The murder of a young woman at an elite private school, and the reaction from a former principal, has highlighted a broader culture of privilege in which young boys are protected from consequence or culpability. By Rick Morton.

Power and violence in private school culture

A young man in a white t-shirt.
St Andrew’s Cathedral School graduate Paul Thijssen in 2017.
Credit: Facebook

When a former head of St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney wrote a note to parents and staff about the murder of sports coach Lilie James by a past student, he was quick to declare the “horrific situation to be random” and “hence impossible to have prevented”.

Dr John Collier, now the headmaster at another elite institution, the Sydney Church of England Grammar School, known as Shore, nevertheless offered some theories about what might have prompted Paul Thijssen, otherwise “an absolute delight”, to kill Lilie James with a claw hammer in the bathroom at the very school where he was held up as an emblem of success.

“What led to his mental disintegration?” Collier wondered in his note earlier this month.

“Was it a psychotic episode which was deeply out of character? The literature on pornography for boys and young men says that many see this kind of appalling sexualised violence on the screen, which some, amidst the greatest tragedy, act out in real life.

“Does any of this apply to him? We will never know.”

New South Wales Police Force are investigating the likelihood Thijssen’s attack was not random, however. It was not the “brain snap” that many, often men, look for when explaining away extreme violence.

Thijssen reportedly bought a hammer – not the one he ended up using in the attack – at a hardware store the day he killed James. He also rented a car and drove it to work at the school, knowing he would later need transport to get to Vaucluse, where he would throw himself from a cliff.

Two hours before the murder, Thijssen was seen in CCTV footage at the Vaucluse clifftop, examining the same area to which he would return after his crime was done.

Collier, who was trying, if clumsily, to make the point that all people have a capacity for evil on some level, went on to collapse both Lilie James and the man who murdered her into the same breath.

“Now, two young lives are destroyed in their prime,” Collier wrote, “two families have had their lives upturned in the most blistering manner in a way which will never really recede, and multiple friends, relatives and staff in two schools have been left in deep turmoil.”

The comments prompted a wave of public condemnation, not least because they represented a broader cultural problem in prideful, elite institutions, a problem of minimising the behaviour of young men or subtly shielding them from the ordinary consequences of the real world, the one that exists outside the halls of a private school that charges tens of thousands of dollars in fees each year.

Even in the outrage of his acts, Thijssen got this treatment.

“We’re seeing the erasure of that division between offender and victim,” journalist and anti-sexual violence campaigner Nina Funnell tells The Saturday Paper.

“They are coopting the sympathy and the public sentiment that attaches to Lilie and transferring it to Thijssen. They’re treated as a unit and they symbolically reunite victim and perpetrator in death.”

In August 2021, in the journal Gender and Education, Monash University researchers George Variyan and Jane Wilkinson published a study titled “The erasure of sexual harassment in elite private boys’ schools”. It details interviews with 32 teachers who witnessed or were subjected to sexual harassment by their students.

The study noted the extreme reputational demands of the elite school environment often pitted teachers not only against the students who were harassing them but against parents and their own headmasters.

“School Heads were reportedly actively encouraging teachers to ‘get the parents on side’ … which is unsurprising considering that ‘when a scandal arises within such a school and puts its own reputation at risk this can seriously jeopardise their market share and viability’,” the paper says.

“Trisha’s (teacher) account affirms previous studies where, for boys, ‘practising sexual harassment does work to gain power’. However, in elite private boys’ schools, it is perhaps not an issue of gaining power, but a question of whether boys are mobilising parent-school relations to act as a cover for sexual harassment.

“If elite private schools are run like ‘businesses’ and ‘bad news’ can spread, then it stands to reason that market pressures might lead administrators to play down or ‘disappear’ sexual harassment before these incidents come to parents’ attention.

“What they say, and how they conduct themselves, is not in step with broader society and this behaviour of insulating and protecting and minimising is out of step with what we know has to happen in order to prevent another generation of women from being subjected to violence from men.”

