A 17-year-old girl named Chessy Prout is a teenage superhero.
Two years ago, when she was a freshman in high school, Chessy accepted a date with a senior, an 18-year-old athlete named Owen Labrie, who was headed to Harvard in the fall. Both Labrie and Chessy Prout were students at the prestigious New England boarding school, St Paul’s. Chessy’s father and older sister had attended St Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire. Trust is one of the school’s core values: there have never been locks on the students’ individual dorm room doors .
Although Chessy didn’t know it, her date was part of an informal St Paul’s tradition called “Senior Salute.” During the spring of their final year, male students held a contest to see who could have sex with younger female students. Alone in a classroom on May 30, 2014, Owen Labrie forced 15-year-old Chessy to have sex with him, and later boasted to classmates about his conquest.
In July 2014, Labrie was arrested. In August 2015, he was acquitted of felony rape charges, and found guilty of using a computer to lure an underage female schoolmate into a sexual encounter. He was also convicted of three misdemeanor sexual assault charges and one misdemeanor charge of child endangerment. In October 2015, Labrie was sentenced to one year in prison, five years probation, and the lifelong requirement to register as a sex offender .
Men have raped women for centuries. It’s not usually called The Senior Salute. It’s so commonplace, it doesn’t need a name. Think of the April 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram . The sexual enslavement of Yazidi girls by ISIS . And in our own country, every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted. The majority of victims are under age 30, like Chessy Prout. And 97 out of every 100 offenders never spend a minute in jail for their crimes.
What’s different this time is significant, and it’s due to Chessy and her parents.
First, 15-year-old Chessy Prout told her parents that she had been raped. Most victims historically have not risked the societal shaming of being a rape victim, or causing distress to their families and communities. In the documentary The Hunting Ground , victims explain that sometimes, the hardest people to tell about being raped are their own parents; many victims never tell their mother or father for fear of hurting them or not being believed. What Chessy did was transformative, for herself, other rape victims, and advocates pushing to hold rapists responsible for their crimes.
Second, her parents believed her. Data shows that whether or not the first person a rape victim tells believes him or her is essential to long-term recovery from rape trauma. Additionally, her parents and two sisters supported Chessy in seeking justice in the New Hampshire criminal court system. They didn’t pressure her to stay silent, to let it go, to recover in private, to pretend nothing had happened – all of which happens too often in rape cases.
Third, the New Hampshire police and district attorney prosecuted the case. This led to a jury finding Labrie guilty. Too often, this doesn’t happen either.
Fourth, after Labrie was arrested, Harvard University rescinded his acceptance to the class of 2018. The director of undergraduate admissions explained that acceptance may be rescinded due to “behavior that brings into question your honesty, maturity, or moral character.” Harvard has long included that policy in acceptance protocol, but historically it’s been rare for almost any college to invoke this clause when a potential (or current) student is accused of sexual assault, especially prior to, or absent, a conviction. For too long, this has allowed sexual offenders to go unpunished, and often to repeat their crimes with impunity.
All of these changes, although certainly painful for everyone involved, are good news. They represent early steps towards eradication of a destructive, long tolerated, societal scourge: the small percent of men who believe they have the right to commit rape, and the very large percentage of men who make rape possible by ignoring or tolerating it.
Sadly, what didn’t happen here: St. Paul’s School, charged with safeguarding students, didn’t protect Chessy, and in doing so, let down every male and female student educated at the school. St Paul’s has yet to admit fault in the case. The school denies knowing about the Senior Salute tradition. Administrators gave statements to the media praising Chessy’s bravery and promising to take corrective steps, but both seemed aimed more at assuaging public relations fears and minimizing the risk of future legal action. Most recently, the school tried to force Chessy Prout to reveal her identity, which had been protected by our legal system, the media, and her parents throughout the trial, in an attempt to discourage the Prout family from filing a lawsuit against St. Paul’s.
Chessy Prout, who told her parents about the rape, and then told the jury about it during three days on the witness stand, last week voluntarily decided to tell her story to the greater public via a Today Show interview that reached over five million viewers. Two years after the assault, she publicly decried the assault, her rapist’s sentence, and the behavior of a school that did not protect her. Not all victims can take this step. But it’s a critical one in ending a culture that for too long has wanted women and girls to stay silent about rape. Chessy Prout’s lack of shame, and willingness to stand up for herself and all victims, is the most inspiring change of all.