Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual harassment and assault.
When you think of a boarding school, you may first think of prestige. Affluence. Status. You may not think of the safety risks this type of residential education poses to its students.
First, let's ask: What can a boarding school represent to a prospective student?
Well, looking northward, to the Phillips Andovers and Exeters and whatnot, money – specifically old money – is immediately what comes to mind. Boarding schools in the Northeast have a rich tradition of ferrying the next generation of the American elite to the upper echelons of academia, boasting alumni such as Mark Zuckerburg and both George Bushes. These ivy graduates are expected to pay upwards of $60,000 annually for their education.
There also exists a newer, less overtly blue-blooded, class of boarding school. This sort of school can be generally described as government-funded pseudo-pre-collegiate magnet programs. The N.C. School of Science and Math, for example, attracts students from across the state for its two-year residential education program.
UNC students may be more familiar with students from this type of boarding school – NCSSM sent 321 students to UNC between 2019 to 2021.
While students aren’t expected to pay tuition in order to attend NCSSM, a hefty sum is still required to educate them. The state government pays an estimated $54,000 per student over the course of their time at the school.
When it comes to matters involving money and education, an inviolable positive correlation emerges: with more money comes more opportunities. This concept holds true for most boarding schools. In 2018, Phillips Andover Academy sent almost 35 percent of its graduates to Ivy League Schools, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, MIT or the University of Chicago. NCSSM offers its graduates guaranteed acceptance and free tuition for any public university in North Carolina. For most of the population, matriculation into a boarding school as a teenager is an excellent means of social mobility. That is to say, money plays a big role in deciding whether to attend boarding school.
However, the economic considerations, both the financial constraints and opportunities that materialize from choosing to attend a boarding school, can often distract students from a consideration that is arguably much more important: their safety.
Because most attendees of boarding schools are minors, statistics surrounding sexual misconduct on boarding school campuses are difficult to find. That doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist, though.
Far from it.
“Try having someone hurt you, and then have to look at them every day,” Ly Lentz, a former student at NCSSM, said. Unfortunately, this is the reality that many young women face while attending residential schools.
On May 3, NCSSM students held a walk-out in support of the sexual assault survivors amongst their peers. At the event, one student told a reporter with The Daily Tar Heel that she knew six people in her hall alone who were sexually assaulted while attending the school. There are 10 female residence halls at NCSSM.
Lentz, who was a lead organizer for the walk-out, commented on how difficult it is for survivors of sexual assault to continue attending NCSSM and other boarding schools alike.
“There’s no way out... You are living in the same place you learn," she said. "You quite literally cannot get further away than, like, 500 feet away from somebody who may have assaulted you or threatened you. It’s really hard to get help because as you’re trying to get help, you are still living in an environment where you are so close to that person.”
Sexual violence from other students isn’t the only concern, though. Szczesny Kaminski, a 61-year-old former math teacher at Phillips Exeter, was charged with aggravated sexual assault against a female student earlier this year.
A former Exeter student and writer for the student newspaper who wished to remain anonymous spoke to us about the Kaminski case.
“(Kaminski) was generally a beloved teacher before, and honestly it took the community by surprise," they said. "I think there was also a lot of anger."
One of the most startling realizations for them was, "If that happened, how many other cases are there that we don’t know about?”
At both schools, there was a fervent outcry from students surrounding their respective recent cases of sexual assault. Over 300 students attended the NCSSM walk-out. At Exeter, students founded an organization named Exonians Against Sexual Assault. And yet, the administration at both schools seemed complicit on the matters.
Smith mentioned that at Exeter “There was a large percentage of students, alumni and parents who feel as if the administration did not handle (sexual assault cases) properly.”
When asked to comment, we were referred to messages sent to the NCSSM community on April 28, and another to residential students and their families on May 5.
In the first of these messages, Chancellor Todd Roberts says:
"Let me say that sexual assault, sexual harassment, and discrimination have no place in the NCSSM experience and are not tolerated. School leadership handles reports of such violations with the utmost seriousness, and in compliance with the due process requirements set forth in federal regulations governing the implementation of Title IX protections."
Lentz similarly expressed frustration with how NCSSM’s administration responded to sexual assault cases throughout our conversation, repeatedly mentioning the dismissive tone members of the administration took with people reporting sexual assault cases. Lentz claims that people who were accused of sexual misconduct were allowed to stay on campus and even hold leadership roles.
“They allowed these assaults to continue to happen," she said.
Sexual assault, defined as any form of unwanted sexual contact, often leaves the survivor with a heavy mental burden.
Boarding school, as a microcosm of college, allows teenagers to figure out what is acceptable to do when living by themselves. While most students would be rightfully enraged by their administration’s lackluster response to sexual assault, inaction could signal something more sinister to a select few.
And it only takes one person — one person and a few minutes to inflict what is, to many, irreversible harm.
When someone is sexually assaulted, their worldview can be shattered, pieces of what was once there interpolated with overwhelming fear and questions of self-worth. To sexually assault someone is to rob them of their autonomy and, by extension, their humanity.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can anonymously reach out to Counseling and Psychological Services via their website, or the Orange County Rape Crisis Center at 919-968-4647.
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