What Brett Kavanaugh says about the drinking culture of private schools and how it's changed

Valerie Woel has watched the drama erupt as women have come forward to accuse Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault in high school and indecent exposure in college. Like the Supreme Court nominee, she graduated from a private school in 1983, so the emerging portrait of the hard-partying young man bore a certain familiarity.

“I was shocked but not necessarily surprised,” said Woel, who graduated from Bryn Mawr and lives in Homeland. “There was a lot of drinking. I have kids, 15 and 17, and I hope they’re not going to the same sorts of parties.”

Kavanaugh’s now embattled nomination has cast a spotlight on the culture of schools like his alma mater, Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, and similar elite private institutions that have long served as pipelines to power — in business, politics and society in general.

But the allegations levied by several women cast a dark shadow, however unfairly, on these manicured campuses and their largely if not universally privileged denizens. One accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, will testify Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee reviewing his nomination. She alleges that Kavanaugh jumped on top of her in the bedroom of a house where high school kids were partying, tried to take her clothes off and clamped a hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming.

Woel, an ophthalmologist who gave up her practice to raise her children, said she never saw the kinds of sexual assaults that Blasey Ford and two other accusers have described. But girls of that era were aware of such dangers.

“There was a list of boys not to date, to stay away from,” Woel said. “I think in general there is a culture for boys who are privileged, who play sports, for example, they get away with a lot.”

Rachel Riedner, an associate professor of writing and women’s studies at George Washington University agreed.

“Dr. Blasey's experience resonated,” said Riedner, also a Bryn Mawr graduate — in 1985. “I know of sexual assaults and misconduct from that period that were not officially reported. Or, the assault or misconduct were discussed privately among a very few people.

“It was difficult in the 1980s for young women to speak or have their voices heard,” she said. “I know one person who reported harassment and was told, along these lines, ‘These are “A” students and athletes. They would not do this.’ ”

It remains a difficult topic, and several alumni of Baltimore’s private schools declined interview requests for this article. Kavanaugh himself jokingly said several years ago that “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.”

And, some would argue, the problem with excessive drinking is certainly not limited to private schools.

Doug Gansler, the former Maryland attorney general, saw his gubernatorial bid scuttled in part by a picture of him in the center of a group of kids in what looked to be a wild party in a Delaware beach town. The party was part of a trip that Gansler and other parents organized and financed for a dozen boys who had just graduated from the Landon School, a private school for boys in Bethesda.

But Gansler said he believes kids are kids, regardless of where they go to school.

“I don’t think it’s unique to private schools,” said Gansler, himself a product of Sidwell Friends in Washington.

“I understand the narrative … that rich kids get away with stuff,” Gansler said. “I just don’t think that’s necessarily the case.”

Steven D. Silverman, a prominent Baltimore-based lawyer who went to St. Paul’s School in Brooklandville in the 1980s, said it was not unheard of for kids to drink as much as Kavanaugh allegedly did. Kavanaugh and his friends made reference to a “100 Kegs” goal in their yearbook.

“It was very common for private school kids to be unsupervised in houses with excessive amounts of alcohol,” said Silverman, who graduated in 1984.

But Silverman said he believes much has changed in the private school milieu since then. For one thing, social media and smartphones serve to police bad behavior today in a way unimaginable back when he was a kid.

“There are instant ramifications because of social media and cellphones now if anyone gets out of line,” he said. “You look at what happened with kids at the private school party last year, with the Halloween costumes that were distasteful.”

Photos of kids dressed in orange jumpsuits, including one with the name “Freddie Gray” on the back, created a firestorm last year when they were identified as students or graduates of Boys’ Latin, Gilman and Roland Park Country School.

“Hearing about it and seeing it are two different things,” Silverman said.

Far more high schoolers drank in the early 1980s, too, according to ongoing national surveys by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. In 1982, 74.1 percent of male high school seniors and 65 of female seniors reported drinking in the past 30 days, according to the institute’s Monitoring the Future report.

Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry, who graduated from Loyola Blakefield in 1986, said he also knew of those kinds of parties, although as the son of an inspector for the liquor board, he grew up being told there would be severe consequences if he was ever caught so inebriated.

