POLITICS

St. Paul's Turned Blind Eye To Teen Harassed For Reporting Her Sexual Assault, Suit Alleges

Owen Labrie assaulted a 15-year-old girl at the elite prep school. That was only the beginning of her problems.

St. Paul’s School failed to stop public taunting and harassment of a teenage girl who reported being sexually assaulted by a popular older boy at the school, a new lawsuit claims. The school also allowed a culture of sexual assault to go unaddressed, enabling the girl’s assault to happen, says the suit, filed Wednesday.

St. Paul’s, an elite New Hampshire boarding school, was the center of a “media circus” last fall during the criminal trail of Owen Labrie. Labrie was accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old classmate in May 2014, when he was 18, as part of a “Senior Salute” tradition. 

He was found guilty of misdemeanor sexual assault and a felony charge of using a computer to lure his victim, but acquitted of more serious sex abuse charges. Articles since the trial have described the fallout for the prestigious St. Paul’s community and profiled Labrie and his ongoing appeal.

But the federal lawsuit filed Wednesday is the first time Labrie’s victim is sharing details of the retaliation she faced after reporting the assault

“Once the report was made to police, people started to figure it out and she started to feel retaliation,” Steven J. Kelly, the victim’s attorney, told The Huffington Post. St. Paul’s administrators largely “paid lip service” to her parents’ complaints, Kelly said, suggesting “she had to deal with it” instead of addressing the complaints.

In fall 2014, for example, about a month after Labrie’s arrest, the victim attended a school-wide chapel service, the suit alleges. Two boys stood up to speak on an unrelated topic, according to the suit, “and made a joke about the ‘age of consent.’ All eyes turned toward [the victim] and attendees erupted in laughter.” No one did anything to address the incident, the suit says.

“Shortly after the victim told her mother and the report came out, the mother received a call from another parent complaining that the victim had told her daughter, and the daughter had a test that day and didn’t do well on that test,” Kelly said. 

Some people in the school were supportive, but they were not in the power structure, Kelly said. “There was no effort made to shield her from retaliation or discipline people for retaliating against her,” he added. The victim left the school in December 2014. 

Redacted examples of online messages show harassment of the victim after she reported that Owen Labrie sexually ass
Redacted examples of online messages show harassment of the victim after she reported that Owen Labrie sexually assaulted her.

It's not uncommon for high school students who report being sexually assaulted to face bullying and harassment, sometimes to the point that the victims attempt suicide. Writer Jessica Knoll recently revealed that a plot line in her novel about a girl who is gang raped and then bullied was actually based on her own experience at the prestigious Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. 

"The school's attitude is sort of a circle the wagon attitude," Kelly said, comparing it to the Catholic Church's response to sex abuse cases involving priests. "Somebody had the audacity to seek outside help, and everyone turns on them because you're attacking the school, you're attacking the prestige."

During Labrie's criminal trial, which began in August 2015, the victim's name leaked and trolls posted intimate information about her and her family online -- including photos of the victim's 8-year-old sister, the family's address and rape threats addressed at the victim. 

The lawsuit essentially argues that if St. Paul's had acted on tips that students engaged in the Senior Salute, targeting underage girls, the whole attack and subsequent harassment could have been prevented.

Labrie was a member of a group calling themselves the "Slaymakers," who shared lists of "potential targets," passed down keys to secluded venues for sex on campus and sought to "slay" as many young girls as possible, the suit contends. 

"We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we plan to vigorously defend ourselves," the school said in a brief statement Wednesday, noting that it expected to be sued over the case. "We categorically reject any allegations that St. Paul’s School has an unhealthy culture." 

The suit attacks St. Paul's for failing to respond after it received multiple notifications about the Senior Salute, a ritual where upperclassmen were said to seek out younger students for intimate encounters. It specifically charges St. Paul's for negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, premises liability and infliction of emotional distress and seeks at least $75,000 in damages through a jury trial. 

 

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Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter who covers sexual violence and is based in New York. You can reach him at tyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade

 

 

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