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September 22, 2017

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French school carries out DNA dragnet in rape case

PARIS--French investigators began taking DNA samples Monday from 527 male students and staff at a high school — including boys as young as 14 — as they searched for the assailant who raped a teenage girl on the closed campus.

Testing began Monday at Fenelon-Notre Dame high school in western France. All those who received summonses last week were warned that any refusal could land them in police custody, and no one rejected the sweeping request to test the high school's male population.

The testing of students, faculty and staff at the school is expected to last through Wednesday, with 40 DNA swabs recovered inside two large study halls. Prosecutor Isabelle Pagenelle said investigators had exhausted all other leads in the Sept. 30 rape of the girl in a dark bathroom at the school.

"The choice is simple for me," she said. "Either I file it away and wait for a match in what could be several years, or I go looking for the match myself."

While there have been other situations in which DNA samples have been taken en masse, the case is complicated for France, where acceptance is widespread for DNA testing and a national database maintains profiles of people detained for even minor crimes. But children's civil liberties are considered sacred, especially within schools.

France has stringent privacy protections — Google, for example, has come under legal attack for storing user data, as well as for lapses in images from Street View. Questions of criminality are a different matter — the government's DNA database has expanded radically since it was first created in 1998, and now encompasses 2 million profiles, or about 3 percent of the population.

"It's clearly a situation where people do not have a choice," said Catherine Bourgain, a genetic researcher and author of "DNA, Superstar or Supercop." "One you have a DNA file it's very difficult to get that information erased."

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