A storied New England school lets in a watchdog to curb sexual assault

Why We Wrote This

After investigating a prep school for more than a year for sexual misconduct against students, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office says it is trying for genuine change, not just a conviction.

Jim Cole/AP/File
The entrance to St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. An independent investigation into St. Paul’s in 2017 detailed five decades of sexual misconduct involving more than a dozen former faculty and staff members. This week, an independent compliance overseer arrived on campus to monitor implementation of an unprecedented agreement the New Hampshire attorney general made with the school.

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For the past four years, St. Paul’s boarding school has attracted attention for sexual assaults and misconduct – including a criminal conviction of a senior who assaulted a freshman. So as students returned this week, a new watcher has arrived on campus – an “independent compliance overseer” who will monitor implementation of an unprecedented agreement the New Hampshire attorney general made with the school.

The new overseer, Jeffrey Maher, worked many sexual assault cases on the Nashua, N.H., police force and as an attorney, most recently overseeing campus safety and Title IX compliance at Keene State College. The hope is that the comprehensive agreement will ensure students’ safety and perhaps even become a model.

“It’s absolutely groundbreaking on a national level,” says Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, which has been conducting trainings with St. Paul’s leaders since last year. “The attorney general was willing to take the harder road.... It is an excellent opportunity to truly impact the culture at St. Paul’s in a very positive way.”

On Jan. 31, the eve of a short winter break at St. Paul’s boarding school, five people sat in the Gothic Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul to hear the white-robed teen choristers sing Compline, a service of evening prayers.

The 91st Psalm. The Lord’s Prayer. The reassurances rang out ethereally: “There shall no evil happen to you.”

The service was open to the public, and a reminder that people often do good things regardless of whether they have an audience.

But when no one is watching, sometimes people do really bad things, too.

For the past four years, the storied school has attracted attention for sexual assaults and misconduct – including a criminal conviction of a senior who assaulted a freshman as part of a sexual-conquest competition known as “Senior Salute.”

So as students returned this week, a new watcher arrived on campus – an “independent compliance overseer” who will monitor implementation of an unprecedented agreement the New Hampshire attorney general made with the school.

Instead of the fines that could have come with a criminal charge, the comprehensive agreement, it is hoped, will ensure students’ safety and perhaps even become a model.

“It’s absolutely groundbreaking on a national level,” says Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, which has been conducting trainings with St. Paul’s leaders since last year. “The attorney general was willing to take the harder road.... It is an excellent opportunity to truly impact the culture at St. Paul’s in a very positive way.”

Nationwide, K-12 schools and colleges are awaiting revised federal guidelines for Title IX policies relating to sexual harassment and assault. Last week the public comment period closed after more than 100,000 statements poured in to the US Department of Education, the majority of them critical of the proposed new rules.

But the monitoring agreement at St. Paul’s shows that part of the needed solution can come from local or state-level innovation when an institution’s track record suggests it can’t yet be trusted to police itself.

A growing list of reports have detailed decades of hushed-up sexual abuse by faculty at elite prep schools, including several related to St. Paul’s and one last week about the Key School in Annapolis, Md.

While her case involved a fellow teen, student Chessy Prout broke the silence for many survivors of all ages by testifying against Owen Labrie in 2015. After one failed appeal, Mr. Labrie has asked the New Hampshire Supreme Court to give him a new trial, claiming ineffective counsel.

In her memoir last year, “I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope,” Ms. Prout recounted being ostracized when she returned to campus after reporting the assault. Campus officials seemed to circle the wagons to protect the school’s reputation rather than protect her, she wrote. (She left, and her family settled a civil lawsuit and launched a survivor-advocacy nonprofit.)

As more allegations surfaced against students and staff after Labrie’s conviction, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald investigated for more than a year, convening a grand jury as the state built a case for potential charges of child endangerment.

A campus steeped in history

Established in 1856, St. Paul’s is on a collegiate-style campus nestled into the woods just off Pleasant Street, a few minutes’ drive from the main thoroughfare of the state capital. With graduates who include former Secretary of State John Kerry and special counsel Robert Mueller, it’s “steeped in a lot of history.... It took some time to peel back the curtain,” says Deputy Attorney General Jane Young in a phone interview.