“An urge to silence or paper over misconduct would support media accusations about ‘the culture of cover up’ (Four Corners, February 17, 2020) in elite private boys’ schools. However, it also affirms scholarly research that suggests administrators mobilise to minimise reputational damage when ‘sexuality and sexual violence [comes] into collision with ideals of reputation, control and proper behaviour, upon which elite schools depend for their marketing’.”

These soft brushstrokes, the study said, combined with an unwillingness to account for the “construction of a masculinity that embodies ‘traditional’ discourses of men being the ‘provider, leader and protector’ of an ideal nuclear family”, could lead to a substantial divergence between the values elite schools purport to teach and what boys actually learn.

The marketing of these institutions, themselves almost always modelled on British public schools such as Eton and Westminster School, is critical.

Take Hale School in Perth, which welcomes viewers to its website with the exhortation: “Your son is unique, he has his own path to tread. He deserves an education that amplifies his true potential.”

The words are deliberate. They are a careful description of specialness and entitlement: unique, deserves. The school boasts of producing “young men who will make a difference in the world”. It does not mention that they include Ben Roberts-Smith.

That boys become men in a culture of sexism and misogyny is not a new concern. Nor is it one confined to schools, public or private. Yet elite and cloistered institutions of all shades – whether they be churches or universities, legal bar associations or sporting clubs – impose an added layer of removal from the ordinary mores of society.

“Yeah, I think these types of places are out of touch,” Monash researcher Dr Stephanie Westcott tells The Saturday Paper.

“What they say, and how they conduct themselves, is not in step with broader society and this behaviour of insulating and protecting and minimising is out of step with what we know has to happen in order to prevent another generation of women from being subjected to violence from men.”

Westcott, whose background is in education and who is currently studying the effect of online “alpha-male” influencers such as Andrew Tate on boys in schools, says elite schools project notions of power and status that “tend to come with particular histories, norms, cultures and mechanisms, as well as expectations from parents”.

“There are also the particular expectations from the institution itself around the type of students that the school will produce,” she says. “In many schools, a woman can’t specifically record sexual harassment that has happened to them. It has to sort of go under a broader category in the database, another type of behaviour. And that’s a problem because then we have no way of knowing the scope of the problem.”

In other ways, however, these very schools are borderline obsessed with sex.

Shore headmaster John Collier’s throwaway reference to pornography in his email to parents about Paul Thijssen was no accident. Religious schools across Australia have run or continue to run consent and sex education courses mandated through the national curriculum but adapted with a “Christian lens”.

Take The King’s School in Sydney, where student uniforms mimic soldiers’ dress. In August, the school held a book launch by one of its old boys. The launch of A Willing Spirit, written by Marty Woods, was hosted by headmaster Tony George. Current boarders were invited to attend.

“The better we are as mentors and coaches, the better we are as educators,” George told the crowd of old boys, staff and parents.

“And that is particularly at a time now in our Western world where we think just how important knowledge and skills might be. But what we’re missing … is wisdom. The world needs more wisdom, more than it needs more knowledge and more skills. And the kind of wisdom we speak of is a Christian kind of wisdom. It’s a wisdom that sees that we’re all created equally in the image of God.”

Marty Woods, who volunteers for Christian group Fusion International, wrote his book in devotion to his first mentor, Rod West, and as a guide to men mentoring boys. It features an extensive section encouraging mentors to talk with their charges about masturbation.

“I will often ask what their spirit wants to say to them. Interestingly I can’t recall hearing anyone’s spirit encouraging them to masturbate,” he writes.

“I am not pushy about this but at a certain point I will often challenge guys to have a go at giving up and experiencing what is different. I haven’t heard anyone tell me they feel less free after giving up … I’m committed to helping mentees face lies from the evil one and agreements made when it comes to porn, masturbation and sexual encounters.”

The Saturday Paper is not suggesting Woods is doing anything untoward, just that boys in elite schools are often told their behaviour is a result of “pornography addiction” and not, for example, a more fundamental world view that implies men are entitled to power and control.

