Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | Portsmouth Herald

The state attorney general is supporting Rockingham County Attorney Patricia Conway’s decision not to prosecute two Phillips Exeter Academy deans for alleged failure to report child abuse or neglect.

Ann M. Rice, deputy attorney general, announced Friday that Conway “did not abuse her discretion” in electing to pursue a memorandum of understanding with PEA rather than charge deans Melissa Mischke and AJ Cosgrove in connection with an incident in the Phillips Church basement in October 2015 that was reported to them. The incident involved a 17-year-old female student and a male student, Chukwudi Ikpeauzu, who was later charged after the alleged victim reported the incident to school officials again months later.

The attorney general’s office sent a letter to Conway on Friday explaining the reasons for supporting her decision. The letter cites “a factual dispute as to what the victim disclosed and when” to the deans. The letter notes the deans said the female student “did not disclose acts which would constitute sexual assault” during their first meeting with her in October 2015 and that her adviser, history teacher Amy Schwartz, would “corroborate their recollection.” Another student present at the meeting, however, the letter states, would support the victim’s recollection.

“Given the state of the evidence, and the divergent recollections … it was reasonable to conclude that the state could not meet its burden to prove” that Mischke and Cosgrove violated the reporting law, states the letter, which is signed by Geoffrey W.R. Ward, senior assistant attorney general.

The female student made a second report about the incident in April 2016, when she was 18 years old, the letter notes, and the deans made a report in May 2016 to the Exeter Police Department. Ikpeazu was charged with misdemeanor sexual assault. In June 2017, his trial was called off and the charges dropped with conditions that were not disclosed.

Ward’s letter notes the deans made the report to police although they had no legal obligation to do so because the female student was 18 at the time and no longer a juvenile. “It was not unreasonable for your office to conclude that it would be unable to to prove charges against Deans Mischke and Cosgrove,” Ward’s letter to Conway states.

Ikpeazu’s case drew new attention last month when The New York Times reported that state police had drawn up arrest warrants for Mischke and Cosgrove, alleging they violated a mandatory sex abuse reporting law. Conway at that time responded, telling Seacoast Media Group “alternatively” to prosecuting the case, her office entered into a memorandum of understanding with the academy and Exeter Police Department, outlining faculty obligation to report suspected child abuse.

The deans defended themselves in a joint statement last month: “In our respective capacities of dean of students and dean of residential life at Phillips Exeter Academy over a number of years, we have repeatedly reported possible cases of sexual abuse and misconduct to the New Hampshire Division of Youth, Children and Family Services and the Exeter Police Department,” the deans stated. “Based on the information reported to us in October of 2015, we did not believe, in good faith, that a reportable offense had occurred. If we had, we would have reported it as we had always done and continue to do to this day.”

The deans have been supported throughout by school administrators.

“PEA conducted its own thorough review of their handling of this particular matter. We concluded that based on the information Deans Mischke and Cosgrove had been presented with at the time, their good faith belief that no reportable offense had occurred was justified,” Principal Lisa MacFarlane said in a letter last month.

Reporting by Hadley Barndollar is included in this story.

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