Attorneys, Advocates Say St. Paul’s Settlement Could Set Model for Private Schools
Advocates and attorneys who represent sexual abuse victims see the settlement between St. Paul’s School and the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office as “groundbreaking,” and some say it could serve as a model that could be implemented at private schools around the country.
New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald announced yesterday that a 14-month long investigation had gathered enough evidence to charge St. Paul’s with child endangerment.
But instead, the two parties agreed on a settlement that, among other things, legally requires school leaders to enact reforms like reporting potential instances of abuse to law enforcement, providing training and victim services, and notifying all present and future students of this agreement.
And for the next five years, an independent monitor will be on campus, making sure St. Paul's abides by he settlement's terms.
Eric MacLeish, a Cambridge, Mass., attorney who has represented hundreds of private school sex abuse victims, called the agreement groundbreaking. MacLeish said he’d never heard of any other situation where a prep school submitted to oversight by the action of a law enforcement agency. He predicted other attorneys general may start taking similar action against private schools in their states.
“I think you can make a very strong and powerful case that, like any other facility that serves children, there’s nothing special about these schools,” MacLeish said. “They should be subject to regulation, there should be regulators overseeing them -- not just when there’s a crisis, but on a regular basis.”
Lyn Schollett, Executive Director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, also said she had never heard of this kind of oversight over a private school. She thinks the agreement will have “far reaching implications and become a model for schools throughout the country that are seeking to create safer and more responsive environments for students who are sexually assaulted.”
“After decades of perpetuating the abuse of children the standard formula for an institutions can no longer be a hit in the media, offering an apology or writing a check," Schollett said.
For its part, St. Paul’s senior leadership team said they welcomed the agreement, as they believe it is the best thing for both the school and the Attorney General’s office. Interim rector Amy Richards said this agreement is an opportunity for St Paul's to establish new norms for boarding schools.
McDonald launched the investigation in July of 2017, after a report revealed that St. Paul’s teachers had sexually assaulted students for decades. McDonald said his office was also interested in a potentially hyper-sexualized culture at the school. That included a sexual conquest ritual known as the “senior salute,” that was revealed during the trial and conviction of St. Paul’s student Owen Labrie in 2015. Allegations of a similar ritual were also reported in last summer.
The timing of the announcement Thursday coincided with the latest development in Labrie’s case. Labrie was found guilty of three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault and other related crimes when he was a student at St. Paul’s. He’s now appealing that 2015 conviction, and that appeal went before the New Hampshire Supreme Court Thursday morning.
The Attorney General’s investigation into St. Paul’s lead to the conviction of former teacher David Pook, who pled guilty in August to criminal contempt and witness tampering. Investigators said Pook had a sexual relationship with a former student, and they both were called before a grand jury earlier this year to testify as part of the Attorney General’s investigation. Prosecutors said Pook encouraged the former student to lie to the grand jury, conduct that Associate Attorney General Jane Young said “sidetracked this investigation for months.” Pook is now serving a four-month prison term.
As part of the settlement, St. Paul’s leadership said they are working quickly with the Attorney General’s office to hire the independent monitor.