Updated: May 12
Herlufsholm, a Danish elite boarding school has recently become global news after reports of alleged sexual abuse, violence, and bullying. Photo: Shutterstock
By: Daisy Li
September 12th, 2022
I would confidently say that I had a more interesting summer than most. Joining a group of international students from Germany, England, France, Denmark, the US, and Australia, I went on a Global Climate Ambassadors trip to a not so tourist-friendly destination, Greenland. In the span of two weeks, we had a multitude of “once in a lifetime” experiences. We camped on the Greenland ice sheet, carved reindeer antler into tupilaq, swam in the ice-cold water beside a calving glacier, played soccer on a volcanic island with icebergs floating beside us, and talked to prestigious experts and professors. Through all the transportation delays, card games, and frozen fingers, us ten students and two teachers inevitably became a tight-knit group.
A beautiful sunset overlooks our tent during our night on the Greenland Ice Sheet.
The Herlufsholm and Olsgaard Climate Ambassador Project is hosted by Herlufsholm Skole, an elite Danish boarding school just outside of Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen. Dedicated to providing an environment for students to “know more, do more, and achieve more”, Herlufsholm is a prestigious school that was founded in 1565 (“About Us”). Even Prince Christian of Denmark attends this very school, and Princess Isabella was set to enroll in Herlufsholm this coming school year (“Gewaltvorwürfe gegen"). Well, that was until the scandal.
Just months before our Greenland trip, Herlufsholm was featured on the headlines of every notable Danish media outlet. “Bullying and Sex Abuse Scandal Engulfs Elite Danish School” and “Culture of Bullying and Violence Revealed at elite Danish School” are examples of some of the accusatory headlines circulating on social media (Bubola and Nielsen, “Culture of bullying”). These claims stemmed from a documentary series released by TV2 on May 5th, 2022 titled Herlufsholms hemmelighede, or Herlufsholm’s Secrets. The episodes detail the heartbreaking accounts of bullying, sexual abuse, and violence from older students, 3rd graders*, that the younger students endured. Peter, a 1st grader at the time, recalls an incident where he danced with a 3rd grader at a party. This was immediately followed up with a fist in the back of his head, which required him to visit the emergency room (Hansen et al.). Other boys report instances where they would wake up to third graders beating them up, or worse, sticking fingers up their behind. These attacks happened in dormitories that host more than a dozen students, yet they are rarely reported due to the fear of how the rest of one’s life at Herlufsholm will play out (Hansen et al.). Furthermore, the documentary claims that when students do report these incidents, the school does no more than tell the victim “to forgive” (Hansen et al.).
This disgusting culture revealed by TV2’s documentary starkly contrasts the anti-hierarchy and equality-centralized value system that Denmark possesses, and it sent the country into an uproar. Prince Christian and Princess Isabella swiftly withdrew their enrollment at Herlufsholm, the headmaster was immediately fired, and even Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen brought her attention to this scandal, deeming these allegations “unforgivable”(Aanmoen, Bubola and Nielsen). News outlets continue to scrutinize and investigate the school, diving deeper into other areas like teacher-student relationships (“Danish boarding”).
*3rd graders are equivalent to Grade 12
Prince Christian of Denmark’s on his first day of school at Herlufsholm.
Photo: @detdanskekongehus on Instagram
Now, let’s not pretend that Herlufsholm is the only school where bullying exists because that is simply a delusion. I guarantee that almost every school has had serious accusations brought up against them, or at least a scandal behind the scenes. I mean, we would know… right? It’s the unfortunate truth. Older students haze younger students. Social hierarchies form organically. It’s a common occurrence around the world.
Two of the twelve members on my Greenland trip were from Herlufsholm. A teacher and a student. They are both some of the most charismatic, thoughtful, and smart people I know. We’ve talked about the Herlufsholm scandal, and the effects on them are apparent. The teacher has been facing a lot of pressure from the media, parents, and even strangers. There were multiple instances where we, the students, had to take her phone away to prevent her from drowning in a pool of negative articles. As part of the leadership team, she admits that there exist issues of bullying and hierarchy, but the culture is no more violent than the next school. She tells us that the reports have twisted the story to another extent, and all it has done is inflict sombre and anxiety onto the school community. I could feel the genuine hurt and stress in her voice. I remember thinking that it must be hard to be accused of something you didn’t do by your entire country.
The student from Herlufsholm quickly became one of my favourite members on the trip. He’s respectful, knowledgeable, and never fails to lighten up a room with his witty remarks and jokes. One night in Ilulissat, the scandal was brought up, and I saw his entire demeanour change. He was so hurt and upset. He felt that these reports were unjust and severely misrepresented the school that Herlufsholm is. He claims he has never heard about or encountered any experiences similar to the ones told in the documentary, and he thinks it’s unfair that lies about a community where he has had only positive experiences are being told to the world. From a student’s perspective, the exposé took a huge hit on campus life. The school was constantly televised, all student government and leadership roles were banned in an attempt to prevent hierarchy, and many annual traditions were halted. He told me that a student left due to the media pressure, and the air at school oozes fragility and uncertainty. Listening to him speak with such confusion and frustration was heartbreaking. This poor 17-year-old boy’s school life has just been ripped to shreds by the media, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Everybody wants the truth. But, that term is so tricky. In these situations that are so multifaceted and multidimensional, it's easy to wonder if there even exists one. The accusations brought forward by Herlufsholms hemmelighede are not light, and it is important to validate the victim’s experiences and praise them for speaking out. However, at some point, we must question the validity of these reports. To what extent are these media outlets just “doing it for the story”? To what extent are they milking it? People will do whatever it takes for attention and exposure, and we know better than to believe whatever the media feeds us.
