'There is power in our unity'

A high schooler just wrote the book on surviving campus sexual assault

Despite the odds stacked against rape survivors, Chessy Prout, with journalist Jenn Abelson, shares the story of her pursuit of justice as she advocates for school accountability

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Chessy Prout, the author of 'I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice and Hope,' talks during an interview, March 6, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Chessy Prout, the author of 'I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice and Hope,' talks during an interview, March 6, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

NEW YORK — Nearly one in five girls between the ages of 14 to 17 has been the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. Chessy Prout is one of those girls.

But don’t call her a statistic.

In her new memoir, “I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope,” Prout, 19, writes about the assault, its aftermath and why activism helped her heal.

“I am speaking out because it’s too easy to forget about the victims of these crimes, to forget about our humanity,” Prout said.

To help bring her story forward, Prout connected with Boston Globe reporter Jenn Abelson. Abelson met Prout while working on an investigation into sexual abuse at private schools for the Boston Globe Spotlight Team in 2016. The two got to know each other over several months.

Boston Globe reporter Jenn Abelson. (Courtesy)

Abelson, who participated in Project Otzma in Israel from 2000-2001, had previous experience helping others.

As part of the Spotlight Team’s investigation Abelson interviewed over 100 survivors. As she investigated she noticed that in some ways, it was the silence following the assault, rather than the assault itself, that proved most devastating for victims.

“Working with Chessy on this book deepened my understanding of what it means to be a survivor. I heard about struggles with substance abuse, suicide attempts, and failed relationships. Very few pursued Chessy’s path — testifying against her attacker in court and fighting a prestigious school that fostered a toxic sexual culture,” Abelson said.

Prout said she was assaulted in the spring of 2014, when she was a 15-year-old freshman at St. Paul’s School, a small preparatory school in Concord, New Hampshire. She said that Owen Labrie, a senior, assaulted her in an isolated mechanical room on campus.

Afterward, Prout confided in her mother and sister. She also told her school counselor, who contacted local police because of mandatory reporting laws. Several days later Prout went to the hospital for a rape kit examination and spoke with a police detective. Labrie was arrested later that summer.

Chessy Prout, right, at a women’s march. (Courtesy)

The victim blaming began almost immediately. Online comments called Prout a “slut” and a “liar.” When she returned to campus that fall some of her friends shunned her. Others joked about the assault. Some students openly gawked at her and others steered clear. She became a persona non grata.

Feeling unsafe and isolated, Prout left St. Paul. The school seemed more interested in protecting its reputation than protecting her from bullying or safeguarding other students from a culture that enabled sexual assault, she said.

“The betrayal she faced from the St. Paul’s community was astonishing. Chessy risked everything to do what’s right, even when it involved taking the most difficult path. I hope this book will encourage others to speak up for what’s right in the face of injustice,” Abelson said.

‘I Have the Right To’ by Chessy Prout. (Courtesy)

During the trial it was revealed that Prout was the victim of something called “the senior salute” — a competition among senior boys to have sex with as many girls on campus as possible.

A jury acquitted Labrie of the felony rape charge, which meant that while jurors believed sexual contact between the two occurred, they weren’t convinced it was nonconsensual.

However, the jury did convict Labrie on a felony charge of using a computer to lure an underage girl into sexual encounter; this requires Labrie to register as a sex offender for life. He was also convicted of three misdemeanor sexual assault charges and one charge of child endangerment. His case is now in appeal before the New Hampshire State Supreme Court.

Earlier in March St. Paul’s issued a statement saying it supports Prout’s activism, that it admired how “she bravely stepped forward to address an issue important not just to schools, but to the entire country.”

St. Paul’s “has no tradition or culture that would ever allow or condone what happened to Chessy. We’re proud of the culture we’ve built at our school and of our care for students,” the school said.

Chessy Prout, right, at the press conference where New Hampshire congresswoman Annie Kuster announced a new task force on sexual assault. (Courtesy CBS)

While the of issue sexual assault on university campuses has gained widespread media attention, sexual assault in high schools, regardless of where they fall on the socioeconomic spectrum, has not.

“This is an issue that affects everyone, regardless of their education, race, gender, or economic status. Unfortunately, many victims are forgotten or afraid to report because of the intersectionality of racism and sexism. I was lucky enough to be believed by the police and to have a supportive family, Prout said.

In her memoir Prout wrote about being re-victimized by the defense lawyer. Knowing there is a high likelihood of being disbelieved, shamed and blamed for reporting their sexual assault is partly why many women, no matter their age, stay mum about it.

To those women Prout said, “there is a community out in the world that is ready to support survivors, no matter where you are. It may not be your immediate family or close friends, but there is a fierce group of advocates, lawyers, and fellow survivors ready, willing, and able to support their healing and pursuit of justice. There is power in our unity.”

Recognizing that each survivor has their own way of handling what happened to them, and that justice can take many forms, Prout included a list of resources in the book and online at IHaveTheRightToBook.com.

Jenn Abelson signs copies of ‘I Have the Right To.’ (Courtesy)

For Prout, change will only happen when school administrations dedicate themselves to education and accountability. She advocates mandatory third-party audits of schools to ensure they are reporting and responding appropriately to sexual assault on campus.

Moreover, she suggests schools partner with local advocacy groups to educate administrators, teachers and students on how to create an environment where survivors feel supported and comfortable coming forward.

“Part of what motivated me to write this book was that I didn’t know what happened to me was a crime. I had no education on sexual assault or consent and didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what had happened to me,” Prout said. “Consent education can start as early as kindergarten, teaching children to ask permission before hugging or touching another student. Waiting until college is simply too late.”

Last year, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos moved to change the way universities handle sexual assault.

Under DeVos the standard of proof for accusers was raised from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence” and also permitted cases to be settled in mediation sessions between the accuser and the accused. The new guidelines also got rid of time frames for completing investigations.

Chessy Prout, center, at her high school graduation. (Courtesy)

The new guidelines didn’t sit well with Prout.

At George Mason University last fall, she and her parents protested DeVos’ push for rollbacks.

“I am concerned about the impact this could have on high schools, making them feel less safe for survivors to come forward. I protested to let survivors know that I stand with them and I will not stop fighting until rape culture is eradicated,” she said.

For Abelson, working with Prout made her more sensitive to the ways in which media influences our understanding of rape and sexual assault.

“In many instances, stories focus on the victim’s actions — what she was wearing, whether she groomed herself, and how much she was drinking — rather than how and why the perpetrator committed the crime,” Abelson said.

“Much of the media coverage in Chessy’s case painted her as a confused, naive 15-year-old while her attacker was described as a scholar athlete headed for Harvard. This narrative is very common in rape cases and part of the reason Chessy spoke out was to show the humanity behind the word ‘victim,’” said Abelson.

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