2018 Stories of the Year: St. Paul’s School falls under government oversight

Monitor staff
Published: 12/27/2018 6:31:57 PM

How government oversight could reshape a pervasive culture of sexual abuse and misconduct at St. Paul’s School is a story that will take shape long after 2018. But this year ushered in that new beginning, set in motion by what experts coined a groundbreaking move by the state attorney general’s office to hold the prestigious Concord prep school accountable for decades of ignoring sexual misconduct and abuse.

The state’s top prosecutors made the decision this summer not to pursue criminal charges against St. Paul’s after a 14-month investigation. Instead, the attorney general signed an agreement with the institution’s leaders that provides a mechanism of enforcement with an independent overseer and creates recourse for victims who have disclosed stories of abuse spanning six decades.

As more victims came forward in 2017 and again this year, the tale of an institution that had spent money protecting its reputation over ensuring victims’ safety catapulted to the forefront, making the calls for state intervention impossible to ignore.

“In this case, parents entrusted their child’s safety and welfare to St. Paul’s School. That school violated their trust,” Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said during a September news conference.

The settlement is the first of its kind for a New Hampshire educational institution but its roots lay in a similar non-prosecutorial agreement signed in 2002 by the attorney general and Roman Catholic bishop following an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by priests and diocesan leaders over four decades.

While the attorney general did not bring charges against the school, one of its former teachers and a former student captured headlines as the only two individuals to face prosecution as a result of the criminal probe. Warner resident David Pook, who taught at the school between 2000 and 2008, was convicted of conspiring to commit false swearing for working with a former student to lie to a grand jury. He was sentenced to four months in jail. Former student Stephanie O’Connell of Chicago pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor offenses and was sentenced to perform 500 hours of community service.

Although the criminal investigation was six months underway by January 2018, prosecutors’ work was just beginning as more information continued to come to light about the scope and prevalence of abuse at St. Paul’s. The school released in August a third report prepared by Boston-based law firm Casner & Edwards, commissioned in May 2016 to look into claims of faculty-student abuse. Since the first report was published in May 2017, a total of 67 victims and counting have come forward with allegations ranging from inappropriate touching to sexually suggestive comments to rape. Those allegations were brought against 20 named faculty and staff and more employees not publicly identified.

The Casner & Edwards reports and sexual-conquest rituals such as the “Senior Salute” that took center stage at Owen Labrie’s trial in 2015 were among the reasons the attorney general cited in launching its investigation in summer 2017. And those storylines continued to unfold this year, especially in the criminal case against Labrie whose two appeals were heard by the New Hampshire Supreme Court. The court has yet to rule on his claims of ineffective counsel but sided against Labrie on his first bid for a new trial by affirming his convictions, including the computer-use felony that requires him to register as a sex offender for life. He was due to return to jail the day after Christmas to serve the remainder of his 12-month sentence on sexual assault and child endangerment charges.

Chessy Prout, the sexual assault survivor in that case, also captured headlines around the world this year with the release of her memoir, I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope. In her book, published in March, Prout takes readers behind the scenes of the criminal trial and the months leading up to her decision to go public with her story.

Chessy and her parents, Susan and Alex Prout, sued St. Paul’s in 2016 in federal court and reached a confidential settlement with the school at the turn of the new year. The lawsuit was the first of several filed by former victims against the school, with both men and women bringing forward claims of faculty-student abuse and sexual harassment and assault among students.

The longtime rector at the helm during Prout’s time at St. Paul’s stepped down in January, paving the way for a leadership change of historical significance. Kathleen Carroll Giles, a native of Portland, Maine, was named in July as the first-ever woman to lead the Concord boarding school since its founding in 1856. Giles will take over on July 1, 2019. In the interim, Amy Richards, a Concord High School and University of New Hampshire graduate, is overseeing this transitional year, which has marked a pivotal turning point for the institution.

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