It was March 2014, the beginning of “Senior Salute” season at St. Paul’s School, a time when boys preparing for graduation competed in a rite of sexual conquest, using metaphors borrowed from animal predation to describe their pursuit of younger girls, whom they viewed as easy marks they could readily “slay.”
“Welcome to an eight-week exercise in debauchery, a probing exploration of the meaning of the word sleazebag,” one senior, Owen Labrie, wrote in an e-mail to his friend, Tucker. “Are there any gazelles left in this desolate savannah? Can sisters be slain in the same evening?”
Two months later, Chessy Prout, a 15-year-old freshman, accepted a flowery “Senior Salute” invitation from Labrie and, despite her trepidation and the warnings of her older sister, a senior, agreed to go out with him. On the night before his graduation, he took Prout to a secluded mechanical room, where he pulled her shorts down and sexually assaulted her.
Now, Prout has written a memoir about the emotional and legal ordeal that followed and her journey from nameless victim in a nationally watched criminal trial to outspoken advocate for young survivors of sexual assault.
What’s striking is that unlike many accounts of sexual assault in the #MeToo era — most notably those from Hollywood — this one comes from the sharply observant eye of a teenager who describes a school culture steeped in money and misogyny.
The book, “I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope,” reprints Facebook messages, e-mails, and Instagram posts to illuminate an insular world of male sexual aggression, thriving under the noses of teachers and administrators.
In a statement, St. Paul’s School applauded Prout for her “trailblazing work to give a voice to sexual assault victims” but said “Chessy misrepresents our school” by suggesting it fostered a culture of sexual predation.
“Students understood senior salute to refer to a range of consensual behavior,” St. Paul’s School said. “It was never a tradition and was not about assault or coercion. The school has no tradition or culture that would ever allow or condone what happened to Chessy.”
Prout says she hopes the book, written with Jenn Abelson, a Boston Globe reporter, will help other teenagers who have felt shame and humiliation after being sexually assaulted.
She unflinchingly recalls the confusion she felt after the assault, when she replied to Labrie’s e-mail calling her “an angel” by writing back, “you’re quite an angel yourself but would you mind keeping the sequence of events to yourself for now?”
She writes that she felt guilty for not listening to her older sister’s warnings to avoid Labrie, and blamed herself for going to a secluded place with a senior she barely knew.
“I want to emphasize that there is no such thing as a perfect victim,” Prout, now 19 and preparing to enter Barnard College, said Monday on the “Today” show. “People can . . . pull us apart, tear us apart, tear us down, try to poke holes in our stories. But, at the same time, we are human, we make mistakes, and we’re not perfect. And so that’s what I wanted to show through writing this book — show my vulnerability, show my weaknesses, and be able to say, you can be strong through those.”
Though Prout’s father worked as a CEO and was a St. Paul’s alum, she writes that she was initially shocked by the enormous privilege she encountered at the 162-year-old Episcopal school in Concord, N.H., where the Astors, Kennedys, and Vanderbilts have sent their children to be educated.
Students, she writes, got to know one another by asking, “Do you summer in the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard? Ski in Vail or the French Alps?” And instead of saying “good,” students said “gucci,” as in “Sounds gucci!”
“The level of affluence and one-upsmanship was astounding,” she writes.
And the “hook-up culture,” she writes, was so pervasive that the student newspaper printed a “Scoring Dictionary” that defined terms such as “Senior Salute.”
The adults, she indicates, seemed aware of some of the culture, warning the girls before a dance called the “Nash Bash,” that, “Boys will try to touch you. Try to ignore it and don’t participate.” Sure enough, a freshman hockey player snuck up from behind Prout at the dance, and slipped his hands under her shorts.
St. Paul’s School said, “St. Paul’s culture does not condone or tolerate sexual assault or harassment of any kind.”
After Prout was assaulted by Labrie, she writes that she was abandoned by friends and endured a grueling trial in which she was subjected to a withering cross-examination by J.W. Carney Jr., a hard-driving defense attorney who had represented Whitey Bulger.
A friend’s father helped pay Carney’s legal bills and e-mailed other St. Paul’s parents for donations, an appeal that made Prout feel as if “the entire St. Paul’s community was turning against me.”
Labrie was acquitted of felony rape, but convicted of three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault for penetrating a minor and a felony charge of using a computer to lure a minor, a verdict that required him to register as a sex offender. He is asking the New Hampshire Supreme Court to grant him a new trial.
Earlier this year, St. Paul’s settled a lawsuit brought by Prout’s parents, which alleged that her assault was a “direct result of [St. Paul’s] fostering, permitting, and condoning a tradition of ritualized statutory rape.” The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
But when the lawsuit was initially filed, St. Paul’s threatened to reveal Prout’s name, which had been kept secret during Labrie’s trial.
The hardball tactic, she writes, persuaded her to reveal her identity on the “Today” show in 2016. “I’m not going to let the school bully me into silence,” she writes, recalling her reaction. “I want to tell my side of the story.”
St. Paul’s is still grappling with the fallout from a report it released last year that found that 13 now-former faculty and staff members had engaged in sexual misconduct with students between 1948 and 1988.
In January, Michael G. Hirschfeld, the school’s rector, announced that he will step down at the end of the 2018-2019 school year, saying, “the time is right for new leadership.”
The school said Monday that it has “worked hard to understand its past, being transparent about bad actors and the failures of past administrations” and has “strengthened our robust programs on health, well-being, and mutual respect.”
“We have turned this experience into action — ensuring we never repeat our past mistakes and providing a safe and nurturing community for our students,” the school said.
Prout writes that she wants other survivors to know there is a “path forward, however rocky,” as well as a community willing to support them and their pursuit of justice.
“I felt like it was all my fault,” she writes. “It would take me years to accept what now seems obvious: Rape is not a punishment for poor judgment.”Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.