Two weeks ago, Chessy Prout’s name and face were relegated to the darkest corners of the Internet, where trolls reveled in outing — and trashing — a teenage sexual assault victim. They posted pictures of her and her home and her sisters.
But Google her today, and you’ll find story after story about a survivor’s bravery.
In coming forward publicly last month, Prout, who was 15 when she was assaulted by Owen Labrie on the campus of their elite Concord, N.H., prep school, didn’t so much reveal her identity as she reclaimed it, she said in an interview with the Globe.
She leaned on her family, her faith, and her recent friendship with other survivors of sexual violence in deciding to break her silence in an Aug. 30 national television interview, she said. And with “take back the night” rallies and marches echoing in her mind, she decided, she said, “to take back the Internet.”
In 10 days, the social media campaign Prout created with the advocacy group PAVE, or Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, had nearly 5 million impressions online, according to the group’s founder, Angela Rose. Using the hashtag #IHaveTheRightTo, survivors and supporters all over the world have shared photos and stories.
Now 17, Prout is applying to colleges and finishing high school in a state far from the St. Paul’s School campus where Labrie lured her into a machine room and sexually assaulted her.
She’s tried at times to avoid thinking about what happened — “I’m still a normal kid. I still do normal things,” she said — but she has slowly come to terms with how it changed her.
“This is a part of me now, whether I like it or not. It’s not a huge part of me. It’s not what makes or breaks me, but it’s a part of me now,” she said.
In August 2015, Labrie was acquitted of a felony rape charge, but found guilty of three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault, endangering a child, and using computer services to lure a minor.
Labrie was sentenced to a year in prison and is appealing, and Prout and her family are suing St. Paul’s, alleging that the school fostered “a tradition of statutory rape.” Prosecutors at Labrie’s trial said he was participating in a tradition on campus known as the Senior Salute, where male upperclassmen competed to have sex with younger female students before graduation.
St. Paul’s has denied those allegations, and in a widely criticized court filing last month asked a judge to order the Prouts’ legal team to stop discussing the case publicly if the family wished not to be named. St. Paul’s has denied that it intended to have Prout’s name released, though the legal filing plainly asks that she be named if the lawsuit reaches trial.
When Prout heard about the school’s filing from her parents and lawyer, “I kind of laughed to them, and said, ‘They think that’s going keep me quiet? They think that’s going to push me down?’ ” she said. She’d already been giving some thought to how she might live publicly with what happened. The legal pressure “only pushed up the timeline.”
To help with her decision, Prout turned to two fellow survivors: Rose, who was abducted from a shopping mall as a teenager, and Delaney Henderson, who was assaulted by two classmates at a private high school in California.
“When I first came out about my sexual assault, being that same age that Chessy is now, I know how hard it is being able to come forward about something that’s so personal and so scary,” said Rose.
“I had always wished that I had someone like a mentor or somebody to kind of guide me and tell me this is what to expect,” said Henderson, who was also 17 when she went public. Both of her attackers were prosecuted. But the backlash at school and in her community against her was severe — and she told Prout that whatever decision she made should be made for the right reasons.
“You should do it because it’s important to you,” Henderson told her, “not because you’re angry and want to fight back against somebody.”
Going public has been affirming, Prout said, and allowed her to “finally be able to tell my story, and finally have control over what people hear — to have control of the truth.” People at her new school have been supportive, she said, and the outreach from strangers has been nearly universally positive.
But the effects of what happened still linger.
The outgoing girl who smiled and waved at everyone is gone, she said, at least partly.
“I was a pretty trusting person,” she said. “It has made me question who to trust, what to believe all the time now,” Prout said.
Boys who she learned at trial were engaged in the predatory Senior Salute practice had been kind to her and even to her parents, she said, even in the days just before she was assaulted.
“They knew what was going to happen to me,” Prout said, referring to messages between Labrie and friends that came out during Labrie’s trial, suggesting he’d been targeting her as part of the Senior Salute for some time. “They felt like they had the right to hug my mother and look my parents in the eye . . . It makes you feel kind of disgusting.”
That, said her mother, Susan Prout, “is a tough lesson for a 15-year-old. It’s a very tough lesson for a 50-year-old.”
“We’re a very adventurous, faith-filled family,” Susan Prout said. “But I didn’t know the most dangerous thing I was going to do was send my daughter to St. Paul’s School.”
In an e-mail, the school denied the existence of a culture or tradition of sexual assault, but expressed admiration for Prout’s courage and condemned “unkind behavior toward her.”
“We have always placed the safety and well-being of our students first and are confident that the environment and culture of the school have supported that,” the statement read.
Two weeks ago, when Prout’s younger sister came home from school, the girls sat down together to watch a recording of Chessy, her older sister, and their parents appearing on that morning’s “Today’’ show. The girl is 9 now, and has had to learn at an early age what her big sister has gone through.
The girl sat in Chessy’s lap.
“I personally am fighting for her,’’ Prout said. “She’s a young woman growing up in our world right now. I want to protect her. I want her to know her rights.”