Victims advocates and legal observers expressed consternation on Monday about a New Hampshire prep school’s request to reveal the identity of a teenage sexual assault victim if her family’s lawsuit against the school reaches trial.
In raising the issue of the girl’s continued anonymity, St. Paul’s School is leaning on legal strategies that are common in high-profile civil cases involving sexual assault, lawyers said. But because St. Paul’s is an educational institution responsible for keeping children safe, the tactic left some scratching — or shaking — their heads.
“I find it really troubling,” said Christina Gagnier, a lawyer who is on the board of directors of Without My Consent, a nonprofit organization that combats online privacy invasions. “You set a very dangerous precedent, particularly when it’s an educational institution.”
In the federal court system, where the lawsuit against St. Paul’s was filed, plaintiffs legally must file with their real names. Anonymity is granted to plaintiffs only in exceptional cases. In deciding whether to permit a civil lawsuit to be brought anonymously, judges must balance the interests of the plaintiff and the defendant.
“The question really is, ‘will it cause irreparable harm to the victim to reveal her identity?’” said Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who represented many victims of sexual abuse by priests. “It takes a callous attitude for a defendant to ask a victim’s identity be revealed. ... I believe most courts will protect the victim if it can be proven that irreparable harm will be caused.”
The lawsuit against St. Paul’s stems from a 2014 episode on campus in which Owen Labrie — then an 18-year-old senior — sexually assaulted a 15-year-old freshman. In it, the girl’s parents allege that the school bore some responsibility for the assault because it fostered and condoned “a tradition of ritualized statutory rape.”
At Labrie’s trial, prosecutors said he was participating in a campus custom known as the Senior Salute, where male upperclassmen competed to have sex with younger female students before graduation. Labrie was acquitted last August of felony rape charges but was found guilty of misdemeanor sexual assault, illegal use of computer services, and endangering the welfare of a child; he is appealing his conviction.
Under the names John and Jane Doe, the girl’s parents filed a federal lawsuit against the school in June. She is identified in court records as J.D., and the family asked for permission to be identified only by these pseudonyms.
In response, the school filed a motion opposing some aspects of the family’s request late last week, seeking a gag order on the plaintiffs’ lawyers and limitations on their anonymity.
The school’s response cited several precedents, including a judge’s decision in a rape lawsuit against professional basketball star Derrick Rose. In that case, a judge declined to rule on a request to lift the plaintiff’s anonymity at trial until it was necessary to do so, but wrote, “Indeed, the jury may interpret the court’s permission for plaintiff to conceal her identity as a comment on the harm defendants allegedly caused.” The trial for Rose, who is accused of participating in a gang rape, is set for the fall.
In a statement e-mailed to alumni Monday, Archibald Cox Jr., president of the St. Paul’s Board of Trustees, disputed the characterization of the court filing and denied the allegations in the lawsuit.
“We did not oppose the family’s use of pseudonyms, and certainly did not request that the young woman’s name be made public,” Cox wrote. The e-mail does not address a section of the filing that references an eventual trial, in which the school requested that “plaintiffs and J.D. shall not proceed under pseudonyms at the trial of this matter.”
Forcing victims to reveal their names risks their safety, and the mere threat of unmasking potentially discourages future victims from coming forward, advocates and legal experts said.
“For me, it’s where the rubber meets the road on whether or not you care about sexual assault victims,” said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, a national organization based in Boston. A school that wants victims to come forward, or to remedy a campus culture that may have fostered an assault, would not challenge the anonymity of a victim, she said.
“A school has to really put their money where their mouth is and say we want people to come forward,” Bruno said. “Maybe they don’t understand how much danger she could be in if that pseudonym is lifted.”
Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, said her organization is concerned that the school’s request will have a “chilling effect” on other victims that will keep them from coming forward.
Much of the school’s filing focuses on alleged attempts by the girl’s lawyers to publicize the case — efforts the school argues contradict the family’s stated interest in privacy. Lawyers for St. Paul’s allegedly received calls from local and national media outlets before the case had officially been filed. They referred to a Wall Street Journal reporter who had a copy of the complaint before the school knew it existed.
In his letter to parents, Cox decried the plaintiffs’ “coordinated media attacks.”
But there are important reasons to publicize such cases that have nothing to do with the names of victims, said Isa Woldeguiorguis, executive director of The Center for Hope and Healing, a Lowell organization for survivors of sexual violence.
“Sexual violence on campuses and school and educational contexts breeds in silence,” Woldeguiorguis said. “If (the Senior Salute) was so commonplace that it has that name, then as an institution, that is a subject for public discourse.”
The claim that the school’s reputation has been attacked in the media “from behind a cloak of anonymity” left unstated what Woldeguiorguis called “the dot dot dot” that follows: that the school should have an equal opportunity to impugn the teenage girl whose assault set the case in motion.
“What I would worry about is their response is to go after her,” said Woldeguiorguis. Too often, “they become the ones on trial. . . . Let this case be about the environment at the school and whether it did or did not contribute.”
The girl’s name, she said, has no bearing on that question.