One night at the end of my sophomore year of high school, barely a month after my 16th birthday, my life changed course forever. After experimenting with what I was told was marijuana for the first time, I was raped by two boys with whom I went to school. I was young and naïve and scared of backlash, so I tried to keep what had happened to myself for nearly eight months.
We lived in a small town, though, so my parents eventually found out about the assault. Scared for my safety, they decided to tell my school’s administrators what had happened. They wanted to try to prevent the bullying and re-victimization that I would be subjected to should people find out. My school, however, did not prevent the slow-building torment and bullying I began to endure daily.
A few months later, I found out that one of my attackers had sexually assaulted another girl. When I learned she was only 14 years old, I gained the courage and motivation to try to stop my assailants from hurting anyone ever again. Leading up to this point, I had been slowly withdrawing from my family as my friends began withdrawing from me, as the story of my assault had taken on a life of its own. I knew I couldn’t watch that young girl go through the same ostracism and torment I faced at school every day. I reported my attack to the police, naïvely believing that reporting would end the nightmare I was living. In reality, it had only just begun.
I spent my entire childhood growing up in that same small town. Gossip spreads like wildfire there, and the story of that night was no different. My decision to speak out against my attackers became one of the biggest scandals the town had ever seen. In the four years since the assault, I have been repeatedly attacked and ostracized by people from my school, my friends, my community, and even the legal system. The best friend of one of my assailants even wrote and published online a rap song that included my full name and threatened my life. The case is still being prosecuted and is scheduled for trial in October of this year.
These repeated attacks, especially those I endured while still in school (including those on social media), led me to believe that the assault had been completely my fault. I struggled with the feeling that I wasn’t worth the stress and financial burden the situation was causing my family. After leaving school and losing all of my friends, I learned I couldn't trust anyone and began to believe my life was not worth living anymore. I attempted suicide.
At 17, I still feared for my safety enough to leave my school and family and start my senior year of high school nearly 100 miles away. I moved into the storage room of a house owned by distant friends of my parents and, with little money and no friends or family, I struggled to start a new life with some sort of normalcy in a completely foreign city.
One morning, however, everything changed. My dad told me I needed to look up a story recently published about a young girl named Audrie Pott. Audrie’s story of assault and subsequent attacks was unbelievably similar to mine. I wanted to contact her immediately and let her know she wasn’t alone — that I was in this with her, and that we could get through this together. But I soon had to confront the major difference between our stories: Unfortunately, when Audrie attempted to take her life, she succeeded.
This destroyed me because, for some reason, I felt that Audrie and I were connected. But while I was too late to help Audrie, her story helped me find purpose in my own life. I began to understand that there are many other girls out there who, just like me, know what it’s like to lose everything. I realized I wanted to help them feel less alone. I just didn’t know how to do this.
Meanwhile, the first trial in my case started not even three weeks after my first day at my new high school. The district attorney had decided to prosecute two of the four school administrators who knew about my assault before I reported it to police. I was terrified of testifying in front of them and in front of a jury of 12 strangers. I had no idea what to expect, except for what I had seen on my favorite show, Law & Order: SVU. But when I got up on the stand for the first time, I decided I could not let this situation control my life and trap me in a state of fear. I missed a lot of class time that year due to trials and court hearings, and even though my grades began to drop drastically, I refused to give up.
A few months later, while preparing for my third trial, a friend of my mom’s told her that the founder of a national nonprofit organization wanted to talk to me, and connected me with a woman named Angela Rose. At first I refused to speak to her because I still didn’t trust anyone. Luckily, I decided to let my guard down and responded to Angela.
I have always trusted my gut since, because letting Angela into my life was the best decision I have ever made. Angela explained that she, too, had been sexually assaulted and ostracized in high school — an experience that prompted her to create an organization called PAVE (Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment). Over the next year, she taught me to believe that I truly have a voice and that my story could help other young victims of sexual assault and hopefully prevent re-victimization and bullying in high schools.
I believed and trusted Angela, and, inspired by Audrie’s story, I started to actively reach out to other girls who had experienced similar situations, especially the aftermath of my assault. I Facebook messaged Daisy Coleman after seeing the media cover her experience, and we developed an unbreakable bond after discovering the many similarities in our lives. Ella Fairon shared her story of assault with me at a PAVE event in Los Angeles, and we similarly felt bonded. In 2014, we met Jada Smith at a PAVE press conference in D.C.
We were all so different and from such different places, but our stories and the aftermath of our experiences were so similar. We all understood what it was like to be violated over and over again — first in an act of violence, then in the denial of and backlash received from it. We were all assaulted by people we thought we knew. Our closest friends, our schools, and our entire communities turned their backs on us when we reported, making things so much worse than they already were, making us feel alone and isolated, making us want to end our lives. But, thankfully, all of our families were also doing everything in their power to keep us safe and healthy. And we knew we had each other. For the first time, together, we felt unbreakable.
But we see beyond our own community, too. All we want is to find a way to prevent what has happened to us from ever happening to anyone else, and to start a community of survivors to help us bring education and awareness to those who just didn’t know how to help us. So, together, we created SafeBAE (Before Anyone Else).
SafeBAE aims to spark a change in society by addressing sexual assault, dating violence, and bullying in schools — specifically, as early as middle school. We realized that although all of us were required by law to take health and drivers’ education courses, we were never once educated about sexual assault or bullying. If information about these life-altering acts of violence had been as available and deemed as important as our physical health or ability to drive, our lives could have taken completely different courses.
Whether through schools, clubs, or other groups, we hope to reach every student in this country and outside of it. We want to change the way young people think about sexual assault. We want to start a conversation about bystander intervention and victim-blaming. We want to provide support for survivors, so that no student who has been assaulted ever feels alone or to blame for this violence again. Ultimately, we want to find a way to prevent this violence before it even begins.
We know this is a big task. In fact, at times, we’ve felt it’s much bigger than us. But we’re taking it one step at a time. Our first step is the SafeBAE Educational Video Series we recently released, which thousands of children will have seen by the end of this school year. Hopefully next year, countless more will see these videos, too.
But this video series is just the beginning. We’ve also created a Student Activist Toolkit that SafeBAE Squads around the country can use to continue the conversation in their communities. The power to change the damaging way our society handles sexual assault has to start early, and it has to start with all of us — before anyone else experiences the trauma we have gone through.
Audrie’s story helped me find courage I didn’t know I had in order to reach out to other survivors. Through PAVE and SafeBAE, we have found the strength to speak up for survivors who need to know they have somewhere to go, and that they are not alone.
If you had asked me three years ago if I could go back to that summer night in 2011 and change my decisions, I would have said yes, without a doubt. But when someone asked me that very question recently, I had to pause and wonder: Would I?
That’s a big question and I’m not sure there is an answer. I understand now that what happened was not my fault and making different decisions may not have even altered the course of my life. Being taught about sexual assault and bullying may not have prevented my assault, but it would have had a positive impact on my healing process and I wouldn’t have felt so alone.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673), or visit http://www.rainn.org/.
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