Like others, he points to how alcohol was much more easily purchased in the 1980s. The drinking age for beer and wine in Maryland was raised from 18 to 21 in 1982, when Kavanaugh was 17, although anyone already 18 was grandfathered in — so even a slightly older sibling or friend easily could have supplied the underage drinkers. In Washington, just over the state line from Bethesda, the drinking age remained 18 into the mid-’80s.

Henry said his school was less uniformly wealthy than other private schools, “where I would think there was an even stronger sense of privilege.

“But there were crazy, rich people everywhere,” he said.

With a daughter in private school now, Henry said he tries to make sure she’s aware of the “unconscious privilege” enjoyed within that world.

“Don’t bring that home,” he said he tells her. “Don’t get used to that idea, just because you’re spending several hours a day in a bubble.”

Lisa Birnbach, whose “The Official Preppy Handbook” both satirized and celebrated the private school set, has been angered by the whole Kavanaugh nomination process, and not just for how “it’s giving our people a bad name.”

“It’s so complicated, and it’s not easy to talk about,” she said.

Birnbach, who sent her own kids to private schools, said bringing dishonor to your school or your family’s name is the antithesis of what she sees as the preppy ethos.

“We send our children there because we’re choosing an ethos for our children — that character is fundamental and has to be part of the school,” she said. “You’re sending them their for the small classes, the personal attention, the better academic challenges. But they should also understand what the school stands for.”

Sharon Love will be watching Thursday’s hearing with Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University who teaches in a consortium with Stanford University. Love’s daughter Yeardley, a Notre Dame Preparatory School alum, was killed by her ex-boyfriend, George Huguely V, a Landon grad, just before both of them, varsity lacrosse players, were about to graduate from the University of Virginia in 2010. Huguely had been drinking heavily the day she was killed.

“I don’t want to jump to conclusions before I hear them,” said Love, who created the One Love Foundation in her daughter’s memory to combat relationship violence. She remembers how quickly people believed the woman who accused Duke University lacrosse players of rape, and is keeping an open mind now.

Love graduated from Notre Dame Prep in 1967, a time she depicts as much more innocent.

“The worst thing we could do to get in trouble with was smoking,” she said.

She does remember a fair amount of drinking among the boys, and can’t believe that girls would just get into a car with them afterward in those pre-Mothers Against Drunk Driving days.

“We never thought to say, ‘Let me drive,’ ” she said.

Love said she thinks there might be a cultural difference between Baltimore- and Washington-area private schools, maybe more wealth and competition to get into the right colleges that affects how kids are educated.

“There’s so much competition, it obscures right from wrong,” Love said. “It’s a drive to keep moving forward. There’s a competitive culture that is knocking character farther down on the list.”

Some speculate that single-sex schools, for all their demonstrated benefits, can have the effect of making women viewed more as sexual objects than co-equals.

“We weren’t being regularly connected to girls to talk to as peers,” Henry said. “All day long it was just other boys.”

Riedner said it’s important to remember that the kind of entitled behavior that some equate with private schools masks how there are students who aren’t as privileged as the stereotypical “preppy.”

“Certainly, the behaviors attributed to Judge Kavanaugh were true of ‘prep’ school students from this period. There was also diversity of background, experience, and behavior at prep schools — not everyone was white, wealthy, or had access to channels of power,” she said.

“Not all young men treated women poorly,” she said. “But some did.”

Those of Kavanaugh’s vintage now have children that are around the age he was when these incidents allegedly took place — but hopefully, the environment is different.

Woel, who credits Bryn Mawr with developing her confidence, remembers taking classes at neighboring Gilman, and being struck by how much all the boys seem to come to that trait naturally.

“They were so sure of themselves,” she said, “and I know they weren’t any smarter than me.”

It’s among the lessons she and other parents say they try to impart to their own children as they navigate their private school lives: Do the right thing.

“Don’t just sit there, if you see a girl being brought into a bathroom,” Woel said, “or if she has been drinking — can you give her a ride home?”

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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