New suit by former student echoes accusations of hypersexualized culture at St. Paul’s School

  • St. Paul's School in Concord, Monday, May 22, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 5/11/2018 7:56:14 PM

A new federal lawsuit filed Friday details a hypersexualized culture at St. Paul’s School that allowed for the objectification and abuse of female students, echoing legal claims from other alumni who say the school has long failed to protect children in its care.

The suit, submitted pseudonymously by a former student who enrolled at the Concord prep school in 2012, claims top officials knew of sexual conquest games, including the now-infamous “Senior Salute,” yet turned a blind eye to reports made by students who were targeted. The girl, who was recruited by St. Paul’s and began her schooling there at just age 13, said she was repeatedly sexually harassed and groped. She also says she was raped multiple times by a male student with whom she began a romantic relationship with during her first year.

School administrators knew the girl had been raped, but failed to provide her with support services and educational accommodations, the suit alleges. Instead, she was quickly labeled as a thief when bags, gym shirts and other items were reported missing by fellow students. St. Paul’s Rector Michael Hirschfeld and Assistant Dean of Students Chad Green ultimately forced the girl, known in the lawsuit as Jane Doe, to withdraw from the school or otherwise be expelled, the complaint says.

“Due to the severity of her emotional distress stemming from her encounters of sexual assault at SPS, the sexually hostile environment at SPS, and the treatment she received from administrators at SPS, J.D. was forced to undergo extensive psychiatric treatment,” the lawsuit says.

The 31-page suit, submitted late Friday in U.S. District Court in Concord, demands a trial on several grounds including negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of fiduciary duty. It says damages exceed $75,000.

Additionally, the former St. Paul’s student is suing under Title IX, the civil rights law which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program receiving federal assistance. St. Paul’s was receiving federal education funding in 2012-13 and yet the school failed to have a Title IX coordinator and did not have policies to offer accommodations to victims of sexual assault or for investigating sexual harassment and abuse, the lawsuit alleges.

“Despite being on notice of the assaults on and harassment of Ms. Doe, the school failed to take meaningful action to investigate the assault and/or to protect Ms. Doe from retaliation on the part of faculty, staff, and fellow students regarding Ms. Doe’s attempts to seek out a safe educational environment,” attorneys wrote in the suit.

In a statement late Friday night, Board of Trustees President Archibald Cox Jr. said school leaders had just learned of the new lawsuit against St. Paul’s.

“The Board takes these allegations very seriously,” Cox said. “Subject to the approval of, and in cooperation with, the Concord police and New Hampshire attorney general, the Board intends to retain outside counsel to investigate these allegations and take all appropriate actions.”

Similar claims

The latest lawsuit was filed by Concord attorney Charles Douglas and Steven Kelly of the Maryland-based law firm Sandford Heisler Sharp, LLC, both of whom represented sexual assault survivor Chessy Prout and her parents in a 2016 suit against the school. That case was settled this past January through a confidential agreement.

The claims in Jane Doe’s suit mirror many of those brought by Alex and Susan Prout on behalf of their daughter 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 obligations to protect the children entrusted to its care,” and that administrators knew about the “salute,” in which upperclassmen solicit intimate encounters from younger pupils, and did nothing to curtail it.

“Owen Labrie was far from a lone bad apple who failed to accustom himself to SPS culture and abide by school norms,” their lawsuit said. “Rather, Labrie embodied the warped culture of sexual misconduct and deviant moral norms at SPS.”

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 that 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.

School administrators received multiple and specific warnings about Labrie and other boys targeting young girls in the dorms, according to both lawsuits. The new lawsuit also alleges that Hirschfeld was told about a sexual relationship between an administrator’s son, who was 13 years old at the time, and an 18-year-old student, but failed to report the abuse to authorities. The age of consent in New Hampshire is 16.

Decades of abuse

The elite Concord boarding school remains the focus of a criminal investigation, which was launched in summer 2017 by the state’s department of justice. Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said previously the office will examine how St. Paul’s 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.

An investigation commissioned by St. Paul’s in 2016 substantiated accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse by more than a dozen faculty and staff, dating back to 1948. The school released an initial report on faculty abuse in May 2017, which was followed by an addendum in November that included accounts from an additional 15 victims and examined abuse as early as 2009.

In releasing those reports, the school acknowledged a long-standing history of sexual misconduct at the prep school and said it has taken steps to improve student safety. However, alumni say top officials have long turned a blind eye to a systemic problem and, in doing so, continued to endanger its students.

Two alumni who say they were sexually assaulted by faculty and staff in the late 1960s and early 1970s filed a lawsuit against St. Paul’s in Merrimack County Superior Court last week. George Chester Irons – the former president of the school's alumni association and a former board of trustees member – and Keith “Biff” Mithoefer are suing the school for negligence and seeking unspecified compensatory damages, alleging St. Paul’s was a “haven for sexual predators.”

Irons and Mithoefer brought 10 civil claims against St. Paul’s including negligent hiring; retention and supervision of faculty/staff; negligent infliction of emotional distress; and vicarious liability. Additionally, Irons’s wife, Barbara Irons, alleges in the lawsuit that as a result of the harm caused to her husband, she suffered loss of his “aid, assistance, comfort, society, companionship, affection, and conjugal relation.”

The lawsuit was originally filed with a fourth plaintiff John Doe, a St. Paul’s student from 1966 to 1970. However, an amended complaint was filed the next day to remove the anonymous former student; however, attorneys noted they may file a motion under seal at a future date to add him back.

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