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New Hampshire Attorney General announces investigation of St. Paul’s Episcopal School

New Hampshire Attorney General announces investigation of St. Paul’s Episcopal School

On Thursday of last week, New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald announced a criminal investigation into whether St. Paul’s Episcopal School endangered the welfare of a child and obstructed criminal investigations. The head of school, Michael Hirschfield, said he was “startled and saddened” by the announcement.

The Boston Globe reports:

MacDonald’s statement cited several recent disclosures at the school, including a May report of past sexual assaults of students by St. Paul’s teachers over four decades and more recent allegations of “sexual conquest rituals’’ involving students.

St. Paul’s Rector Michael G. Hirschfeld said Thursday night that the school would “fully cooperate.’’

“We have been in close contact with local law enforcement regarding recent incidents of concern, and we will continue to fully cooperate with any inquiries we receive,’’ Hirschfeld said in a statement. “We also intend to work closely with the attorney general’s office to answer any and all questions regarding the independent report issued last month. Our goal is and always will be the health, safety, and well-being of our students. We will work tirelessly to meet that goal and strengthen the public’s faith in St. Paul’s School.”

The announcement by the New Hampshire attorney general comes just two weeks after the school said it had hired its own outside investigator when “students came forward and alerted (St. Paul’s School) faculty to behaviors that were concerning to them.”

The Concord Monitor had reported that eight boys in a dormitory competed in a “game of sexual conquest” where the winners would get their names on a crown. The newspaper’s account broadly mirrors the “senior salute” sexual contest among St. Paul students that played a role in the sexual assault case against former student Owen Labrie.

The school has conducted its own investigation of the most recent incident, and says it was not a sexual contest. The AP report dated July 17:

Male prep school students who recorded relationships with girls on a cardboard crown this spring violated campus rules but not the law, the head of the school said Monday.

In a letter to parents, students and school personnel on Monday, Rector Michael Hirschfeld said the school hired an investigator in May after a student reported a possible sexual competition.

The investigation, which was completed last week, found that five boys violated a school rule by using the crown to document their relationships with girls. The boys listed their own names and were neither competing with each other nor soliciting sexual relationships to be listed, Hirschfeld said, and the investigator found no violations of state law.

“While we recognize our community is not immune to the pressure adolescents face in today’s world, it is our shared belief that our community and our values do not tolerate disrespectful behavior of any kind,” he wrote.

AP reports others question whether a school should conduct its own investigation rather than handing off to civil authorities.

The Concord Monitor has further details:

The head of St. Paul’s School answered the question of why page 103 of the 2016-17 yearbook was changed prior to graduation in a letter to the school community Monday.

St. Paul’s Rector Michael Hirschfeld wrote that residents of an all-boys dormitory were wearing crowns, which were the subject of an ongoing internal investigation. The school initiated that investigation to determine if the crown was part of a sexual competition, officials said.

As a result, St. Paul’s administrators viewed the picture as “inappropriate,” Hirschfeld told parents, students, faculty and staff.

In his letter, Hirschfeld opened by sharing his response to the attorney general’s announcement Thursday. He wrote that he was “startled and saddened” to learn about the probe, and that he continues to be proud of St. Paul’s students, staff and faculty for all they’ve accomplished. He cited numerous examples of how he believes the school community has taken steps to improve the culture at St. Paul’s, such as by engaging in conversations about gender identity and healthy relationships.

The school’s May report acknowledged that problems at the school are part the school’s engrained decades-old culture that needed to change, not a recent development.

An editorial in the New Hampshire Union Leader concluded:

When an alleged victim of sexual assault comes forward to school officials, making these allegations public must be a difficult decision. The school would want to shield the victim, particularly if he or she is a minor, from a public ordeal. Yet the school also has an inherent conflict of interest.

Too often, schools have chosen to keep parents and the public in the dark about crimes happening on campus.

It is admittedly difficult to protect victims, the rights of the accused, and the public’s right to know. But that’s why we have a criminal justice system. We must stop pretending that prep school and college campuses operate outside that system.

St. Paul’s has an endowment of $549 million, third highest of all boarding schools and top among Episcopal schools.

Concord police have denied a request from the Concord Monitor for records related to St. Paul’s School claiming they are exempt as long as there is an ongoing investigation.

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