St. Paul’s School contests continued anonymity of sexual assault victim in federal civil suit

  • The entrance to the elite St. Paul�s School is seen Friday Aug. 14, 2015 in Concord, N.H., Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, Owen Labrie, a former student, goes on trial Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, for taking part in a practice at the school known as �Senior Salute� where graduating boys try to take the virginity of younger girls before the school year ends. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 8/17/2016 2:01:58 AM

St. Paul’s School is arguing that a teenage sexual assault victim’s identity be made public if a civil lawsuit against the Concord prep school reaches trial in federal court.

Victims rights advocates and attorneys who have represented families of sexual assault victims in other cases said Tuesday they’re dismayed by the school’s request. If granted, they say, it could affect other victims’ willingness to come forward.

The latest defense motion landed just days after St. Paul’s said it could not have prevented the sexual assault of the 15-year-old former student by Owen Labrie.

St. Paul’s has recommended certain limitations on the family’s anonymity, while at the same time stating it understands the girl has an interest in protecting her identity. St. Paul’s says its right to a fair trial could be compromised if it can’t identify the girl in its pretrial investigation. It further calls for a gag order against the family and its attorney.

“Plaintiffs, through their counsel, have planned and pursued a national and local media campaign against the school while seeking a court order to shield them from any effects of the media coverage they are fostering,” the school says. “These conflicting actions cannot fairly be reconciled.”

The girl’s parents filed the civil lawsuit against St. Paul’s in U.S. District Court in Concord in June under the names John and Jane Doe. The girl is identified in court records as J.D., and the family has asked the court for permission to remain anonymous.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of the 2014 sexual assault of the girl by Labrie. The former student’s parents maintain she was the victim of a tradition known as the “senior salute,” in which upperclassmen solicit intimate encounters from younger schoolmates.

A jury convicted Labrie, now 20, of statutory rape, endangering the welfare of a child and using a computer to lure the girl into their encounter. He has since appealed the convictions and separately petitioned for a new trial, claiming ineffective counsel.

Labrie is out of jail pending appeal, but was recently incarcerated for two months after a judge found he repeatedly violated the curfew included in his bail conditions. He was released from custody in May.

Shortly after his release, the victim’s family filed the civil lawsuit, in which they accuse St. Paul’s of negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and infliction of emotional distress, among other things. The family says damages exceed $75,000.

The school has denied any liability, saying only the girl and Labrie know what happened. However, the two have provided conflicting accounts of that night; Labrie said the sexual encounter was consensual, while the girl said she was raped.

In the majority of federal court cases, plaintiffs file with their real names. Courts will allow anonymity in rare circumstances, and victims rights advocates say the case against St. Paul fits perfectly into that category.

The girl is a minor and a sexual assault victim, who wants justice but not at the risk of public humiliation or physical harm, said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Boston-based Victim Rights Law Center.

“Someone as young as she is shouldn’t have to choose between getting justice and publishing her name,” Bruno said. “Not only can she not undo the assault that happened to her, but by publishing her name, she can’t put the cat back into the bag. In the days of internet searches, there is the concern that this will follow her for the rest of her life.”

Bruno said schools have a responsibility to keep students safe. They can’t tell victims of sexual assault to come forward and not promise them anonymity, she said.

“This is a loud and clear message for schools that you either want to cure the culture or you don’t,” she said.

If the girl’s identity were to be made public, the implications would be far-reaching and deter other victims from coming forward, said Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. She said the school already knows the girl’s identity, and keeping it from the public doesn’t compromise the fairness of future court proceedings.

Attorney Rus Rilee, who has represented families in high-profile child abuse and sexual assault cases in New Hampshire, said St. Paul’s attempt to strike the girl’s anonymity at trial is not uncommon.

“The typical defense strategy in these types of high-profile, complex cases, especially when the facts and the laws are not on the defense’s side, are either to attack the lawyers or the victims and here they’ve done both,” he said.

In a statement emailed Monday to alumni, President of St. Paul’s Board of Trustees Archibald Cox Jr. tried to clarify the school’s position.

“We did not oppose the family’s use of pseudonyms, and certainly did not request that the young woman’s name be made public,” Cox wrote.

A pretrial conference is scheduled for Sept. 21 in U.S. District Court in Concord.

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

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