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Why Norman, OK Matters – a look at what happens when students come forward with rape allegations

As protestors gathered on Monday, November 24th waiting to hear the findings of the grand jury in Ferguson, a much smaller but still very important protest was happening around an entirely different matter in the city of Norman, OK. You see, three teenage girls had come forward and accused some of their school mates of rape. Sadly, their fellow students took a page right out of the rape denial handbook and instead of offering them support, they began a campaign of aggressively bullying these girls. The unrelentless attacks were so traumatic, further compounding already traumatizing events, that all three of the girls ended up withdrawing from the school.

This is not a unique situation. When news of Steubenville, Ohio became public, part of the community’s reaction was to victim blame, slut shame, and harass the victim. In some cases the girls (and sometimes boys) change schools, drop out and choose to homeschool, or they finish their school years as social pariahs trying to find safe places to hide in their school building.  Sometimes, as is the case with Rehtaeh Parsons, the victims involved have ended up taking their own lives because the harassment has been so severe.

In 2013, Daily Coleman came forward as the victim of a rape in her Missouri town. Instead of support she writes that “days seemed to drag on as I watched my brother get bullied and my mom lose her job. Ultimately our house burned to the ground.” (Source: XO Jane) As a result of the intense bullying Daisy experienced her family moved, Daisy attempted to take her own life, and a targeted campaign against Daisy occurred. (Source ABC News 20/20) But Daisy remained brave and vocal, even identifying herself publicly in the press, as she sought justice (which she ultimately did not find because all sexual assault charges were dropped though her alleged assailant was found guilty of child endangerment for leaving her in the freezing cold on her front doorstep).

In Sayreville, N. J. the football season was cancelled this fall amid charges of sexual violence as a part of the football team’s hazing practices were revealed. This caused an “atmosphere of recriminations” according to sources, who go on to say “the search is on for the snitches – the kids who killed football in Sayreville.” (Source: BBC News) The victims in this case, all boys, sought justice but found instead that they had even more reason to fear for their safety. (Please note: we’ll be discussing the topic of hazing in January with authors Eric Devine, Anthony Breznican and Johsua S. Cohen)

These real-life examples show how these stories can sometimes play out. A survivor comes forward to share their story, sometimes seeking justice and sometimes just seeking support, and the very schools they go to for help end up becoming a fierce battleground, often with targeted campaigns (frequently online and in the hallways) where they get no respite from the storm of accusations against them. Suddenly the accuser finds themselves the accused and victims find themselves having to go on the defensive. Best friends turn against them. Bodies are slammed against lockers in “accidents”. Words are written on lockers. And all the while teachers and administrators will often turn their backs and pretend that nothing is happening. Adults who are entrusted with the safety of our children turn their backs while these aggressive campaigns happen.

But then this year, the tide started to turn. In July, a teen named Jada spoke out against those who harassed her and a campaign known as #IAMJADA went viral.

The students in Norman, OK could have gone silently, but they found that they had the support of their community. Members of the community began asking why the school administrators weren’t doing more to protect these girls from the bullying that was happening and a new campaign, #YESALLDAUGHTERS, broke out in the community. As a result of these protests, charges were filed against the alleged rapists and the girls have some chance at a criminal investigation, which had previously seemed unlikely.

There are several important things happening in Norman, one of which is that we are finally seeing a challenge to the ways in which students have responded to claims of rape in their school hallways. Those protestors lining the street in Norman indicate progress compared to the reactions of students just a few years ago in Steubenville. It indicates that there may be reason to hope that the way that we respond to those who come forward as victims of rape and other types of sexual violence may get more community support, as opposed to the abusive protests they have suffered in the past, compounding the emotional impact of the crimes committed against them. But one way that we can help make sure we continue to make progress in this is to talk with our teens about how we respond as a community or as a school or as an individual when someone comes forward. Christa Desir has already written a few great posts as part of The #SVYALit Projecrt on the role of first responders. But today I want to present you with some titles that would be a good background for discussing how communities – how schools and the students that fill their hallways – respond in these situations. [Read more…]

The #SVYALit Project: First Responders, part 1 (by author Christa Desir)

When I was six years old, I got lost in a mall. I went out to the parking lot to look for my car and got in a stranger’s car instead, someone who told me he could help me. The half hour that followed changed my life, though I said nothing about it at the time. As a matter of fact, I said nothing about it until almost ten years later.

My best friend in high school was the first person I ever disclosed my sexual assault to. Sitting on the floor in her tiny room, she told me that something terrible had happened to her years earlier. So I told her what had happened to me. Also years earlier.
When I go to speak to high school students about the issue of sexual violence, one of the first things I say to them is that there is a really good chance that someone will disclose sexual violence to them at one point in their lifetime. Run the stats and there’s a good chance that someone will disclose sexual violence to every single one of us. But for teenagers, the chance that they’ll be the firstperson that their friends disclose sexual violence to is really high. Because 44% of people sexually assaulted are under the age of 18 (RAINN). And the reality is teenagers tell their friends things first.
So I wanted to talk a little today about how critical it is not to retraumatize a survivor if they do disclose rape to you. And that’s particularly important if you are the first person they disclose to. Words matter. How you respond to rape matters. It can have a huge impact on the journey a survivor takes toward healing. As a rape victim advocate, I was told that the first twenty-four hours after rape are the most important in terms of minimizing rape trauma syndrome.

No, there is no guidebook on the “right way” for friends/family to respond to rape. What helps some people may not help others. And most first responders aren’t professionally trained. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do our best for survivors. The truth is, sometimes “I’m sorry” is enough. Sometimes listening, really hearing, is all a survivor needs from you.
When rape victim advocates talk to survivors in ERs, our primary objective is to give them back as much power as we can. To give them choice. To help them feel comfortable. To let them decide what they need. If a person discloses rape, there is nothing wrong with asking, “What can I do to help?” There is nothing wrong with saying, “I believe you.” There is nothing wrong with just sitting next to them and saying, “I’ll be here whenever you need me.” These words are a big deal. They mean a lot.
I think when someone is disclosing to you, the best thing you can do is let them tell their story. Don’t probe for details. Don’t ask them for more than they want to give you. Don’t insist that THIS SHOULD BE THEIR COURSE OF ACTION. Let them decide what they want to happen. Don’t judge them for whatever choices they made before or after the rape. Don’t ask things that feel like you’re blaming them (How much did you have to drink? What were you doing at that party? Haven’t you heard about that guy?) Offer support. Offer to get them in touch with someone who could help or give them a phone number for RAINN. Be present and focus on what they want and need.

Additional Resources:
Sexual Assault: How to Support a Friend
Supporting Someone Who Has Been Raped or Sexually Assaulted
RAINN: Help a Loved One
RAINN: Self Care for Friends and Family Members

Christa Desir is an author, editor, and rape victim advocate. Her debut YA novel Fault Line is out now. Bleed Like Me will be published by Simon & Schuster in October 2014.