The attorneys were motivated to work longer and harder, while juggling homicide cases, she says. “This was our chance to make a difference on that campus, and hopefully other campuses will learn.”

The investigation finally indicated to the Prout family that someone was “caring enough to do the work required … to try to hold the school accountable,” says Alexander Prout, Chessy Prout’s father and a graduate of St. Paul’s, in a phone interview.

Everyone agrees that the new overseer, Jeffrey Maher, has excellent qualifications. He worked many sexual assault cases on the Nashua, N.H., police force and as an attorney, most recently overseeing campus safety and Title IX compliance at Keene State College.

 

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
Chessy Prout, shown in New York in March 2018, is the author of 'I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope.' In it, she writes about her sexual assault while a freshman at the prestigious St. Paul's boarding school in New Hampshire, the criminal trial that followed, and her advocacy for young victims of sexual assault.

“We welcome Mr. Maher, and are confident that he will bring additional, useful perspective to our commitment to a safe, healthy, and nurturing community at SPS,” a St. Paul’s spokesperson wrote in an email to the Monitor. School leaders declined requests for interviews at this time.

St. Paul’s will pay Maher and give him 24-hour access to an office on campus and the ability to conduct interviews and inspect records. He will remain independent and report to the attorney general.

The agreement  also spells out requirements for trainings, mandatory reporting policies, transparency, and the ability of students to access an advocate from the local domestic violence and sexual assault center, the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire.

The hope is that students will “feel free to come forward … in a welcoming environment, and there will not be any retaliation,” Deputy Attorney General Young says. If the school does not comply, the attorney general could still bring charges.

‘Be Brave’

Located in an old white house near downtown Concord, the crisis center has long provided confidential services related to domestic violence and sexual assault to anyone in the surrounding county. A small framed sign on one wall urges, “Be Brave.”

One advocate will become “a regular face for the students, which is really important as far as relationship-building with young people,” says executive director Paula Kelley-Wall in a phone interview.

The center is also educating the campus community, which is important because “there are things about victim and offender dynamics that people simply don’t understand,” says Anne Munch, a Denver-based lawyer and consultant on improving sexual assault policies.

People often mistakenly assume that there are many false reports, or they characterize assaults as “misunderstandings” among young people as they explore their sexuality, she says.

It’s common for people to minimize the problem of sexual assault, Ms. Munch adds, because “quite frankly, it’s easier [to do that] than it is to really embrace the fact that we do have sex offenders of all ages, races, backgrounds that are among us.”

St. Paul’s previously announced a variety of trainings and policies aimed at changing the culture. And it has set up a way for survivors of sexual misconduct by adults at the school to access financial assistance for services such as therapy.

Much of the senior leadership has also changed, including the appointment of the school’s first female rector.

But Mr. Prout is still waiting for evidence of a genuine commitment to change. He’s concerned that some St. Paul’s leaders continue to prioritize lawyers’ dictates and protecting the endowment. An example, he says, is when Archibald Cox Jr., president of the Board of Trustees, spoke to the Concord Monitor last year about Labrie’s assault, saying “this specific event was very unfortunate, and it’s the kind of event that – whomever was to blame and however it happened – was a terrible thing for the people involved and a terrible thing for the school.”

“What happened to my daughter was not an event,” Prout says. “It was a crime.”

The oversight agreement holds promise, Munch says, but the degree of progress at institutions largely depends on willingness “to embrace the truth about what has happened, what is happening, and how to really change the culture of the place in a way that can be sustained.”

Munch has seen, though, that if people are motivated to do better, attitudes and practices can be transformed. 

She became a technical adviser to the Missoula County Attorney’s office after problems with how it handled rape cases led to a 2014 consent decree with the Montana Attorney General’s office.

“These were initially reluctant parties,” she says, but after two years of training and oversight, “they do such a great job with victims in Missoula, Montana now.”

Maher is expected to serve as independent overseer at St. Paul’s for three to five years. His success may depend on whether alumni and parents speak up in support of his mission, Prout says.

“We want the school to be a safe place and do good work,” Prout says. “I’m hopeful that Mr. Maher can be the beginning of that process, and then set an example for the rest of the country. If you silence victims, if you deny and cover up rape culture, you will be held accountable.... There are a lot of eyes around the country watching this.”

For help or information, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.

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