The murder of Lilie James and the culture at private schools

Nov 15, 2023 •

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.

Today, Rick Morton on the murder of Lilie James, and what it tells us about our most elite institutions.



The murder of Lilie James and the culture at private schools

1105 • Nov 15, 2023

The murder of Lilie James and the culture at private schools

[Theme Music Starts]


From Schwartz Media. I’m Scott Mitchell, and this is 7am.

The murder of a woman at an elite private school, and the reaction of the private school community to the killing, has led to outrage.

It’s also made questions about the broader culture at Australia’s most expensive private schools even more urgent.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton, on the murder of Lilie James, the reaction from inside the private school system and what it tells us about our most elite institutions.

It’s Wednesday, November 15.

And a warning, this episode contains discussion violence against women and suicide…

[Theme Music Ends]


Rick. The other week, a young woman, Lily James, was brutally murdered at her workplace, the St Andrew's School in Sydney. Can you tell me what happened?


Yeah. Lilie James, who was just 21, worked as a sports coach at this incredibly elite Sydney private school, St Andrew's. And she was murdered by a former student of the school, Paul Thijssen, who was working as a cricket and hockey coach. He was only 24. And after committing this murder, Thijssen appears to have travelled to Vaucluse and killed himself. Now, New South Wales police are still investigating Thijssen's attack and precisely to what degree they believe it might have been premeditated. All I know is that it was particularly gruesome. It was particularly violent. Police themselves were shocked at what they found in the bathroom on the campus at St Andrew's when they found Lilie James, her body.

And so in many respects, this kind of case is not even close to being unique. You know, across Australia, the 58 women who have been allegedly killed by men this year alone, we're talking more than one a week.

And this killing has prompted a huge public reckoning, not only about gendered violence, but also the particular way we see its manifestation in elite Australian institutions, including private schools, whether they're elite you know private boys schools or co-ed schools. And the culture that those schools have in relation to not just violence against women, but the roles of men and women in society.


Right, Rick. And not long after this horrific killing, which was rightfully met with an outpouring of condemnation across social media from gender-based violence groups, we saw the former head of the school where this happened write a letter to parents and staff about the incident. What did he say in that?


This was written by Doctor John Collier, who is now the headmaster at another elite Sydney school, the Sydney Church of England Grammar School, which is commonly known as Shore. But he was the headmaster for quite a long time at St Andrew's Cathedral School in the city in Sydney where this murder happened. And he was a principal during the years when Paul Thijssen was a student.

And in that letter he was quick to declare that it was random and quote unquote, hence impossible to have been prevented. That was in his first paragraph of a quite a long letter about this crime. I want to be really clear here that Dr Collier condemned the attack, you know he said what Paul Thijssen did was a monstrous attack and no one disagrees with any of that.

Despite saying this, he kind of then went on to offer some theories about what might have happened and what might have prompted someone like Paul Thijssen, who, according to Dr. Collier, was an otherwise lovely man, an absolute delight to all who met him. He was wondering openly, you know, what could make someone like that commit this chilling attack on Lilie James with a clawhammer in the bathroom at the very school where he was held out as an emblem of its success. And Collier wrote, You know what led to his mental disintegration? Was it a psychotic episode which was deeply out of character?

Now that's interesting for a range of reasons, but New South Wales police are investigating the likelihood that Thijssen's attack was not random and that it indeed might have had some pretty clear warning signs. Now, 2 hours before the murder, Thijssen was actually seen on CCTV footage at the Vaucluse Clifftop examining the exact same area where he would later return once his crime was done, including the bin where he would dispose of this clawhammer, which is telling because all of these signs point to premeditation. It's not the random attack that Collier was writing about. And the thing is, we don't know.

So why would a principal offer this information? And he goes on to write. Now, two young lives are destroyed in their prime. 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. That was Collier's way of kind of collapsing the, the lives of two people, unequal in death, but making them equal in their in his tributes.

