After more than two years of anonymity, a teenage sexual assault victim known only as “the girl” or “the survivor” identified herself Tuesday as the student who was assaulted on the campus of St. Paul’s School, the elite New Hampshire prep school.
In coming forward, Chessy Prout announced a new campaign to empower other survivors to speak out, wading into an emotional debate about whether sexual assault victims should go public.
“I want other people to feel empowered, and just strong enough to say ‘I have the right to my body. I have the right to say no,’ ” Prout said during a nationally televised interview on NBC’s “Today” show.
Prout, now 17, was flanked by her family and backed by legions of supporters who took to social media to share their own stories.
“I feel ready to stand up and own what happened to me,” Prout said in the interview. “I’m going to make sure that other people — other girls, other boys — know that they can own it, too, and that they don’t have to be ashamed, either.”
She also said she was disgusted by the split verdict that sent 18-year-old senior Owen Labrie to jail for a year.
The public appearance followed a challenge by St. Paul’s to Prout’s anonymity in her family’s ongoing lawsuit against the school. In a court filing this month, the school chastised the Prouts for their anonymous criticism and asked that they be named and prohibited from speaking publicly about the case.
The school’s legal move drew widespread criticism from survivors of sexual violence and appears to have backfired.
Last week, the Prouts withdrew their request to remain anonymous, saying they had stayed silent long enough in the face of the school’s two-year public relations campaign.
On Monday, the Prouts refiled the complaint under their names, Alexander and Susan. And on Tuesday, Chessy Prout suddenly became one of the best-known advocates for survivors of sexual assault.
After the interview, St. Paul’s maintained its denial that it was complicit in the assault, but listed a slate of changes it made in response to the case, including new education models, intervention programs, and bringing in outside experts “to examine the health of the student culture.”
The school has also created a new position, called associate head of school, “Today” reported, “for the purpose of integrating and advancing healthy culture initiatives.”
Prout appeared poised and measured during most of the 7½-minute segment, but grew emotional when she described the pain the ordeal has caused those close to her. Fighting back tears, Prout said that she hides in her closet during panic attacks to shield a younger sister from her anguish.
“She will come in to my closet when I am rocking on the floor and punching my legs trying to get myself to calm down,” Prout said. “She will try to give me the biggest hug” in hopes of providing comfort.
Prout’s appearance prompted an outpouring of support online.
“She’s so eloquent and so brave and so poised. It was really amazing,” said Angela Rose, founder of the advocacy group Promoting Awareness | Victim Empowerment, or PAVE. “I think her authenticity really captured America.”
Rose, who was abducted and sexually assaulted as a 17-year-old, reached out to Prout when news of the Labrie case first broke, she said.
On Tuesday, PAVE launched a program that Prout conceived, called “I Have the Right To.”
“This is her brainchild. I just wanted to help support her,” Rose said. “For her, it’s really important [to let] survivors know that they’re not alone.”
Prout returned to St. Paul’s School after the attack, but told “Today” that her friends who were boys mostly ignored her, and did not talk to her or make eye contact.
She has since moved to another state, where she is finishing high school and applying to colleges.
Labrie was acquitted of a felony rape charge but found guilty of three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault, because Prout was below the age of consent.
Labrie was also convicted of endangering a child and using computer services to lure a minor, and sentenced to a year in jail.
Prout told “Today” that she was appalled by the split verdict.
“The fact that he was still able to pull the wool over a group of people’s eyes — that bothered me a lot and disgusted me,” she said.
Labrie is out on bail under GPS monitoring and has registered as a sex offender in New Hampshire, pending an appeal.
Rose and other advocates acknowledged that Prout’s path is not for everyone.
“A survivor who chooses not to disclose this deeply personal crime that has been inflicted on them is certainly no less brave,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, public policy director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Prout’s choice to share her story publicly came in the face of serious backlash, she said. Her name and image have been circulated on message boards and websites in the darkest parts of the Internet, where people hid behind anonymity while sharing vile descriptions of Prout and her family.
“She has spent two years without being able to speak the truth,” Grady Sexton said. “She’s taking back her own name from the Internet trolls, and taking back the power. And there is so much power in the story she has to share.”