Grand jury consideration of criminal charges against St. Paul’s School delays civil trial

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

Monitor staff
Published: 9/20/2017 6:25:30 PM

A grand jury is weighing potential criminal charges against St. Paul’s School, which has led to delays in a pending civil lawsuit filed against the institution.

The delay means the Concord prep school’s top administrators and current trustees do not have to testify under oath as part of the civil proceedings for at least 90 days, a U.S. District Court judge ruled Wednesday. Former St. Paul’s employees and students are not exempt, meaning lawyers for the family of Chessy Prout can move forward with those specific sworn interviews, attorney Charles Douglas III said by phone Wednesday afternoon.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Barbadoro sided with the school, in part, by granting a request for a 90-day delay for certain witnesses who are likely also subject to grand jury proceedings, Douglas said. Barbadoro also removed the case from the trial docket for March 2018.

A grand jury helps prosecutors decide whether criminal charges should be brought against an institution and/or individuals. Those proceedings are confidential, both to encourage witnesses to speak freely and to protect defendants in instances when criminal charges are never filed.

St. Paul’s attorney Michael Delaney spoke of the grand jury for the first time publicly during Wednesday’s hourlong hearing in Concord, Douglas said. Delaney did not return a call to the Monitor seeking comment following the hearing.

The attorney general’s office launched its investigation into the school’s handling of sexual assault and misconduct claims in early July. At that time, authorities said the investigation would initially focus on issues of possible child endangerment and obstruction of justice, but the probe could expand if the evidence warrants such action. Investigators are looking into decades of reports to include not only recent cases of sexual misconduct at St. Paul’s but also past sexual abuse of students by faculty and staff.

The criminal probe prompted St. Paul’s to seek deadline extensions in the civil lawsuit filed against the school by Alex and Susan Prout on behalf of their daughter. The school sought more time to gather and share evidence as part of the pretrial process in the civil case, calling the attorney general’s investigation broad in scope.

Alex and Susan Prout objected, in part, to the school’s request to extend deadlines, arguing that St. Paul’s is seeking “far more than mere logistical accommodations.”

By phone Wednesday, Douglas said, “We are pleased that we can now move forward with depositions.”

The Prouts had previously expressed concern in court documents that the court could halt all civil proceedings in the case for as long as the attorney general’s office took to complete its investigation. The deposition of witnesses has yet to occur.

Chessy Prout was sexually assaulted as a St. Paul’s freshman by senior Owen Labrie in May 2014, a Merrimack County jury found. She chose to shed her anonymity less than a month after St. Paul’s objected to her family’s use of pseudonyms in the civil lawsuit. She has since launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #IHaveTheRightTo, aimed at empowering other survivors of sexual violence.

Labrie was convicted of statutory rape, endangering the welfare of a child and using a computer to lure the then-15-year-old into their encounter. He is out of jail on bail conditions pending the resolution of his appeal, which is currently before the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

The Prouts filed their civil lawsuit against St. Paul’s several months after a judge sentenced Labrie to one year in jail. In the lawsuit, they argue that St. Paul’s failed to “meet its most basic obligation to protect the children entrusted to its care.” The parents maintain school administrators knew about the now-infamous “Senior Salute,” in which upperclassmen solicit intimate encounters from younger pupils, and did nothing to curtail it.

St. Paul’s has since denied any liability, saying it could not have prevented Prout’s sexual assault by Labrie.

The next status conference in the civil case is scheduled for Dec. 19 at 2 p.m. in Concord.

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

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