And I was talking to the journalist and the anti-sexual violence campaigner, Nina Finnell, and she said, you know, we’re seeing the erasure of that division between offender and victim, you know, they and she's talking about institutions like Collier's school at Shore are co-opting the sympathy and the public sentiment that attaches to Lilie and transferring it to Thijssen and she goes on to say they're treated as a unit and they kind of symbolically reunite the victim and the perpetrator in death.


Yeah. Rick and I wanted to ask you about a term that Collier used in that letter. He used the term brain snap. And there's a tendency sometimes in the aftermath of these cases to minimise the responsibility of the men who've committed these terrible crimes. Where does language like brain snap come from and what does it do to the public understanding of these crimes against women?


I mean, it absolves a lot of men after the fact. By attributing to and the vicissitudes of emotional regulation crimes, monstrous crimes which often are the result of other factors, i.e. attitudes toward women and things that men have learned growing up, it attributes all of this stuff to just a random moment that can't be prevented. It's a snap, almost like stuff popping into and out of existence in the quantum universe. Like, Well, we can't do anything about it. It's just there. And they represent this broader cultural problem, right?

And it's this cultural problem where we see the minimising of the behaviour of young men or subtly shielding them from the ordinary consequences of the real world. These institutions are often the antithesis of the real world. That's why they're shrouded in mystique, that's why they're hard to get into. They've got the allure of old money and status and connections and networking in a way that the real world doesn't.

I want to be really clear here that the idea that boys become men who have been raised, you know, to varying degrees in a culture of sexism and misogyny is not new, that that idea has been around for a long time. It's true. And it's true for every boy to varying degrees. Right.

But what we are talking about here is the added layer, the multiplier effect, I guess, of institutional blindness and the instinct to protect the status of the institution, including the status of the boys within it.

And you see this kind of thinking in all kinds of elite and cloistered institutions, you know, whether it's churches, the universities, Legal Bar Association, sporting clubs. It just adds an additional layer of remove from the ordinary mores of society 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.


Coming up… What are private schools actually doing to combat this culture of sexism?



So, Rick, we're talking about the culture at elite private schools. What do we know about the broader culture of sexism and misogyny at this kind of elite schools? How does it function practically? What do we know about how it works?


I think the perfect way to analyse this is through a study from Monash University researchers that was published in 2021. It was called The Erasure of Sexual Harassment in Elite Private Boys Schools. So it looked at how these things are handled at a school level via interviews with teachers and about their experiences of not only the kind of sexual violence, assault, abuse, sexism more generally, but also the school's response.

And it's fascinating reading because according to these interviews, the paper concluded that school heads were reportedly actively encouraging teachers to get the parents on their side. You know, the parents of the boys who had harassed the teachers and because of the reputation of the school at this elite institution, there were several teachers found themselves in this unwinnable situation, I would say, where they were being pitted against the students, the students, parents and their own headmasters.

In fact, the study found that because these elite schools are run like businesses. And bad news spread so quickly, there is an incentive to play down or disappear sexual harassment before the incidents come to the attention of parents and the school, but also the boys themselves. All boys know that they've got power in gendered interactions. But this study said that these boys seemed to know that they had an additional power of status and that their very attendance at that school was worth $40,000 a year in fees, and that the parents, they exert so much influence that the boys in their classrooms knew that they could leverage that power to get away with their own behaviour. And they didn't have to be taught that in the strict sense of direct instruction. They knew that from what they had seen at that institution. And that is what we're talking about. We're talking about what people learn just by observing.


So then if that culture of power and sexism exists in these schools in this way, what is being done to address that at these elite schools internally?


That's a very good question. There are you know, there are some programs like respectful relationships in Victoria that are attempting to go some way to doing this. In fact, the you know, the national curriculum has mandated consent modules and courses in kind of personal development classes. And we'll see those get twisted through different lenses if they're in an Anglican or a Catholic or private Christian school.

But let's start with a simple example. Dr. Stephanie Westcott said the research from Monash. She said that in many schools a woman can't specifically record sexual harassment that has happen to them. It has to sort of go under this broader category in the database, you know, another type of behaviour like broadly abuse or assault.