A number of private schools – including The King’s School and Knox Grammar School in NSW, Western Australia’s Christ Church Grammar School and Bayside Christian College in Victoria – teach sex education from an off-the-shelf program created by Catholic motivational speaker Jonathan Doyle and his wife, Karen.

The Men We Need Program contains two modules on pornography and a “male sexuality 101” section that declares: “We can tell a story of the awesome nature of what [it] means to be a male sexual person made in the image of God and how sexuality is a source of strength to be challenged into life-giving paths in marriage and family.”

Materials in the course, which also blames “increasingly violent video games” for the behaviour of men, have been endorsed by “Catholic Education Office directors, bishops, education peak bodies and Christian Schools’ Associations”.

Doyle rails against “endemic cultural Marxism with its inherent focus on victim groups”, and warned this was damaging to parenting. “I would say vast swathes of the education system are immersed in forms of cultural Marxism whether they know it or not, so you have got to be highly selective and attuned to where your kids are at school.”

It is not just sex. Earlier this year, five boys from The King’s School cadet corps tortured and killed a goanna while on a training camp. The grotesque act made it into the news headlines and, although he condemned the killing, headmaster Tony George seemed almost as upset with the treatment of the boys in the media.

“So, when things go wrong, such as scavenger hunts or online chat rooms or alleged animal cruelty, the tabloids and virtuous trolls whip up a frenzy of public shaming and virtue signalling in blaming schools and students for causing these kinds of problems,” he wrote in response to the allegations.

“This is not to say that these things aren’t wrong – on the contrary, they are not only wrong but they can also be criminal. What I am saying is that the wrongful act does not justify the pillorying, shaming and vilification of students and their schools by the media or anyone else.”

George had already been criticised in the press over his desire for a plunge pool to be installed at his onsite residence and revelations he, his wife, the deputy headmaster and his wife had spent close to $45,000 on business class flights and accommodation during a trip to Britain to cheer on students at a rowing regatta.

Confidential internal staff meeting minutes obtained by The Saturday Paper detail a culture of reactivity and blame when things like this go wrong and end up making headlines.

On June 21 last year, the minutes note, The Sydney Morning Herald had been “very active contacting Governors, TKS old boys and former staff to find out any gossip”.

“They are on the hunt to concoct a story to discredit us,” the notes state.

“Please contact Tony if you are approached. How do we deal with this? The story was concocted that the school is being lavish and extreme in its expenditure.”

After the “goanna incident”, Tony George told a meeting on May 8 this year it had been “an uncomfortable journey for some when broached by the public, as seen by the way the media and the school community reacted”.

“The public is very quick to judge,” he said. “Please remember there are children involved and we need to keep details confidential. Although we want justice, everyone has human rights.”

In the next breath, he said: “Would be nice if regulatory responses were in place with the media.”

Tony George told the meeting police had “cleared” two boys of any crime, “with the school to take further action”.

According to researchers and advocates, there is a common thread through all of these behaviours. It is the outsourcing of blame. The cause is never privilege; it is violent video games, pornography, cultural Marxism, the media.

Nina Funnell says Dr John Collier’s comments about Paul Thijssen’s murder of Lilie James are symptomatic of a broader blindness to reality.

“It’s a telling insight into a completely warped view of violent and controlling relationships and was really defensive,” she says. “At no point did he engage with the idea that there might be a question about institutional culture or institutional responsibility as a contributing factor in what is played out.

“It read as highly defensive and an urgent attempt to reframe the effects and the narrative by throwing out these potential red herrings. You know, blaming everything from pornography to a mental snap.”

There is a sense the ordinary rules don’t apply to these boys. After the goanna killing incident, Tony George ended a long essay about “virtuous trolls” and the media with a refrain that some staff took as a joke: “RIP Varanus varius.”

Those last words are the Latin name for the lace monitor, the protected species his students killed. Schools such as King’s are among the final places where Latin is taught and the school’s motto is written in the same dead language, a code for those privileged enough to read it: Fortiter et Fideliter – bravely and faithfully. 

Lifeline 13 11 14

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

Kids Helpline 1800 551 800

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "The age of entitlement".

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