Following new reports of sexual misconduct at St. Paul’s School, authorities in New Hampshire Thursday announced a criminal investigation into the elite boarding school.
New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald’s office, Concord police, and New Hampshire State Police will conduct the investigation, authorities said in a statement released Thursday night.
The investigation will initially focus on whether the school engaged in conduct that endangered the welfare of a child, the attorney general’s office said in the statement. That office will also investigate whether the school violated a law that prohibits obstructing criminal investigations.
“Protection of children is a paramount priority for law enforcement,” said MacDonald in the statement. “I am confident that an institution such as St. Paul’s School will be fully cooperative with this investigation as it has pledged that ‘[t]he safety and well-being of all students remains [its] highest priority.”
MacDonald’s statement cited several recent disclosures at the school, including a May report of past sexual assaults of students by St. Paul’s teachers over four decades and more recent allegations of “sexual conquest rituals’’ involving students.
St. Paul’s Rector Michael G. Hirschfeld said Thursday night that the school would “fully cooperate.’’
“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,’’ Hirschfeld said in a statement. “We also intend to work closely with the attorney general’s office to answer any and all questions regarding the independent report issued last month. Our goal is and always will be the health, safety, and well-being of our students. We will work tirelessly to meet that goal and strengthen the public’s faith in St. Paul’s School.”
The announcement by the New Hampshire attorney general comes just two weeks after the school said it had hired its own outside investigator when “students came forward and alerted (St. Paul’s School) faculty to behaviors that were concerning to them.”
The Concord Monitor had reported that eight boys in a dormitory competed in a “game of sexual conquest” where the winners would get their names on a crown. The newspaper’s account broadly mirrors the “senior salute” sexual contest among St. Paul students that played a role in the sexual assault case against former student Owen Labrie.
Labrie was acquitted in 2015 of accusations he had raped Chessy Prout — who was 15 years old at the time — but convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault and child endangerment and was sentenced to a year in prison.
Prout, now 18, welcomed the attorney general’s announcement. She said she was hopeful the investigation would result in justice “for all the victims of St. Paul’s School.”
“I hope that this process, along with the courage of other survivors who have spoken up, leads to major changes of the leadership of St. Paul’s . . . to a leadership that protects its students,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday night.
State Representative Debra Altschiller, a Democrat from Stratham, said she viewed the investigation as the first step toward a cultural change at St. Paul’s.
“The senior salute with Owen Labrie was not a one-off, it was not one kid and a small group of friends,” she said. “This was a breeding of a culture at St. Paul’s School. We know this now.”
She said she hoped the investigation would give the school, “the sense of the gravity of the situations they’ve been dealing with.”
State Senator Bette Lasky, a Democrat from Nashua, called the investigation “necessary.”
“There seems to be an inordinate amount of people coming forward,” she said.
Amanda Grady Sexton, a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said in a statement that authorities are “right to shine a light on the darkness that continues to surround this school.” .
She said the new investigation was “an opportunity for the school to assess the reality of sexual misconduct on their campus and take the proper steps to craft model policies, establish a prevention plan, train faculty, and connect students to support services.”
Eric MacLeish, a Boston attorney who has represented hundreds of sexual abuse victims, also applauded the attorney general’s announcement, saying the school had lost the moral authority to police itself. He said the school has a history of “not preventing foreseeable sexual assaults.”
“There have been too many horrific mistakes that have been made,” he said.
According to a report released in May, 13 former faculty and staff members at the school engaged in sexual misconduct with students over four decades. The report, conducted by a law firm hired by St. Paul’s, faulted administrators for being more interested in preserving the school’s reputation than protecting students.
When that investigative report was released, Hirschfeld said St. Paul’s has, for more than a decade, trained teachers on appropriate boundaries and educated students to alert adults if they see misconduct.
Several prep schools have investigated claims of misconduct following a 2016 Boston Globe Spotlight story that reported on allegations of abuse by about 200 victims at 67 New England private schools.
McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.