St. Paul’s School focused more on protecting its reputation than on protecting the children entrusted to its care. That was the message from New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald today as he announced the end of his criminal investigation into the elite Concord boarding school.
MacDonald says his office found enough evidence to charge St. Paul’s. But instead, the two sides reached a settlement that some advocates and attorneys are calling groundbreaking.
NHPR’s Lauren Chooljian has been covering this all for us and joins us now.
Note: This is a rough transcript of an interview from Thursday's All Things Considered.
PB: So Lauren - let’s first start with the investigation itself - why did it begin and what did it entail?
LC: St. Paul’s has been in and out of headlines for the past few years, so listeners likely are familiar with the two big events that lead the Attorney General to investigate St. Paul’s.
First, there was the 2015 trial and conviction of Owen Labrie, and his appeal was actually before the New Hampshire Supreme today. But that case brought to light the so-called "senior salute," which was a student-led tradition at St. Paul’s where seniors try to hook up with as many underclassmen as they can before they graduate.
Then, last summer there was a report from a law firm St. Paul’s hired that showed that St. Paul’s teachers had sexually assaulted students for decades - and it alleged administrators at the time of many of these incidents knew what was going on.
As for what this state investigation entailed, the AG’s office convened a grand jury which means they were considering criminal charges, that grand jury subpoena 24 witnesses from all over the country. We don’t yet know exactly what went down there, but we were told that those documents will be released in the next few months
PB: So MacDonald said his office did find enough evidence to charge St. Paul’s with child endangerment but they chose not to - why?
LC: The way MacDonald sees it is he believes it is his duty to protect the public - especially kids - who he sees as some of the most vulnerable members of the public.
"We concluded that the duty to protect students and others would not be advanced by a protracted process that would have resulted in misdemeanor convictions and monetary fines against the school."
So last spring, prosecutors went to St. Paul’s and said, "Look - this is what we’ve got, how can we work together to come up with some reforms?"
And in conversations I’ve had with victim advocates and attorneys, it sounds like what St. Paul’s and the AG’s office came up with here is pretty monumental and certainly new for prep schools. But in some ways it recalls the settlement the state reached with the Catholic Diocese of Manchester more than a decade ago.
What St. Paul’s is agreeing to governmental oversight. There will be a person - called an "Independent Compliance Overseer" - who will be on campus for up to five years making sure St. Paul’s does certain things like putting the board of trustees and senior leadership through trauma training. The school has to provide specific services for victims. They have to report any and all incidents to law enforcement.
And the AG’s office is going to be on top of St. Paul’s to make sure it happens - and St. Paul’s will be paying for all of this - including the 50 thousand dollars it cost the state to conduct the investigation.
PB: What is St. Paul’s response to all this?
LC: No one from the school was present for the Attorney General’s press conference today, but they did grant reporters interviews. I spoke with Board President Archibald Cox, and he says he said he thinks the settlement is in the best interest of the school and the AG’s office. I asked Cox if this settlement is them saying to students that school leaders own all the wrongs that were done on this campus. He said the school has acknowledged that the school has admitted its wrongs for "some time" and that it's tried to help those students who were hurt by past abuse.
PB: So, Lauren, are victims happy with this agreement?
LC: There was some real damage done here - for decades - and that doesn't go away. But I spoke with Chessy Prout's parents. She was the victim in the Labrie case, and they were at the press conference. Her father Alex said this agreement went far beyond their expectations.
But there are still some civil lawsuits pending - some have been settled - but this isn’t going away.