Chessy Prout was not going to be scared into staying quiet. She knew the issue of sexual assault was bigger than her own experience and that her community could benefit from more open dialogue.
In shedding her anonymity for the first time on NBC’s Today show, she said she hoped to encourage others to join the conversation, share their personal stories and acknowledge an issue that for too long has been considered taboo.
That morning in August 2016 was a turning point, because no longer was she the victim in the high-profile St. Paul’s rape case; she was a young survivor helping lead a movement for change.
Her television appearance had motivated her peers to take a stance and to offer their support, and to her that was the best feeling in the world.
“Kids in my school were feeling comfortable enough to approach me in the hallways and talk about this. That was all I ever wanted from this: for people to feel that they could come and talk to me about this stuff,” Prout, now 18, said in an interview Monday in Concord. “I had guys on the football team say, ‘Chessy, I don’t know how to say this, but I support you 100 percent, and I want to help you as much as I can.’ ”
Those few words of encouragement were just the beginning. In the months since, Prout has captured the attention of a nation with her #IHaveTheRightTo social media campaign, in which millions of people have posted and declared their rights.
Prout said she had no idea that the initiative would empower so many people. The concept for the campaign began when Prout drafted her own list of rights, ones that would have been important for her to claim at the time of her sexual assault in May 2014.
“That empowered me and helped me realize that I have the right to stand up for myself and the right to keep going, and when I say ‘no,’ you better listen.”
She wanted to share that sense of empowerment with the world, but she had no idea that the campaign would generate such a strong and lasting response.
“The fact that so many people have used this as a way to empower themselves and reclaim their voices and tell their own stories, it makes it all worth it in the end,” she said. “And, it gives this terrible experience a purpose in my life and helps me change that to something positive.”
Nearly three years have passed since Prout was raped by Owen Labrie in a mechanical room at St. Paul’s School in Concord.
Labrie, now 21, of Tunbridge, Vt., was convicted in 2015 of statutory rape, endangering the welfare of a child and using a computer to lure Prout into the sexual encounter, a felony that carried a punishment of lifetime registration as a sex offender. He has appealed his convictions and separately petitioned for a new trial, claiming ineffective counsel. Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler is expected to rule on Labrie’s motion for a new trial by mid-May.
On Monday night, Prout’s focus was on the future, including her own advocacy work, her growing partnership with U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, and on initiatives to improve access to sexual assault prevention education throughout the country.
After her upcoming graduating from the high school she now attends in Florida, she plans to take a gap year to continue advocacy work before attending college.
Prout said she’s also excited about continuing to serve as an ambassador with the nonprofit organization Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, which works both to help rape survivors and prevent sexual assaults.
Prout said having the support of Kuster, who has also come forward as a survivor of sexual abuse, has been instrumental to those efforts.
“Having her speak out on my behalf, on other survivors’ behalf, has been so incredible and special. To have her support and to have her fire and ambition through this has been so great,” Prout said.
Her decision to reveal her identity this past August came less than a month after St. Paul’s School objected to her family’s use of pseudonyms in a civil lawsuit. The school called for Prout and her parents to be named if the case they brought against the school reached trial in U.S. District Court in Concord.
Her parents first filed the lawsuit in June 2016 under the names John and Jane Doe. However, just hours before the family’s Today show appearance, an amended complaint with the parents’ real names, Alex and Susan Prout, was filed.
The Prouts argue the school’s objection to their use of pseudonyms is part of a larger effort by St. Paul’s to undermine a survivor’s credibility. Since the beginning, the parents say, the school “controlled the public narrative” of the sexual assault and, further, stood by when money poured in to aid Labrie.
St. Paul’s has denied any liability, saying it could not have prevented the sexual assault in May 2014.
Chessy Prout recalled Monday how her mom and dad carefully broke the news to her after St. Paul’s filed its objection last summer.
“I laughed and said, ‘Well, bring it on.’ ... This is so much bigger than me, so much bigger than our comfort, and my family,” she said. “I was saying that if they were going to try to silence me one more time I was going to say, ‘Fine, I want to speak now. I want to talk and make people listen to me, finally.’ ”
There was a time when Prout tried to ignore what had happened to her, when she tried to push it aside in hopes that it would all go away and her life would somehow return to normal. As a victim, she said, she felt disconnected from her emotions. When she finally confronted her past, she was able to find acceptance and move forward with her life.
Prout said she is “extremely fortunate” to have a team of people behind her every step of the way. They made it possible for her to stand up, come forward with her story and be safe.
Unlike at St. Paul’s, Prout is now able to spend her evenings and weekends at home with her family, something that she said has been vital to her recovery. She said it’s there where she’s able to run around the house with her younger sister and explore; it’s where she’s able to be a kid and spend time with her friends.
She said she is the same girl who loves sports and theater and who watches “a lot of TV,” and that the sexual assault isn’t something she lets define her.
“People who are sexually assaulted aren’t damaged people. We’ve had something terrible happen to us and, yet, we’re still the same person that we were all throughout our life beforehand,” Prout said. “It’s the people around us that need to realize that love and support is all we need.”
(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, email@example.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)