Choate boarding school is embroiled in a tabloid-ready scandal.

by Lynnley Browning
November 22, 2010 | 10:40pm
The elite
Choate boarding school is embroiled in a tabloid-ready scandal, involving catty
Facebook postings about students drinking and taking drugs.


The elite Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school has long been a destination
for the rich and fabulous, with so many big-name graduates and booted
preppies—JFK, Ivanka Trump, a Bhutan royal, Ali MacGraw, Edward Albee, and
Michael Douglas, to name a few—that it seems like an East Coast cauldron of
money-meets-Hollywood-meets-international glamour.
Article - Browning Choate Facebook The Andrew Mellon Library at Choate.
(Daderot / Wikimedia Commons) Now the prestigious Connecticut prep
school has its own tabloid-ready scandal. Again.
Last month, Choate officials banned access to Facebook through campus
computers after discovering a 200-plus-page-long thread, crackling with
Gossip Girl-cattinesss, penned by half a dozen Choate girls. “You know it
is possible to say no when someone tries to have sex with you. Just throwing
that out there. Like no is still an option, you whore,” read one post.
While penning poison about classmates such as, “EWWW, SHE’S SO GROSS AND
FAKED AND SPRAY TANNED,” and, “Some ho kissing Herbie,” the Choaties also
detailed their own bouts of illegal drinking and drug-taking, according to two
students who have read the thread but who wanted to remain anonymous because
they said it was dangerous to be seen commenting, even if they were not
involved.
The message board thread titled “Mwaahhahaha” has rapidly become a must-read
in boarding school dorms across New England and in Manhattan circles. But it has
also become a flashpoint in the growing American debate over Internet privacy,
free speech, and civil society.
School administrators deleted the thread and hired a computer forensics
expert to track how it had been made public, though not before it made the
rounds among students and recent graduates. Two of the girls who wrote
“Mwaahhahaha” were expelled last month and four were suspended, according to a
school spokeswoman, Mary Verselli, giving the students a deadly mark on their
academic records just as they prepare to apply to college.
None of the suspended or expelled students wanted to comment publicly. “It
has been very traumatic for us,” said Amy Buhl, the mother of Amanda Buhl, one
of the seniors who contributed to the thread.
To some, reactions to the postings have been excessive.
“People think it can reflect on the school, but it’s being blown out of
proportion,” said fifth former (junior) Kris Mack. Julia Herr, another fifth
former, said the scandal had created unnecessary distractions as students
prepare for exams. “It’s nobody’s business but the people who were part of it,”
she said.
The message
thread titled “Mwaahhahaha,” a private inbox accessible only by password, has
rapidly become a must-read in boarding school dorms across New England and in
Manhattan circles.

