Phillips Exeter Academy under fire again for its handling of sexual misconduct allegations
Michaella Henry was nervous about returning to the church at Phillips Exeter Academy where she said her classmate, a towering star athlete, had slipped his hands inside her shirt and squeezed her backside as she said “no” over and over again.
For two months last fall, the ugly encounter in the basement of the Phillips Church on the Exeter, N.H., campus had kept the 17-year-old awake at night and triggered sudden panic attacks.
But instead of going to the police with her allegation of sexual assault, Michaella agreed to the school minister’s proposal to meet in the church with the athlete, Chukwudi “Chudi” Ikpeazu, to work out their differences.
“I worked so hard, harder than I should have in my adviser’s opinion to make sure that this wouldn’t blow up, that the police wouldn’t have to get involved,” read Michaella. “But still. I want to know: why?”
Chudi struggled to answer, but he finally took responsibility for his unwanted advances, Michaella said.
At the minister’s urging, the young man also agreed to an “act of penance”: baking bread and delivering it to Michaella for the rest of the year. The Rev. Robert Thompson praised Michaella for accepting the arrangement, later writing, “You did a great service for Chudi, because you gave him an opportunity to express his regret and to take responsibility for what he had done.”
Chudi, through his attorney, declined to comment.
But the bread diplomacy backfired, laying bare a string of choices that made Michaella and her family question the commitment at one of America’s premier private schools to protecting students from abuse.
Instead of improving things, the weekly bread deliveries made Michaella feel increasingly stressed, forcing her to confront her alleged abuser again and again.
All the while, Chudi went about his life as track captain, senior class leader, and dorm proctor.
Heightening the tension, Chudi’s alleged misconduct came a few weeks after a student at nearby St. Paul’s private school was convicted of sexually assaulting a fellow student, drawing national attention. And the drama unfolded as Phillips Exeter reeled from its own sexual misconduct scandals, including criticism of school leaders for not disclosing a popular teacher’s sexual relations with two female students.
It would take months of lost sleep and conflict with school officials over their homegrown attempts at reconciliation before Michaella decided she’d had enough. Weeks before the June 5 graduation, Michaella went to the police. Chudi is now facing arraignment in August on a misdemeanor charge of sexual assault.
Police are also investigating Exeter itself for its handling of Michaella’s case and other instances of sexual misconduct by both students and faculty, according to an official briefed on the investigation.
But in the weeks after the October encounter, outside authorities knew nothing of the case — school officials didn’t contact them. They didn’t even call the senior’s mother, who was furious to have heard nothing from Exeter, or ask whether the family wanted to report the episode to the police.
And they never told her parents that Michaella wasn’t the only student to accuse the boy, a 6-foot-8 track star, of trying to grope her in the church basement that fall.
The question of consent
At brunch with a friend days after Chudi refused to stop touching her that October night, Michaella got into a conversation about sexual consent.
Exeter should educate students about what consent actually means, she said, without acknowledging what had happened to her.
She said her friend responded sarcastically: “Apparently, if you’re a girl doing work alone in a church basement, it means you’re willing to have sex with someone.”
“Why are you saying that?” Michaella demanded.
Her friend eventually confessed that she had pushed Chudi away as he groped her in the church basement where he was working in September.
Michaella consulted her adviser and together the friends met with AJ Cosgrove, dean of residential life, and Melissa Mischke, dean of students, to report what had happened. The school leaders thanked them for coming forward and promised to look into it.
The allegations came at a critical moment. In late August, Exeter alumnus Zoha Qamar had published a column on the women’s blog Jezebel that criticized Exeter deans for turning a blind eye to sexual assault on the campus.
In the wake of that piece and the felony sexual assault conviction of Owen Labrie, a student at St. Paul’s in Concord, Exeter’s new school leader, Lisa MacFarlane, wrote to parents on Sept. 4 that the school is “acutely aware” of the “important and troubling questions” the trial raised for all schools. Exeter, she promised, is committed to addressing issues of consent and sexual assault.
But in the October meeting with the deans, Michaella felt uneasy about whether the school could adequately protect her. Near the end of the conversation, Cosgrove tried to reassure the students: “The good news is you don’t have to report this to the police because there was no penetration,” he said, according to Michaella’s recollection.
Cosgrove referred questions to a school spokeswoman, who said Exeter could not comment because of “legal obligations of confidentiality around matters involving students. We’re also constrained by our continuing cooperation with the police investigation and our status as witnesses.”
Michaella acknowledges that there was no sexual penetration. In fact, the evening had started out innocently when Chudi — until then a casual friend — invited her to the church to keep him company on his birthday while he was working a campus job. But Michaella was sure what happened in that basement was more than sexual harassment.
