St. Paul's sex assault victim talks about social media campaign, helping others
CONCORD — Chessy Prout didn’t ask for the attention she has received since telling the world she was a victim of sexual assault at the age of 15 at a New Hampshire boarding school.
“All I wanted was to be a safe haven for victims,” said Prout. “I want to help other women and men know there are teams of people out there that want to help you.”
Prout, the former St. Paul’s freshman at the center of the school’s sexual assault case, was in Concord Monday night to discuss her social media campaign — #IHaveTheRightTo — and to take part in a panel discussion on ways to address sexual violence. Held at the University of New Hampshire’s School of Law, the panel included U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-NH (02); Allison Power-Bernal, prevention coordinator for the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence; Peggy O’Neil, executive director of WISE of the Upper Valley; and Forrest Seymour, Keene State College’s coordinator of sexual violence prevention.
A Merrimack County jury found Prout was sexually assaulted by senior Owen Labrie in May 2014. She revealed her identity to the world in August 2016 when she told her story on “The Today Show,” and launched her social media campaign on Twitter. The effort is aimed at empowering other survivors of sexual abuse.
Labrie, 21, was convicted of statutory rape, endangering the welfare of a child and using a computer to set up a meeting with Prout that ended in sexual assault. He has appealed the convictions and petitioned the court for a new trial, claiming ineffective counsel. He is out of jail on bail conditions pending his appeal, wearing a GPS monitor while staying with family in Vermont.
A civil lawsuit filed by Prout’s parents against St. Paul’s School isn’t scheduled to be heard before a federal jury in Concord until March 2018. In the suit, Prout’s parents accuse the school of “fostering, permitting and condoning a tradition of ritualized statutory rape,” saying she was the victim of a practice known as the “senior salute,” where upperclassmen arrange for intimate encounters with younger students.
The school has since denied any liability.
Monday marked the first time Prout returned to Concord since Labrie's trial. Prior to the panel discussion, she had private reunions with law enforcement officials who worked on her case, then sat down with a New Hampshire Union Leader reporter to discuss her new social media campaign. Prout, now 18, said that since her #IHaveTheRightTo social media campaign launched in August, millions of sexual assault survivors have responded by tweeting messages and pictures of support.
Prout said she struggled with the decision to go public with her story, fearing the negative backlash that could come with it. She said she drew strength from the words of a friend.
“She said for every negative comment I get for coming forward there would be ... 100 positive ones,” said Prout. “I thought she was exaggerating, but one of the most rewarding things has been ... people reaching out to me and sharing their stories, telling me they never told their story before. That’s been incredible, that’s all I wanted was to be a safe haven for people to talk things out.”
Prout admitted going public with a story of sexual assault “isn’t for everyone.”
“It’s been very healing in my case, to come out after being silenced for so long because of the court process,” she said. “But just talking to someone, one person at a time, until you find someone who believes you and listens to you is very important, because holding onto something like this is very hard to do.”
Prout said events like last night’s discussion in Concord are important, even if the statistics associated with them are overwhelming. According to the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, nearly one in four women and one in twenty men in New Hampshire have been sexually assaulted.
“One in five people will be sexually assaulted before they go to college,” said Prout. “Now when I walk into a room I look around and say, ‘Okay, almost every person in this room has been impacted by rape or sexual assault.’ That can be overwhelming, but the way people come and speak about it ... we know it’s happening and it makes me feel better that these people are coming and speaking about it, because it’s a very undereported crime.”
Earlier this month Kuster and a group of lawmakers launched the Bipartisan Task Force to End Sexual Violence, which is working to advance legislative proposals and initiatives to address sexual violence. Areas that the Task Force plans to focus on include K-12 education, college campus safety, the rape kit backlog, military sexual trauma, ending online harassment, improved data and collection, and law enforcement training.
“We cannot change the culture of sexual violence unless we are all part of the conversation,” said Kuster Monday night. “This is a heavy lift. We need to make sure that, as a society as a whole, we are able to preserve and protect our well-being, from the youngest child on up to the oldest adult.”
Prout said she has plans to work on and grow her social media campaign in the coming years. “I want to graduate high school first, but I hope this campaign doesn’t slow down,” she said.
“People realizing their rights, and claiming their voices, publicly standing up for themselves ... I hope that continues,” said Prout. “This conversation is so much bigger than myself and my family. Speaking out has been an important part of my healing process.”
Prout said she has an important piece of advice for students attending middle schools, high schools and colleges in New Hampshire and elsewhere: Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
“They shouldn’t be ashamed to ask a question or speak up for themselves,” Prout said. “Don’t accept the status quo. I did that too long. I accepted the culture for what it was and thought I couldn’t change it, and there’s a lot that needs to be changed.”