex, as it combines compassion with fiduciary responsibilities. One cannot overshadow the other but must be linked in driving the best response. Fiduciary responsibilities are a board’s natural remit, and while extending compassion is a less obvious task, listening to those reporting harm and understanding their experiences is critical. It may appear counterintuitive that being compassionate is the best way to protect the interests of the institution, but this has been my experience, and I believe it is morally necessary and fiscally appropriate. 

CRITICAL BOARD WORK 

Adopt a survivor/victim first approach. There are both victims and survivors of sexual abuse. “Victim” is often used when someone has recently experienced sexual abuse, while “survivor” is used for someone who has gone through recovery. Either way, understand that each experience is unique and will personally relate to one of these terms. Follow their lead. Each survivor reconciles their experiences differently. At times, there will be tension between compassion and fiduciary responsibilities. Having a north star in this approach can help guide resolution of that tension. It is important to lead with helping those who have suffered harm. 

Don’t let fear drive your decisions. Particularly at the start, when a survivor first comes forward with stories of harm, the full landscape is usually unclear with much unknown. Fear often drives short term, risk-averse decision-making that can be detrimental to those reporting harm and can prevent learning that can drive needed change for the future. Don’t look to defend or explain the harm that happened. Instead, seek to understand so that you can ensure such harmful situations can’t happen again and that you can better fashion restorative measures. 

Ensure there is board chair–head of school alignment. While it might seem obvious, it is absolutely critical that the board chair and head of school are aligned from the start on process, resources, and communication. The head must operate with the support of the board and board chair and conversely must leverage the board and board chair in decision-making and resource allocation. 

Listen. It is important for survivors who are able to come forward to be heard, to be listened to in a way that makes them comfortable. It may be one-on-one or in a small group setting; it may be on campus or at a neutral location. The key is to let the survivor guide school leaders so that they feel comfortable and are able to share their story. Not everyone will be able to come forward, and that’s OK. But those who do need to be validated and commended for their courage. It is often difficult to listen to details of the misconduct and abuse, but it is so important for the survivor’s journey. 

Empathize. If you haven’t experienced sexual misconduct directly, you can’t begin to know what a survivor is going through—and it is not authentic to imply you do. But you can and need to be highly empathetic. Listen, acknowledge their pain, and, as necessary, apologize. The validation demonstrates and reinforces your survivor-centered approach. 

Form a committee with internal and external resources. One of the first action steps should be the formation of a committee with both internal and external resources and professionals. The board chair should work closely with the head of school to determine the specific composition of the committee, which generally should include expertise in sexual misconduct investigations, communications and crisis management, survivor advocacy, and legal guidance and representation. There are many different firms with expertise in these areas that is specific to secondary schools. It is critical in the situation assessment and decisionmaking processes to take into account the perspectives and advice in these different areas. 

Bring in experienced legal counsel. Having appropriate legal counsel is critical, not only in handling legal claims, potential lawsuits, and settlements, but also in the construction of the investigation. While many schools have legal counsel on retainer, it is wise to consider hiring additional counsel with expertise in key areas, such as settlements, mediation, and litigation of sexual misconduct and abuse. As with other external resources, there are law firms with expertise in this area. 

Provide support services. Offer professional help and access to survivor advocates to both the survivors and the institution’s community. This can include therapists or psychiatrists who have expertise dealing with sexual misconduct and abuse trauma. While some survivors will be well down their journey in dealing with abuse, others are just beginning and need expert help. 

Understand the importance of communication. The right communication, including frequency, tone, and transparency, is critical for all the key audiences, including survivors, alumni, current students and parents, faculty, and other community members. The board’s role here lies in reviewing communication in advance, providing feedback, and being knowledgeable and accessible for any stakeholders who may reach out. 

Conduct an investigation. As allegations are brought forward, it is critical to conduct an appropriate investigation, leveraging an experienced and reputable investigation firm. While difficult, it is important to understand the breadth and depth of any incidences and the failures of the past. A healing journey for the survivors first and foremost, but also for the institution, can only begin with this deep understanding. The work starts with finding the right firm with expertise in handling school investigations. Clarify with the investigation firm that you want them to remain independent in their work. From there, it is critical to think through additional parameters of an investigation. This includes everything from how to solicit responses, how to maintain confidentiality and legal privilege, whether to release a summary of the report or release the entire report, and the implications of any or all of these parameters on future legal proceedings. Last, it is important to recognize that the report can also have an impact or potentially play a role in a survivor’s journey. Boards may encounter accusations that are not corroborated or that are false. It is important that the investigation and investigator is able to corroborate allegations and that the requirements for corroboration are outlined at the start. False accusations, while incredibly rare, can have significant consequences for the accused. 

Maintain or build a close partnership with local authorities. It is critical to have strong working relationships with all the appropriate local authorities, including local police detectives, the Department of Child and Family Services, and the district attorney’s office, to name a few. Most likely the board itself will not have direct relationships with these authorities, but it should ensure that the institutional leadership is working in partnership with these groups for the safety of all children.

Hold insurance companies accountable. Insurance policies past and present need to be reviewed, particularly the insurance policy in place during sexual misconduct and abuse incidences. In older cases, an insurance “archeologist” may be needed to uncover the insurer and the policy applying at the time. Read all the fine print. Coverage becomes important for budgeting, legal assessments, and potential settlements of claims. Generally speaking, insurance companies will look to avoid paying out a claim or a settlement. Part of their avoidance strategy is to draw out discussions and be slow to respond. As such, it is best to engage the insurance companies at the start of the process and be very clear on application of the insurance policy and appropriate riders. Finally, the board should not shy away from being aggressive with any insurance company that is avoiding its contractual obligations. If you have difficulties with an insurer, consider engaging attorneys with a specialty in insurance coverage disputes. 

Update current reporting policies and procedures. While not directly responsible in its governance role, the board should ensure that the school’s administration applies learnings from every aspect of the process to update all current reporting policies and procedures. That includes working with the head and also with the director of human resources and the head of student life. It is critical to ensure an appropriate and safe environment for incidences to be reported and acted on. Policies and procedures should be updated as situations and learning warrant as well as on an annual basis. 

LEADING THE WAY 

At Milton, we didn’t have a playbook, but we learned along the way; we remained agile and made adjustments, and we listened to experts. We held steadfast to our survivor-centric approach. Since the investigation at Milton, we became founding members of an organization, Learning Courage, that helps school leaders reduce and respond to sexual misconduct in their schools. Learning Courage’s mantra of compassion, integrity, and clarity highlight what must be foundational to any board of trustees’ response to sexual misconduct and abuse allegations and an ensuing investigation. 

LISA DONOHUE, a 1983 graduate of Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts, is in her sixth year as board president and 12th year as a trustee at the school.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Independent School Magazine.