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Alexander Prout: After #MeToo – transparency and accountability

For the Monitor
Published: 9/28/2018 12:04:32 AM

Statistics declare that 1 in 4 women have experienced some form of sexual violence before college, 1 in 6 for men. This means that we all know someone who has been a victim of sexual assault. But in most cases, victims remain silent, afraid to speak up, of not being believed, of being blamed and shamed by friends, colleagues and family members. This silence and shame is a secondary victimization, a compounding damage to someone who has experienced physical and emotional trauma.

While we cannot prevent all sexual assaults, we can support victims and turn the blame and shame away from the victims and to where it belongs, the perpetrators.

On Sept. 20, Gordon MacDonald, attorney general of New Hampshire, made the groundbreaking announcement that, 14 months after launching a criminal investigation of St. Paul’s School and convening a grand jury, the state of New Hampshire had determined that there were grounds to bring criminal charges against St. Paul’s School, the fully residential Episcopal boarding school in Concord that has educated the likes of Robert Mueller, John Kerry, Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, congressmen, ambassadors, Nobel laureates and so on.

The attorney general stated that: “Parents entrusted their child’s safety and welfare to St. Paul’s School. That school violated their trust. The school’s primary focus was protecting its reputation – protecting itself rather than protecting the children entrusted to its care.”

Rather than pursue the criminal charges of child endangerment, a misdemeanor crime in New Hampshire which would have resulted in only monetary fines and no guarantee of changes at the school, the AG came up with a meaningful consequence to the criminal lack of care shown by the school, in order to protect students going forward: “Under the terms, a compliance officer will be appointed to implement the agreement, which includes requirements for training, reporting possible cases of abuse to police, record keeping and providing victim support services.”

I call your attention to this important announcement as I am graduate of St. Paul’s, class of 1982. My wife and I couldn’t be more encouraged by this courageous decision, having sent two of our daughters to St. Paul’s. In 2014, our second daughter was sexually assaulted by Owen Labrie at the end of her freshman year as a 15-year-old, part of the ritualized competition called the “Senior Salute,” which garnered media coverage in this newspaper and around the world. Four years later, Chessy has documented her ordeal in the memoir I Have The Right To: A Survivors Story (March 2018), written with Boston Globe Spotlight reporter Jenn Abelson. The book details the wrenching process of holding a perpetrator accountable, as well as her journey to finding healing and support after the assault.

While hoping for support and protection at the school after reporting her assault, our daughter experienced the secondary victimization of hostility, shame and isolation that almost all victims experience. She was bullied by her peers, isolated by her friends and blamed for the negative media attention brought to the school. Instead of being supported for doing the right thing and reporting the crime, she was targeted because she did not remain silent.

We understand the unnecessary pain that victims of sexual violence experience after the trauma of their assault. This is why our heart goes out to every victim that faces blame, shame and hostility for speaking up.

Thank you, Gordon MacDonald. In your role as New Hampshire attorney general, your courage to listen to, believe, support and stand with survivors is a remarkable development. Your decision to place St. Paul’s School, an elite private institution, under Department of Justice supervision for the next five years will help future children remain safe and supported, and provide hope for many marginalized and silenced victims that they can feel safe to speak up and receive support in their own personal journey of healing.

We can hope that, going forward, institutions will treat victims with empathy, respect and care, as human beings rather than risks or liabilities that need to be managed, silenced and moved on. This is a wake-up call for all institutions that someone is watching, someone cares, and someone can and will take action to protect victims of sexual assault. We hope that attorneys general around the country take note of this action taken in New Hampshire and put complicit institutions on notice.

We have a long way to go, and we will remain dedicated to speaking out on behalf of victims. Every day, we learn more about how pervasive sexual assault is across our society. Sexual assaults are not “isolated incidents,” as St. Paul’s claimed regarding our daughter’s assault. And headlines demand our attention to the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Whether it is Les Moonves and CBS, Bill O’Reilly and Fox, Harvey Weinstein, the Catholic Church or most recently with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, we now know that there is a systemic problem, and we need transparency and accountability in place to ensure safety – in schools, in the workplace, at places of worship and at home.

If we don’t, it will continue – in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, on college campuses, in high schools, at our churches, any place where power dynamics value reputation and privilege over respect.

We need what has been taboo in our culture for far too long – education about consent, healthy relationships, and standards for respect and acceptable behavior in relationships. This education should commence in age-appropriate ways when boys and girls first begin to notice each other as the opposite sex – as early as fourth grade – and perhaps, even as early as pre-school.

We are at a critical cultural juncture. It has been less than a year since the wave of #MeToo took hold in our social consciousness, although Tarana Burke first uttered those powerful words 20 years ago. Many have asked the question, contemporaneously to seemingly daily headlines that continue to churn out, What’s Next after #MeToo?

The N.H. attorney general says oversight, or else criminal charges. Attorney General McDonald credited the voices of survivors to bring us to this point of oversight. It is important to believe survivors, despite what many pundits (and our president) say in the media today.

Lyn Schollet, executive director of the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, summed it up well: “This agreement is truly groundbreaking. The scope of this settlement reflects how pervasive the problems at St. Paul’s School are. We believe this agreement will have far-reaching implications and become a model for schools throughout the country seeking to create safer and more responsive environments for students who are sexually assaulted.

This settlement became a reality because of the tremendous commitment Attorney General MacDonald and his team have demonstrated to victims of crime. Soon after he was appointed, the coalition brought concerns about St. Paul’s to them, and they listened. And then they acted.”

It will be the voices of the rest of us that will take us to a place where supporting survivors is the norm, and tasking perpetrators to get the help and counsel they need to be responsible members of our society where they respect the rights of others and their inherent right to enthusiastic, unforced consent.

As a family, we learned firsthand the challenges and hardships most victims of sexual assault face – bullying and harassment by friends; silence and blame from the community; and institutional complicity. We are committed, through our newly established nonprofit (IHaveTheRightTo.org) to helping other families through their own journey to healing and justice, and shining a light on this topic in the workplace, at schools and at home, and developing a culture focused on child safety with the proper transparency and accountability practices in place.

(Alexander Prout lives in Washington, D.C.)


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