N.H. Attorney General launches criminal investigation into St. Paul’s School

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

  • Manchester attorney Gordon MacDonald speaks during a public hearing in the executive council chambers Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at the New Hampshire Statehouse in Concord, N.H. MacDonald is Republican Gov. Chris Sununu's nominee to be the state's next attorney general. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) AP

Monitor staff
Published: 7/13/2017 6:44:00 PM

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office is launching a criminal investigation into St. Paul’s School, examining how the Concord prep school has responded to reports of sexual assault and misconduct.

State prosecutors announced they’re working with the Merrimack County attorney, New Hampshire State Police and the Concord Police Department to investigate the elite boarding school. The investigation will initially focus on issues of possible child endangerment and obstruction of justice, but could expand if the evidence warrants such action, prosecutors said.

“Protection of children is a paramount priority for law enforcement,” Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said in a statement Thursday evening.

The announcement came as lawmakers called for the state’s Department of Justice to examine the circumstances surrounding sexual misconduct allegations, including sexual conquest rituals, and the actions of school administrators in the aftermath of those reports.

Seven legislators who spoke to the Monitor this week cited recent media reports about new games of sexual conquest among students, as well as possible student sexual assaults on campus, as reason for an outside investigation. Members of both the House and Senate expressed concern about the safety of students at the elite boarding school, which recently acknowledged a long-standing history of sexual misconduct to include faculty abuse of students decades ago.

Sen. Bette Lasky, a Nashua Democrat who serves as vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said there’s an “inordinate amount of questions” surrounding the allegations of sexual misconduct at St. Paul’s, and it’s important that the attorney general’s office provide clarity.

Republican Sen. Kevin Avard agreed.

“Victims of sexual abuse are often afraid of speaking up, but just because someone is very powerful or has a lot of money doesn’t mean their voices shouldn’t be heard,” said Avard, also of Nashua. “Transparency is key.”

Hours before the attorney general’s announcement, Rector Michael Hirschfeld said the school was willing to work with any law enforcement probe.

Later, in a statement Hirschfeld said: “We have been in close contact with local law enforcement regarding recent incidents of concern, and we will continue to fully cooperate with any inquiries we receive. We also intend to work closely with the attorney general’s office to answer any and all questions regarding the independent report issued last month. Our goal is and always will be the health, safety and well-being of our students. We will work tirelessly to meet that goal and strengthen the public’s faith in St. Paul’s School.”

Decades of review

The attorney general’s investigation will look at decades of reports to include not just recent cases of sexual misconduct at the school, but also past sexual abuse of students by faculty and staff.

A report released by St. Paul’s this 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.

Several St. Paul’s victims told the Monitor in June that the report does not name several prominent faculty members believed to have sexually assaulted students. While they said the report is a step in the right direction, they believe the school has a long way to go and much to still reconcile.

On the heels of that report, several incidents of sexual misconduct among students emerged at the school, including a reported student sexual assault and a sexual conquest game involving a crown distributed by a fast-food chain.

Several people connected with the institution told the Monitor that boys had competed to have their name put on a crown. The school, however, did not publicly acknowledge the matter prior to media reports.

In a letter to the school community June 30, Hirschfeld said seniors reported to faculty their concerns that a group of underclassmen were “writing down their relationships with other students on a fast-food chain crown.”

Around the time of the discovery, the school modified an all-boys dormitory page of the yearbook by placing a large sticker over the bottom half, concealing what many believe are photographs of the boys wearing the crown.

Soon after the incident came to light, Rep. Debra Altschiller, a Stratham Democrat, took to social media to encourage other legislators to join her in calling for the attorney general to investigate St. Paul’s out of concern for student safety.

“It is time for a third-party, unbiased investigation that prioritizes the safety of children above all else,” Altschiller said Thursday. “It is time for St. Paul’s administration, faculty, alumni and students to have a long overdue honest conversation about what’s happening at this institution, and do real work towards ensuring that there is effective evidence-based intervention and prevention education work being done.”

Altschiller, who works as an outreach coordinator at the crisis center HAVEN, mentioned fellow state Rep. Renny Cushing in her call for an investigation. Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, said Thursday he “absolutely” believes it’s time to investigate.

“I find myself troubled by what seems to be a culture of promoting impunity for people who engage in underage sexual activity,” said Cushing, a member of the House’s criminal justice committee.

Cushing and others said they believe an investigation should shine a light on both current and past practices at the school, and must be carried out with concern for victims in mind.

Senate Judiciary member Martha Hennessey, a Hanover Democrat, echoed those concerns, saying, “My feeling is that these things do snowball, and I think it’s extremely important at this point to do everything possible to investigate and find how deeply this goes, and what needs to be done – not with anything else in mind but protecting the young people at St. Paul’s.”

History of abuse

Alumni, former faculty and survivors of sexual abuse at St. Paul’s have long called for more oversight at the institution, saying it cannot disassociate itself from a long-standing history of sexual misconduct when there is evidence that behavior continues today. They say the sexual conquest games among students are a byproduct of a larger systemic problem at the institution that has gone unaddressed for decades.

Months prior to learning about the “relationship crown,” Concord police opened an investigation into what was described by the school as “a relationship map,” on which students’ names are linked.

A school official told police at that time that “the map linked a number of students together and suggested romantic involvement,” according to a police report.

The school’s own internal investigation found no criminal wrongdoing; however, a police investigation was suspended pending any new information or renewed cooperation from the parties involved.

The map bears some similarity to the now-infamous springtime ritual at the school known as the “Senior Salute,” in which upperclassmen would keep score of their sexual conquests in a laundry room. The rules of the game took center stage at the 2015 trial of Owen Labrie, an 18-year-old graduate who was found guilty of propositioning a 15-year-old freshman girl online for sex.

Labrie was convicted in August 2015 of three counts of statutory rape and one count of endangering the welfare of a child, all misdemeanors. The jury also found him guilty of prohibited use of a computer, a felony that requires lifelong registration as a sex offender. His appeal is before the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

A year after the jury verdict, the young woman at the center of the case came forward, shedding her anonymity and reclaiming her story as a sexual assault survivor. Chessy Prout, now 18, has become a public advocate, hoping to empower others and drive change by sharing her experiences.

A civil lawsuit filed by the Prout family against St. Paul’s is pending in U.S. District Court in Concord. In their lawsuit, Alex and Susan Prout accuse the school of failing to protect their daughter and of allowing a perverse sexual culture to fester at the school. The case is scheduled for trial in March 2018.

The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence applauded the new investigation.

“We commend the attorney general’s office for taking action to investigate the potential mishandling of sexual misconduct at St. Paul’s School – they are right to shine a light on the darkness that continues to surround this school,” Director of Public Affairs Amanda Grady Sexton said. “The administration’s practice of hiring outside ‘investigators’ to determine whether to report suspected criminal activity to law enforcement points to a culture that places the school’s reputation far above the health and safety of the children entrusted to its care. Elite boarding schools are in many ways exceptional, but they are not above the law.”

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

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