The school didn’t see it that way. The dean of students, in her e-mail months later to Michaella’s mother, said the school “determined that his actions with Michaella and the other female student constituted sexual harassment according to our school’s policy . . . Dean Cosgrove and I took decisive action in response to Chudi’s behaviors within the guidelines of our school’s policies.”
The distinction is important. Sexual assault, defined as “nonconsensual sexual contact and/or penetration” must be reported to local law enforcement, according to Exeter’s school handbook, but not sexual harassment.
Michaella tried a different approach to draw attention to the encounter: She wrote about it for a nonfiction English assignment. The story, which she titled “Alphabet Soup of Rape Culture,” contained a dramatic retelling of her version of the alleged assault.
She submitted it again for another assignment later that year. Both teachers liked the piece.
But Michaella said neither asked whether the “I” in the story referred to her.
An ‘act of penance’ solution
Chudi was a popular athlete, known for his wit and keen fashion sense, and for the bread he baked and sold around campus, a cinnamon-laced concoction known as monkey bread.
At the December meeting in the church, Thompson, an Exeter graduate who has served as school minister for roughly 30 years, asked Michaella what she wanted from Chudi.
Michaella said she joked about trying Chudi’s monkey bread. The reverend, known around campus as “Rev,” seized on it and Chudi agreed to provide a large order each week for the rest of the year.
At first, she recalled, she thought it was a good idea, and that the two might rebuild their friendship.
Thompson also seemed pleased by the result of the meeting.
“I thought you would be amused to learn that Michaella extracted an act of penance from Chudi,” Thompson wrote in a Dec. 18 e-mail to Russell Weatherspoon, Michaella’s trusted mentor who had been present for part of the meeting in the church. “Young Mr. Ikpeazu agreed to the penance without much resistance.”
But the arrangement soon began to bother Michaella.
“I was so ashamed of it,” Michaella said. “I was being reminded once a week that he assaulted me.”
Chudi seemed to resent it as well and eventually stopped making the weekly deliveries.
Michaella’s mother, Andrea, meanwhile, was outraged.
“I was beside myself. But I didn’t want Exeter to retaliate against her either,” she said of Michaella, her first child to attend boarding school. “You don’t know what to do. My child was in their care. I was worried about her life.”
Mischke, the dean of students, later criticized the bread diplomacy in an e-mail to Michaella’s mother. “This actually was more harmful than good since it caused Chudi and Michaella to intersect on campus more regularly than necessary and did not really serve to rebuild anything. Dean Cosgrove and I were disappointed to learn of this arrangement.”
Mischke did not return messages seeking comment.
By April , talk of sexual misconduct was everywhere on campus. The Globe wrote that Rick Schubart, a beloved Exeter teacher, had admitted to having a sexual relationship with two students decades earlier. The school had forced Schubart to resign, but kept it quiet for years.
Hours after the Globe published a story on Schubart, Thompson posted on Facebook: “I love Rick Schubart.” That set off a firestorm of criticism from students and alumni who thought it was insensitive.
The school minister responded with an update: “My love of Rick is difficult to express without seeming to disrespect the victims of his actions. That makes me sad.”
Reached by phone, Thompson declined to comment.
Two weeks after the news about Schubart broke, Exeter fired Steve Lewis, a teacher who confessed to sexual encounters with a student decades earlier.
Alumni were bringing forward dozens of new complaints, making Exeter the latest in a wave of independent schools in New England to publicly confront allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct.
Not only were teachers and staffers coming under scrutiny, but also administrators and school leaders who failed to report misconduct — including Exeter’s previous principal Tom Hassan, who was censured in April by The Association of Boarding Schools for not disclosing Schubart’s behavior before the group gave him a leadership award in 2012. Exeter halted a major fund-raising campaign in the wake of the burgeoning scandal.
Michaella was frustrated by the attention on past misdeeds rather than on the suffering of current students. She battled sleeping problems and had trouble getting to class on time. Her college plans weren’t panning out.
Twice, she asked for transportation to visit outside counselors at Haven, a group that specializes in helping victims of sexual assault or abuse. But the school never arranged the rides.
Things came to a head on April 15, after Exeter hosted a performance of “SLUT: The Play,” which follows the journey of a 16-year-old who is assaulted by a group of friends.
Michaella started having a panic attack near the end of the show. A friend who was present said Michaella cried uncontrollably before bolting out early.
An ‘inspiring captain’
A few days later, Michaella brought three friends to a meeting with Cosgrove, dean of residential life. She had a blunt message: the school’s response to the assault on her was insufficient.
Having suffered no significant repercussions, she said, Chudi had no reason to think he had done anything significantly wrong.
On April 21, Chudi had been featured in the student newspaper as the Exonian’s Athlete of the Week. Track teammates lauded the senior as “an inspiring captain” and “a natural-born leader.”
