New Hampshire Attorney General Announces Criminal Investigation of St. Paul’s School

Concord Monitor
Published: 7/13/2017 7:07:00 PM
Modified: 7/14/2017 12:00:09 AM

Concord — The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office is launching a criminal investigation into St. Paul’s School, examining how the Concord prep school has responded to reports of sexual assault and misconduct.

State prosecutors announced they’re working with the Merrimack County Attorney’s Office, New Hampshire State Police and the Concord Police Department to investigate the elite boarding school. The investigation will initially focus on issues of possible child endangerment and obstruction of justice.

“Protection of children is a paramount priority for law enforcement,” Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said in a statement Thursday evening.

The announcement came as lawmakers called for the state’s department of justice to examine the circumstances surrounding sexual misconduct allegations, including sexual conquest rituals, and the actions of school administrators in the aftermath of those reports.

Seven legislators who spoke to the Concord Monitor this week cited recent media reports about new games of sexual conquest among students, and possible student sexual assaults on campus, as reason for an outside investigation. Members of both the House and Senate expressed concern about the safety of students at the elite boarding school, which has acknowledged a longstanding history of sexual misconduct to include faculty abuse of students decades ago.

Senator Bette Lasky, a Nashua Democrat who serves as vice chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said there’s an “inordinate amount of questions” surrounding the allegations of sexual misconduct at St. Paul’s, and it’s important that the attorney general’s office provide clarity.

Republican Senator Kevin Avard agreed.

“Victims of sexual abuse are often afraid of speaking up, but just because someone is very powerful or has a lot of money doesn’t mean their voices shouldn’t be heard,” said Avard, of Nashua. “Transparency is key.”

Hours before the attorney general’s announcement, Rector Michael Hirschfeld said the school was willing to work with the Attorney General’s office.

“We welcome opportunities to discuss our programs, rules, and procedures regarding student safety and reporting laws at any time,” he said. “We have been in close contact with local law enforcement regarding recent incidents of concern, and we will continue to fully cooperate with any inquiries we receive.”

Several incidents came to light at the close of the 2016-17 school year, including a report of sexual assault involving two students on campus and a sexual conquest game involving a crown.

Several people connected with the institution told the Monitor in June that boys had competed to have their name put on a crown. The school, however, did not publicly acknowledged its internal investigation into the matter prior to media reports.

In a letter to the school community June 30, Hirschfeld said seniors reported to faculty their concerns that a group of underclassmen were “writing down their relationships with other students on a fast-food chain crown.”

Around the time of the discovery, the school modified an all-boys dormitory page of the yearbook by placing a large sticker over the bottom half, concealing what many believe are photographs of the boys wearing the crown.

Soon after the incident came to light, Rep. Debra Altschiller, a Stratham Democrat took to social media to encourage other legislators to join her in calling for the attorney general to investigate St. Paul’s out of a concern for student safety.

“It is time for a third-party, unbiased investigation that prioritizes the safety of children above all else,” Altschiller said on Thursday. “It is time for St. Paul’s administration, faculty, alumni and students to have a long overdue honest conversation about what’s happening at this institution, and do real work towards ensuring that there is effective evidence-based intervention and prevention education work being done.”

Altschiller, who works as an outreach coordinator at the crisis center HAVEN, mentioned fellow state Rep. Renny Cushing in her call for an investigation. Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, said Thursday he “absolutely” believes it’s time to investigate.

“I find myself troubled by what seems to be a culture of promoting impunity for people who engage in underage sexual activity,” said Cushing, a member of the House’s criminal justice committee.

Cushing and others said they believe an investigation should shine a light on both current and past practices at the school, and must be carried out with concern for victims in mind.

Senate Judiciary member Martha Hennessey, a Hanover Democrat, echoed those concerns, saying: “My feeling is that these things do snowball, and I think it’s extremely important at this point to do everything possible to investigate and find how deeply this goes, and what needs to be done — not with anything else in mind but protecting the young people at St. Paul’s.”

Alumni, former faculty and survivors of sexual abuse at St. Paul’s have long called for more oversight at the institution, saying it cannot disassociate itself from a long-standing history of sexual misconduct when there is evidence that behavior continues today. They say the sexual conquest games among students are a byproduct of a larger systemic problem at the institution that has gone unaddressed for decades.

Months prior to learning about the “relationship crown,” Concord police opened an investigation into what was described by the school as “a relationship map,” on which students names are linked.

St. Paul’s Dean of Students Aaron Marsh told police at that time that “the map linked a number of students together and suggested romantic involvement,” according to a police report.

The school's investigation found no criminal wrongdoing; however, a police investigation is suspended pending any new information or renewed cooperation from the parties involved.

The map bears some similarity to the now-infamous springtime ritual at the school known as the “Senior Salute,” where upperclassmen would keep score of their sexual conquests in a laundry room. The rules of the game took center stage at the 2015 trial of Owen Labrie, an 18-year-old graduate who was found guilty of propositioning a 15-year-old freshman girl online for sex.

Labrie was convicted in August 2015 of three counts of statutory rape and one count of endangering the welfare of a child, all misdemeanors. The jury also found him guilty of prohibited use of a computer, a felony that requires lifelong registration as a sex offender. His appeal is before the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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