As mentioned earlier, the Danish value system is centred around a flat hierarchy where status and class are minimally considered. There are two ways to work towards this ideal situation: to promote equality and abolish social classes. Eliminating private schools is one way to do the latter. Is it insane to believe that the government was behind this documentary produced by a government-owned television station?
On the other hand, the evidence is there. It’s hard for me to ignore the multiple rape and sexual assault cases brought against Herlufsholm students. Furthermore, is it even morally permissible for someone to discredit the victims and witnesses of Herlufsholm’s supposed culture of violence and abuse? Though I love the people on my trip and it breaks my heart to say, could it be that they are in denial? They could have had a drastically different experience than those featured in the documentary, and these claims are definitely a hard pill to swallow. At the end of the day, it’s not fair for me to decide what is true and what is not. I wasn’t there.
I am torn. Part of me feels guilty for even writing about this topic, a subject that is so sensitive to the people on my trip. They have done nothing but welcome me in open arms and make my Greenland experience the best two weeks of my life. When they spoke about the scandal, it felt like they were truly confused by the allegations and distressed by the backlash it has caused. I want to trust these people, and it's hard for me to put my emotions aside and approach this logically. A lot of things happen in high school, and with a little bit of tweaking and twisting, our school could very well end up in the same predicament as Herlufsholm if it were televised. Maybe I am in denial too.
But is it fair to determine Herlufsholm’s culture based on two individuals’ experiences? How does one just dismiss the horrific stories told by the victims or the charges brought to the courtroom? It’s hard to disregard these claims. From experience, I know that there is always more than one truth, and we can’t invalidate either side. The people on my trip perhaps just got lucky, and they, fortunately, have never been put in a position where they had to deal with this unacceptable behaviour.
Nonetheless, this situation is a good reminder to take everything in the media with a grain of salt. I hope that the students who have suffered from this pattern of abuse and the wonderful people that I travelled with find peace soon.
Serious business aside, my Greenland trip was genuinely the best two weeks of my life. Being able to witness climate change first hand, having the opportunity to meet with Greenlandic students, and exploring Greenland’s culture whilst traveling with the most amazing group of people I’ve ever met was truly amazing. Here are some of my favourite moments captured:
Abandoned island near Nuuk, Greenland’s capital.
Sermeq Kujalleq – the Illulisat glacier, also a UNESCO world heritage site.
A view of our tent “village” on the Greenland Ice Sheet.
A hot pink sunset in Ilulissat.
Black sand beach in Qeqertarsuaq.
A photo that I took with my camera on our way to the ice sheet.
“Selfie Lake” on the ice sheet.
The most beautiful hike on Disko Island.
Clear waters in Nuuk.
Aanmoen, Oskar. "Scandal at Prince Christian's school could be debated in Denmark's parliament." Royal Central, 11 May 2022, royalcentral.co.uk/europe/denmark/scandal-at-prince-christians-school-could-be-debated-in-denmarks-parliament-176274/. Accessed 12 Sept. 2022.
"About Us." Herlufsholm, herlufsholm.dk/en/about-us/. Accessed 12 Sept. 2022.
Bubola, Emma, and Jasmina Nielsen. "Bullying and Sex Abuse Scandal Engulfs Elite Danish School." The New York Times, 28 Aug. 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/08/28/world/europe/denmark-bullying-private-school.html. Accessed 12 Sept. 2022.
"Culture of bullying and violence revealed at elite Danish school." The Local DK, 6 May 2022, www.thelocal.dk/20220506/elite-danish-school-fiercely-criticised-after-culture-of-bullying-and-violence-revealed/. Accessed 12 Sept. 2022.
"Danish boarding school teachers created 'unsafe' learning environment." The Local DK, 18 Aug. 2022, www.thelocal.dk/20220818/danish-boarding-school-teachers-created-unsafe-learning-environment/. Accessed 12 Sept. 2022.
Det Danske Kongehus [@detdanskekongehus]. Photo of Prince Christian's first day of school at Herlufsholm. Instagram, photographed by Kelt Navntoft, 12 Sept. 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CSZbsOPDlOF/
"Gewaltvorwürfe gegen dänisches Eliteinternat ? Kronprinzenpaar erschüttert" ["Allegations of violence against Danish elite boarding school - crown prince couple shaken"]. Speigel Panorama, 6 May 2022, www.spiegel.de/panorama/leute/herlufsholm-gewaltvorwuerfe-gegen-daenisches-elite-internat-kronprinzenpaar-erschuettert-a-c7a1a1d4-9f90-4673-8331-a6715c2a4e0c. Accessed 12 Sept. 2022.
Hansen, Simone Kirstine, et al. "Vold, grov mobning og seksuelle krænkelser ? nu står flere Herlufsholm-elever frem" ["Violence, serious bullying and sexual abuse - now more Herlufsholm students are coming forward"]. TV2.
Hoejager, Steffen. Herlufsholm Boarding School was founded by Herluf Trolle in the 15 th century, the buildings themselves dating further back. Shutterstock, www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/herlufsholm-boarding-school-founded-by-herluf-51246595. Accessed 12 Sept. 2022.