A talented shot putter — he had come in 11th at nationals — Chudi planned to attend the University of Pennsylvania and compete on the school’s track and field team this fall, the article reported.
Michaella thought Chudi should have been stripped of his leadership roles in the fall.
Cosgrove acknowledged to Michaella the school could have done better but he said he also had to think about Chudi, according to one of Michaella’s friends who attended the meeting. And the dean insisted that what had happened in the church basement was sexual harassment, not sexual assault.
After this meeting, Michaella and her friends watched “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about sexual assault on American college campuses, and decided to design posters about consent.
They settled on phrases like “NO MEANS NO” and “Anything but YES means NO” and put the black-and-white signs in bathrooms and dorms around Exeter.
One night, Michaella was having another panic attack when Rosanna Salcedo, dean of multicultural affairs, showed up in the common room of Michaella’s dorm and brought the student to the dean’s office.
Salcedo said it was irrational for the senior to feel she was unsafe on campus, Michaella recalled. And Michaella needed to stop telling people she had been assaulted because it hadn’t been confirmed.
“What are you talking about?” Michaella interrupted. Chudi had admitted it in front of two faculty members in December, she said.
Salcedo responded that Michaella could not determine on her own if an assault took place.
The dean declined to comment to the Globe.
“Why can’t I ask the police if what happened to me was assault?” Michaella asked.
Salcedo insisted it would only make the situation more complicated, Michaella recalled.
Talk to our school’s investigator, Salcedo later said. Michaella initially declined.
A few days later, her adviser passed along another message from Salcedo: If Michaella refused to speak with the school’s investigator, she shouldn’t be spreading allegations about what had happened.
Michaella felt trapped. She agreed to talk with the school’s investigator.
But first, she took the step that she had dreaded: she called Exeter police.
On May 4, Michaella walked to Me & Ollie’s, a coffee shop in downtown Exeter, to meet with Stephanie Callahan, a victim advocate with Rockingham County Attorney’s office. Callahan encouraged the teenager to give an official statement.
Two weeks later, Michaella said, she met Callahan in the parking lot behind Me & Ollie’s. There, an unmarked black police car was waiting to take them to the Child Advocacy Center of Rockingham County in Portsmouth, N.H.
Michaella shared her story on video with officials from the Exeter Police Department and the Rockingham County Attorney’s office, which are jointly investigating Exeter’s handling of multiple sexual assault and sexual abuse cases, according to an official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.
Michaella also reached out for advice from Qamar, the 2015 Exeter graduate who wrote the column for Jezebel. Qamar connected Michaella with several older alumni, including one who reported the assault to New Hampshire’s child protection services.
“It’s ridiculous that a student follows the rules, makes a report of sexual assault to the school, and is then rebuffed and demeaned and subjected to institutional bullying,” said Michael Whitfield Jones, one of the Exeter graduates who has been helping Michaella.
Days after Michaella visited Portsmouth, deans Salcedo and Mischke called Michaella into a meeting. The school’s investigator had made a determination: Chudi had violated school policies on sexual harassment and sexual misconduct “because he touched Michaella’s bottom and breast under her clothing after she expressed to him that she did not want to engage in sexual activity,” according to an e-mail Mischke later wrote to Michaella’s mother.
Mischke added that Chudi disputed that he touched underneath her clothing, “but his memory, according to the report, is not as clear as Michaella.”
Exeter would need to report the matter to police. Later, they told Michaella that both she and Chudi had to sign a no-contact order. If either violated it, they could be forced to leave campus.
Michaella was scared to leave her room or face punishment.
“It’s been really hard trying to avoid him on campus,” Michaella wrote to Callahan, Rockingham’s victim advocate, on May 26.
“I cannot believe that the school made you sign something. Did they find out that you went to the police?” Callahan wrote back. “The defendant, Chudi, put himself in this position and the school should be focusing on that.”
Michaella counted down the days to the June 5 graduation. She spent her time planning on her gap year to work on a project to build a library in rural Haiti where her mother grew up.
Then, Michaella got a call from Callahan that Chudi would be arrested on June 3 for a misdemeanor charge of sexual assault.
He turned himself in that Friday afternoon and was released on $5,000 personal recognizance bail, according to Exeter police. He did not attend graduation. Chudi is scheduled to be arraigned in August.
Exeter’s principal, MacFarlane, sent out several year-end letters to the school community acknowledging the difficult year, but never mentioned Chudi’s arrest.
Instead, Exeter announced it was restarting the fund-raising campaign it had suspended after the scandal surrounding Schubart.
MacFarlane wrote: “We appreciate all who have written to affirm the school’s efforts to address misconduct in a transparent, direct way.”