But others have little sympathy for those involved.
“If they graduate with us, our diplomas will be tarnished,” an anonymous
Choate senior wrote on the website of The New Haven Register. “Don’t generalize
all Choate students to be in the same category as those girls.”
Local newspapers likened the thread to a “burn book” similar to the one in
Mean Girls. But students reject that analogy. “Please don’t compare it to
the “burn book” in Mean Girls as the local papers have,” posted Hayley
Ricardo, a fourth-former, or tenth grader, on her Tumblr account. “It’s not
really anything like that, and we’re sick of the comparisons.” (Ricardo was not
one of the six involved.)
The gossip is taking its toll at the academically rigorous school, which
already has a certain reputation among top boarding schools for privileged
excess and elitism. Tuition and board at the school, which includes a building
designed by I.M. Pei, cost more than $45,000 per year. Dry cleaning and music
lessons are extra. (Eight music lessons run $480—instrument and sheet music not
included.) Edward Shanahan, Choate’s headmaster, received a $1.9 million bonus
in 2008, according to public records for the nonprofit school—apparently the
highest level in private-school history.
In general, Choate girls “try to dress and act exactly like Blair Waldorf,”
of Gossip Girl, “with over-the-top headbands and unnecessary hostility,”
wrote senior Carolina Iribarren in the student newspaper this year. And a
graduate who identified himself as a Goldman Sachs banker wrote on a message
board a few years ago that “they have a great academic agenda, with some of the
finest high-school teachers there are.” But he added that the typical student
who attends Choate “is a bland, drug-experimenting, ‘shipped off by their
wealthy parents,’ teenage yuppie…”
The boarding school bans drinking and “dangerous pranks,” such as “jumping
from bridges,” but in public postings, some students describe consuming vodka
and other alcohol in the showers after check-in. As Brandon Sherrod, a P.G. (or
post-graduate) from Bridgeport, Connecticut, tweeted with a virtual sigh last
month: “just got here and there’s a scandal already.”
At issue is not just drinking but “topic A in educational circles in the wake of
suicides by students, who seemingly killed themselves because of harassment
through social media by other students.
But experts and some inside the Choate community argue that the cases of
Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old student who killed herself after, and Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman,  after his roommate allegedly secretly
filmed him during a “sexual encounter,” cannot be compared to what was
essentially a private, electronic gossip chamber.
To describe the Choate postings as “cyberbullying” amounts to “P.C.
hysteria,” said Norm Pattis, a Connecticut trial lawyer who specializes in
civil-rights violations. “Yes, what was written was mean, but it’s not
bullying—it’s part of learning to grow up,” he said, adding that he wondered
whether the Choate seniors—who now face dire college prospects while dozens of
their peers apply to Ivy League schools—had grounds to file breach-of-contract
lawsuits against the school.
Moreover, Pattis said, in blocking Facebook access from school computers,
Choate had sent the wrong message to its 850 students, who can still access
social media like Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter on their iPhones and
BlackBerries. Attempting to shield students from bilious talk, rather than
instructing them on how to be civil on the Internet, meant that, “Choate was not
teaching these kids how to be leaders,” he said.
The scandal is nothing new for Choate, which endured national headlines on
“The Great Coke Bust of 1984,” when a ring of Choate students was indicted after
one student traveled to Venezuela during spring break to buy 350 grams of
cocaine for which he’d rounded up money around the dorms. Twelve of the 16,
including the ringleader, Derek Oatis, were expelled; Oatis ended up not at
Harvard or Columbia but at U-Conn-Storrs.
Two years later the school took a hit with the news of Robert “The Preppy
Killer” Chambers, Jr., a one-time Choate student who in 1986 pleaded guilty to
murdering an 18-year-old in Central Park.
One rumor floating around on campus is that an outside student may have
hacked into the thread and disseminated it to some of the objects of its scorn,
who then promptly turned it over to Choate administrators. But embarrassed
administrators at Choate have been in lockdown on disclosing details.
Verselli, the school’s spokeswoman, declined to answer any questions, saying
only, “We do not wish to talk about this. We think we’ve handled it very well,
and we’re eager to move on.”
Last month, Shanahan held a special 90-minute discussion with students about
Internet civility. But some students did not find the talk all that educational.
“Nobody found it informative, useful, or interesting,” Evan Goldstein, a junior,
told the school newspaper on Friday.
And the headmaster’s message appears not to have gotten through to some
Choaties, who, even as they post, tweet, and tumbl (sometimes in French,
Mandarin, or Italian) about Voldemort, Glee, gay rights, squid and
hipster fashion, still slip up. One student from Georgia tumbled in a public
post about things she was craving, including “blatant racism, jack & coke,
the company of chain smokers, free time to sleep, a nice long ride in a car, the
new kid cudi ep…. not being sexually deprived, the ability to focus, self
control, harry potter marathon.”
Another public tumbl said, “haven’t done my homework. personal achievement
vs. academic achievement… and the verdict is: fuck school.”
Correction: The 1984 cocaine bust was incorrectly marked as 1994 in an
earlier version of this story.

Lynnley Browning is a contributor to the business pages of The New York
Times and is a former Moscow-based correspondent for Reuters, where she covered
energy and commodities. She grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, majored in Slavic
Languages and Literatures at Princeton University, and is fluent in Russian. She
lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with her son.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Response to “Choate boarding school is embroiled in a tabloid-ready scandal.”

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