St. Paul’s and family of Chessy Prout reach settlement years after assault

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    Chessy Prout attends the reception for "Voices for Change: A Conversation about ending sexual violence in NH," a panel discussion at University of New Hampshire Law School, in Concord on Monday, April 17, 2017. Prout and U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster were among the panelists. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Published: 1/19/2018 9:38:46 AM

St. Paul’s School and the family of sexual assault survivor Chessy Prout have reached a confidential settlement that resolves a 2016 civil lawsuit filed against the school in federal court.

The case in U.S. District Court in Concord will be dismissed as a result of the agreement, which was announced publicly Friday.

In a statement, Prout said she never imagined her life would be so “traumatically transformed into that of a sexual assault survivor as a high school freshman.” She said what started as her speaking out publicly about her own sexual assault turned into something far more, as she stood up against an institution’s longstanding history of sexual misconduct and its past efforts to conceal that abuse.

“It is a role no teenaged survivor should be in but one I knew I had to accept,” she said.

Prout said she hopes the settlement will not silence important discussions about how the school can work to improve its response to sexual abuse on campus and ensure future students’ safety.

“It will be tragic if the leadership and faculty of St. Paul’s views this settlement as a legal tactic to put its shameful track-record in the past without acknowledging its present issues; my hope is that the settlement motivates everyone involved with the institution to create a culture where student well-being comes first,” she said.​​​​​​

In a letter to the school community, Archibald Cox Jr., the president of St. Paul’s Board of Trustees, said the confidential agreement is “a welcomed outcome as the litigation is costly and disruptive for the school.”

Alex and Susan Prout filed the civil lawsuit on behalf of their daughter in mid-2016 after Owen Labrie’s conviction on statutory rape and other charges. The Prouts argued that St. Paul’s had failed to “meet its most basic obligation to protect the children entrusted to its care,” and that school administrators knew about the now-infamous “Senior Salute,” in which upperclassmen solicit intimate encounters from younger pupils, and did nothing to curtail it.

The school claimed no liability as part of the settlement, but said since the sexual assault in 2014 it has reassessed its educational programming and looked for opportunities to improve its culture.

“Yes, this causes the school to assess and reassess, but that’s something the school is always doing,” Cox said in a phone interview. “This specific event was very unfortunate, and it’s the kind of event that – whomever was to blame and however it happened – was a terrible thing for the people involved and a terrible thing for the school.”

The Prouts filed their lawsuit against St. Paul’s several months after a Merrimack County jury’s guilty verdicts against Labrie. Prout shed her anonymity in August 2016, after St. Paul’s objected to her family’s use of pseudonyms in the civil lawsuit.

Labrie was convicted of statutory rape, endangering the welfare of a child and using a computer to solicit sex. The computer charge is a felony and requires Labrie to register as a sex offender for life. Labrie is out of jail on bail conditions pending the resolution of his two appeals, which are currently before the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

In March, Prout is scheduled to publish a book about her experiences at St. Paul’s and her advocacy work. Prout worked on the book, titled I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope, with Jenn Abelson, a member of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team.

Cox wrote in his letter Friday that St. Paul’s is aware of the book’s upcoming release and understands it “will likely generate additional publicity.”

“We continue to admire Ms. Prout’s courage and commend her efforts surrounding sexual assault prevention,” he said.

Looking forward

The elite Concord boarding school remains the focus of a criminal investigation, which was launched this past summer by the state’s department of justice. Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said previously the office will examine how St. Paul’s has responded to reports of sexual assault and misconduct, including whether the school endangered the welfare of children or broke a law that prohibits the obstruction of criminal investigations.

A report released by St. Paul’s in May substantiates claims against at least 13 former staff members at the school between 1948 and 1988. The yearlong investigation – commissioned by St. Paul’s and carried out by a former Massachusetts attorney general – found that teachers repeatedly took advantage of the teenagers in their care. Allegations range from boundary violations, such as love letters, to rape.

An addendum to that report details new allegations of sexual misconduct against former faculty and staff – four of whom are named for the first time – and it examines abuse as recent as 2009.

The attorney general’s office cited that report, as well as the 2015 conviction of Labrie as two reasons for launching its criminal probe.

Cox said by phone Friday that the findings in both reports are “disturbing” and “never should have happened.” He noted that St. Paul’s and other boarding schools have taken a critical look into the past and uncovered a truth that’s difficult to face.

The criminal investigation into the school began nearly six months ago, and may continue for some time, Cox said.

“It goes without saying that we would like to get this issue behind us as soon as possible and are cooperating fully with the AG’s office,” Cox wrote in his letter. “We will provide information on its status when we are able to do so.”

Prout commended MacDonald for his work on behalf of sexual assault survivors at St. Paul’s and thanked him for launching the investigation.

“The state’s investigation was the first step in allowing me to move from the unenviable role of holding an institution accountable to that of an advocate committed to helping others,” she said.

St. Paul’s Rector Michael Hirschfeld recently announced that he will be stepping down from the leadership position at the end of the 2018-19 school year. That decision had nothing to do with the settlement in the civil lawsuit or the attorney general’s ongoing probe, Cox said, noting the “timing is simply coincidental.”

Hirschfeld said in a letter to the St. Paul’s community earlier this month that “the time is right for new leadership.”

Following the school’s announcement of a court settlement Friday, the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said in a statement that the agreement provides important closure for the Prout family.

“Now is the time for St. Paul’s to partner with local experts to provide faculty and staff with the tools they need to prevent unhealthy relationships and violence,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, the coalition’s director of public affairs. “Every student deserves to learn in a safe and supportive environment and we hope that the steps the schools is taking will lead to a positive shift in campus culture.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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