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AG’s criminal probe prompts St. Paul’s to ask for delay in civil trial

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

Monitor staff
Published: 9/13/2017 6:16:28 PM

St. Paul’s School says next March is too soon for a civil trial in the lawsuit filed by the family of Chessy Prout now that the institution is also the subject of a criminal probe led by New Hampshire’s attorney general.

The Concord prep school is asking a U.S. District Court judge for more time to gather and share evidence – including sworn testimony of key witnesses – as part of the pretrial process in the civil case. School officials say they’re uncertain at this time what the criminal investigation will require of its faculty, staff, administrators and trustees, in part, because the scope of the probe is so broad.

The attorney general’s office launched its investigation into the elite boarding school’s handling of sexual assault and misconduct claims in early July. At that time, authorities said the investigation will initially focus on issues of possible child endangerment and obstruction of justice, but could expand if the evidence warrants such action.

“The School is cooperating and will cooperate with the Attorney General’s investigation. However, doing so while at the same time engaging in discovery on the track that is currently set in the scheduling order is not practical,” said lawyers with McLane Middleton, the firm representing the boarding school.

St. Paul’s is recommending the civil trial be rescheduled for a time later in 2018.

The Prout family has objected, in part, to the school’s request to extend deadlines, arguing that St. Paul’s is seeking “far more than mere logistical accommodations.” Alex and Susan Prout, the parents of former St. Paul’s student Chessy Prout, filed their lawsuit against the school in spring 2016, but note in their partial objection that not a single witness has given sworn out-of-court testimony, also known as a deposition.

“Defendant has proposed what amounts to a virtually complete stay of any deposition discovery involving anyone affiliated with SPS for the months – or potentially years – it may take for the Attorney General to complete his investigation,” the Prouts said using the acronym for St. Paul’s School.

Chessy Prout was sexually assaulted as a 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 yet 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.

Attorney General Gordon MacDonald cited “student sexual-conquest rituals such as the ‘senior salute’ ” as one of his reasons for launching the criminal investigation of St. Paul’s.

Authorities say they’re looking at the institution as a whole, and have not indicated that they’re targeting any specific individuals within the St. Paul’s community.

State prosecutors are working with the Merrimack County attorney, New Hampshire State Police and the Concord Police Department to look into decades of reports to include not just recent cases of sexual misconduct at St. Paul’s, 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.

A pretrial conference in the civil case is set for 2 p.m. Sept. 20 in Concord.

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

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