It is Not Your Fault
When you are raped, sexually assaulted, or sexually harassed by one of your peers or teachers, it can be hard to know what to do. Your first instinct may be to withdraw from family and friends, isolate yourself, and refuse to talk to anyone about what happened. A lot of survivors attempt to forget the abuse, make excuses for the perpetrator, or may even blame themselves. It is important to remember that what happened to you is not your fault. Even if drugs or alcohol were involved, someone forcing or pressuring you into something is not okay. Every kind of physical intimacy should be enjoyable and consented to by each participant.
Reporting What Happened Supports Other Survivors
The chances are, if someone forced himself or herself on you, took advantage of you, or pressured you into doing something you did not want to do- they have done or will do this to others. Standing up for yourself and reporting what happened- helps encourage other survivors to take action against abusers and prevents abusers from having additional victims. Many of our clients report that the best thing about taking action is knowing that other victims will know they are not alone, feel supported, and perhaps be encouraged to speak up about what happened to them. Unfortunately, 1 in 4 women and 1 and 5 men are sexually abused at some point in their life with the abuse normally occurring in high school or college. Reporting what happened to you will not only help you attain justice but may encourage others to seek it as well and no longer live in fear.
Know Your Rights
When you decide to report, it is important that you understand your rights. Your school should immediately put you in contact with its Title IX Coordinator and put measures in place to protect your safety. They should keep you updated on the status of the investigation, provide you with support services, and allow you to be involved in the investigation/hearing. They are also required to make sure that the abuse, harassment, and discrimination stop. If the school, its employees, or other students punish or retaliate against you for reporting in any way, it is illegal and prohibited by federal law. Knowing your rights will help you hold your school accountable and ensure that victims are supported and treated fairly. If you feel like you need help navigating the schools disciplinary process or protecting your rights- you may want to contact an attorney with an understanding of Title IX to help you.
Options If School Fails to Protect You
If you have reported to your school and they have failed to or did a bad job protecting your rights – you may want to consider filing a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education (“OCR”). OCR is the federal government agency that is in charge of enforcing Title IX. It is OCR’s responsibility to make sure schools are not discriminating against students on the basis of sex. If OCR finds a your school to be in violation of Title IX, it can require your school to take several steps to get back into compliance and may even issue sanctions.
The OCR website explains how to file a complaint. The complaint process requires you to fill out a form and provide a statement of what happened. You are not required to have an attorney to file a complaint but hiring one may be helpful. If OCR decides to investigate your case, they may ask you for additional information. Filing complaints with and notifying OCR of sexual abuse, discrimination, and harassment helps to ensure that your school will not make the same mistakes when other victims step forward and report what happened to them.
You also have the option of hiring an attorney to initiate a civil lawsuit against the school. In order to obtain damages, you must be able to prove that the school had actual knowledge of the abuse or harassment and responded inadequately with deliberate indifference. Speaking with an attorney can help you understand the strength of your case and the likelihood of success. In most circumstances, attorneys do not charge for the first call.
Things to Consider
It is important to remember that OCR complaints and civil lawsuits must be filed within a certain amount of time. OCR complaints ordinarily must be filed within 180 days of the last act of discrimination and statutes of limitations for civil lawsuits differ depending on the state. Further, when suing a state-owned institution, some states require a notice of claim to be filed as early as 90 days. However, some state laws provide exceptions that extend the time limitations for victims who were under age or legal disability when abused. Unfortunately, many survivors wait too long to come forward and lose the ability to take legal action against the school.
Additionally, the success of an OCR complaint or a civil lawsuit often depends on the amount of information the victim is able to provide. Make sure to keep copies of anything you receive, including emails, letters, text messages, social media messages, etc.. It is also important to keep a written log of everything that happened, the date it happened, everyone you spoke to, when you spoke to them, and what it was about. Putting everything in writing will allow you to provide an accurate account of what occurred to the OCR investigator or your attorney.
You Are Not Alone
While this process may seem intimidating, holding schools accountable for their failures and inadequacies helps protect others and ensures that future victims will be supported and treated fairly. It is important to know that you are not alone and that standing up for yourself will give others the courage to no longer tolerate injustice. Speaking up and demanding change pressures policymakers to enact and strengthen laws to protect students.
This material is general information of an educational nature and is not legal advice. It is recommended that you speak with an attorney to discuss the specific circumstances of your case.
Katie Shipp is a women’s and children’s rights advocate and attorney in state and federal court. Ms. Shipp specializes in Title !X, victim’s rights, and child law.