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Beyond guilt or innocence in prep school rape case, question of 'ugliness'

The rape case involving a former student of St. Paul's School has resulted in a backlash against the accuser, which could have a broader impact, sexual violence-prevention advocates say.

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Owen Labrie’s attorney J.W. Carney speaks at a press conference after Mr. Labrie's rape trial ended for the day at the Merrimack County Courthouse Wednesday in Concord, N.H. Nineteen-year-old Labrie is charged with raping a then-15-year-old freshman at St. Paul's School two days before he graduated last year.

Geoff Forester/The Concord Monitor/AP

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The 15-year-old girl told her family she had been raped. She told her story to the police. And this week, more than a year later, she spent 2-1/2 days testifying and being cross-examined, sometimes tearfully.

The prospect of those ordeals alone gives a sense of why many survivors of sexual crimes never come forward, say activists working on their behalf.

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But the case unfolding in New Hampshire has gone further.

Also on trial, to some degree, is the reputation of St. Paul’s, a prestigious preparatory school. The girl, now 16, has left school and even moved away from the area with her family because of the “ugliness” of some of the responses to her story, an advocate says. Recently, she’s seen media outlets and social media postings revealing her name and her voice to the public in violation of privacy laws, court rulings, and journalistic best practices.

Completely separate from the innocence or guilt of the accused, the experience of his accuser is being watched closely around the country by sexual violence-prevention advocates. How the trial – and the community reaction to it – plays out will help determine whether the case contributes to a push for change in high school and college cultures on the issue of sexual crime, or whether it confirms for many victims that coming forward is too risky, they say.

About 7 percent of 9th to 12th graders say, when asked anonymously, that they have been forced at some point in their lives to have sexual intercourse, the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey reports.

“Cases like this give people voices… It’s being that first one to step forward that’s so scary,” says Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist in Westchester County, N.Y.,  who works with teens.

In the current trial in Concord, N.H., Owen Labrie, a former St. Paul’s School student, is charged with raping the girl when he was a senior last year. The case has brought to light a tradition called “Senior Salute,” in which male seniors allegedly compete to have sex with younger girls.

The head of the school issued a statement saying the allegations about the campus’s culture “are not emblematic of our School or our values.” Mr. Labrie was 18 at the time of the incident, a few days before his graduation in 2014, and he has said it was a consensual encounter that did not include intercourse.

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In his opening statement and cross-examination, defense lawyer J.W. Carney said that e-mail exchanges between the girl and Labrie show that she agreed to meet with him “only if it’s our little secret.” After the encounter, he told jurors, she wrote some casual e-mails, including “You’re not so bad yourself. I also lost my earring up there. Haha.” Mr. Carney asked jurors: “Does this sound like texting where she is unwilling that night?" He also raised questions about why she didn’t go to the police until five days later.

But various sexual-violence experts say the girl’s testimony this week offers a chance for a deeper understanding of sexual crime and how young victims often react. Without passing judgment on the current case, they say that her testimony is consistent with how victims respond and cope during and after being sexually assaulted. But it can often be misunderstood by both law enforcement officials and the public and turned against an accuser.

For example, the girl testified she said no, but didn’t resist much physically when the encounter that she thought might involve kissing turned into aggressive behavior. She said she struggled with wanting to be “polite,” then she felt “frozen…. I felt like I was out of my body.... I didn't want to believe this was happening to me."

Many people have heard of “fight or flight” as a response to danger, but “there’s a third ‘f’ that’s more common: freeze,” says Kristen Houser, a spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. For many people, that’s a biological response, she says. Research has found that 12 to 50 percent of rape victims experience this type of paralysis.

When people don’t immediately report rape to police, it’s sometimes an effect of trauma, experts say. And many victims don’t understand right away what’s happened to them.

“A lot of victims blame themselves, so they don’t want to come forward at first,” says Mike Domitrz founder of The Date Safe Project.

Parents and schools generally don’t do a great job of teaching young people about these issues, he adds. In this case, the accuser said her friends told her she should be flattered by a senior’s attention, and that was part of why she agreed to meet him in a secluded location despite initially rebuffing his invitation. As in other cases, such as in Steubenville, Ohio, the allegations raise the idea of sex as a mode of power.

The takeaway for parents and educators should be: “We need to sit down and teach teens intimacy is not something you do to conquer,” Mr. Domitrz says.

Laura Dunn, the founder of the nonprofit SurvJustice, which assists people pursuing campus rape complaints, says she stepped in to assist the teen girl and her family after broadcasts from the first day of trial – and some social media posts – named her or used her voice without distorting it. Most news outlets have since cooperated with her requests to remove such identifiers.

“The family really lost their community over this, but they stood for what was right,” Ms. Dunn told the Monitor in a phone interview Thursday. “She is thankful she went through the criminal process, and regardless of the results, she knows that … she has stood up for herself, she has spoken her truth.”

“I can now say that I’m a survivor,” the teenage girl said Thursday, through advocate Dunn.

St. Paul’s school has brought in a variety of experts and educators over the past year to address issues ranging from substance abuse to violence prevention. In addition, “students have examined and questioned the ‘relationship culture’ … through their work with the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives,” the school’s rector, Michael Hirschfeld, wrote in a letter to parents June 10. “Living respectfully with one another is a value that needs to be continually taught and nurtured in this community.”

To advocates, the courage to come forward is part of what needs to be nurtured nationwide.

“That she’s coming forward is remarkable and we need to really recognize that,” says Jane Stapleton, co-director of the Prevention Innovations Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Associated Press material was used in this report.