So the problem begins with what we know, which is not enough, because you can't even do a simple tally of that about the scope, you know, how far this thing actually ranges as an issue. So the problem is buried and we don't know the scope of it. How do we fix it? And I mean, look, I think a large part of addressing this is in those programs where students, both boys and girls, men and women. I talked about sex and gender, and I don't think we're fully aware of exactly what goes on in some of those programs because they are breathtakingly out of touch, I would argue, with modern standards.

As an example, there's program material that's been used. The Kings School in Sydney, which is kind of a military school, basically the kids are dressed like little soldiers. And this program, you know, they've got “Men we need” program, they've got “Boys to Men” kind of meant to focus on, you know, how to raise a good man. And they talk about values that everyone would agree with, which is that, you know, it's a quality and you've got to be, self-sufficient and respect for the individual and all of these things is like, yep, totally agree.

But these modules, they go further and they they've got a real obsession, I would argue, with pornography. And even in the male sexuality, one, one element of the course it declares it. You know 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 force of strength to be challenged. I think the main channelled into life giving path in marriage and family.

Now, there's nothing wrong with aspiring to being a good husband and having a family and marriage. But when you try to say that, you know, other forms of sexuality are harmful and wrong. What that does is actually drive a lot of this behaviour and obviously not talking openly about it. And so there's this added element of shame, right, where boys land, shame and shame is, is acted out in weed ways and in aggressive ways sometimes. And so we've got programs that are out of step with modern life.


And Rick, the culture you've just described, it's traditionally produced really powerful people in this country, politicians, judges, business leaders come out of these schools. But how compatible is the kind of culture you've just described with, with the broader community and sort of modern standards of behaviour?


Well, I would argue that it's designed to be incompatible with it because that feels allure, that's what you're paying for. Like if you're talking about these incredibly expensive schools in particular, you're paying for the idea of the school, you're paying for the networking, the connections with other high powered people in their children, you're paying for access.

And in that division you then create this entitlement that when quote unquote, we have a man who brings stamps. What we're actually talking about is a man who feels entitled to either respect or the love of a woman, or to earn more than that person who feels entitled to be the apex predator in his world. And when that doesn't happen, when those expectations are not met, when that entitlement is not granted to that man, that's when you get the rage. The rage is automatically linked to a sense that you are owed these things. And what reinforces that sense more than anything else in the world. A cloistered, elite institution that tells you that.


Rick, thank you for your time.


Thanks for having me, Scott.


And if this story has raised any issues for you, you can get help by calling the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service on 1800 RESPECT.


[Theme Music Starts]


Also in the news today…

The UN special rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territory Francesca Albanese, who is visiting Australia, said yesterday that Foreign Minister Penny Wong was unable to meet with her.

Albanese, who spoke at the national press club and called for a ceasefire, said she had sought a meeting with the Australian government but that she understood Wong was ‘very busy’ and she would meet someone else instead.


New housing figures show Australia’s rental market has worsened - with rental price hikes exceeding wage growth, and unaffordable housing spreading to regional areas.

The rental affordability index has found rental affordability has dropped in every city except Canberra and Hobart over the past 12 months.

I’m Scott Mitchell. This is 7am, I will see you tomorrow…

[Theme Music Ends]

The murder of a young woman at an elite private school – and the reaction from a former principal – has led to nationwide outrage.

It’s also highlighted a broader culture of privilege in which young boys are protected from consequence or culpability.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on the murder of Lilie James, and what it tells us about our most elite institutions.

Guest: Senior Reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton

Listen and subscribe in your favourite podcast app (it's free).

Apple podcasts Google podcasts Listen on Spotify


7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.

It’s produced by Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Cheyne Anderson and Zoltan Fesco.

Our senior producer is Chris Dengate. Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

Our editor is Scott Mitchell. Sarah McVeigh is our head of audio. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

Mixing by Andy Elston, Travis Evans, and Atticus Bastow.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

More episodes from Rick Morton

Subscribe to hear every episode in your favourite podcast app:
Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify

1105: The murder of Lilie James and the culture at private schools