This year has been rife with examples of schools and local law enforcement supremely botching the handling of sexual assault cases—from the light sentencing of former Stanford student and convicted rapist Brock Turner to the debacle at St. Paul’s in New Hampshire, in which the prep school threatened to out a teenage rape victim. While these high-profile cases may have proved instructive for some in positions of power, a new case out of Georgia suggests we still have a long, long way to go.
On Tuesday, Slate published an upsetting story about a 16-year-old woman, identified by her initials T.M., who alleges she was sexually assaulted by a high school classmate in February 2015. According to her version of events, while waiting at the front of the school for a ride home, the young man approached her about showing her some video equipment—and after following him into the school’s newsroom, he coerced her into performing oral sex. She says she told him to stop, but he disputes this account.
Days after she reported the incident to school officials, T.M. and the young man were both suspended from school until a disciplinary hearing could be held; they were found to be in violation of the code of conduct for engaging in sexual acts at school. (In other words, victim-blaming 101.) After the hearing concluded that both students were in the wrong, T.M.’s family submitted a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which opened an investigation on Title IX violations in the school district.
While none of the school employees named in the complaint responded to Slate‘s request for comment, a spokesperson for the county school system wrote in an email: “The school system and named employees strongly dispute the allegations contained in the OCR Complaint.” She went on to say that the quotes from the resource officer had been taken out of context, and T.M.’s family had threatened litigation against the school.
Meanwhile, T.M.’s family reports that she was eventually forced to drop out of school, has contemplated suicide, and is a different person than she used to be. If the school did handle T.M.’s case as described in the complaint, their actions reflect textbook errors in responding to alleged victims of sexual assault. Here, I spell them out:
School officials didn’t believe the victim (in fact, they blamed her)
This is probably the most common way that sexual assault cases are mishandled. Instead of taking the victim’s account at face value, these (mostly) young women are met with suspicion and caution.
When T.M. reported the crime to her school the morning after the alleged assault, a resource officer was tasked with looking into it. The officer allegedly asked her to describe what she was wearing—a common and horribly misguided question too often deemed relevant in the situation. Brock Turner’s unnamed victim described in a powerful court statement how she was asked similar questions after reporting her rape, and how demeaning it was.
To make matters worse, the resource officer also allegedly asked T.M. why she didn’t fight him off, asking “Why didn’t you bite his penis and squeeze his balls?” The lack of understanding of what it’s like to be young and vulnerable in a sexual situation was seemingly not considered. And this attitude of disbelief swept through the school. Her mother told Slate that after returning to class in the wake of the assault, “She was being called a whore, a liar.”
Officials held a joint hearing for the victim and the perpetrator
Experts say that, oftentimes, the aftermath of a sexual assault is just as traumatic as the act itself. And studies have shown that law enforcement and governing bodies at all levels do little to alleviate this stress on the victim. Of course, a victim’s testimony is crucial to getting the most complete version of what happened, but there’s no need to put him or her through additional stress. That’s why the school’s insistence on holding a joint hearing for the students was wildly inappropriate—and harmful.
“We begged and pleaded with the superintendent to hold the hearing for each one separately, so that it would be less traumatizing,” T.M.’s father told Slate. But the school would not comply with the request. So for a reported seven hours, T.M.—along with her family and lawyers for both sides as well as the school—was forced to relive her experience and have the veracity of her story called into question.
Officials didn’t understand the meaning of sexual assault
In T.M.’s story, she told the alleged perpetrator to stop after she was coerced into giving him oral sex. But his account was very different—and it contained some worrisome language that is not surprising, given so many young people’s lack of education about sexual consent.
When the young man was asked how he knew T.M. consented to the oral sex, he said “the look that [T.M.] had on her face, I could just tell she wanted to.” But then he followed up by saying it was “just a blank face that didn’t really have an expression.” There is no facial expression that can be used in lieu of words, but certainly not a blank one. Could that have been a sign of her fear or shock? It’s possible. But in any case, it was not affirmative consent.
The victim was disciplined for her alleged assault
As mentioned above, T.M. and the perpetrator were both found in violation of the school’s code of conduct, which was then reaffirmed after the disciplinary hearing. Upon returning to school post-suspension, she was bullied and ultimately dropped out. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, experienced severe physical symptoms, and contemplated suicide to the point that her father was afraid to leave her alone.
The most frustrating part was that so many of the alleged traumas she endured could have been avoided.
“I really wish my school would have helped me instead of looking out for itself,” T.M. wrote to Slate in a statement. “The school took advantage of me, and that wasn’t fair. … The school should have pulled my attacker out of school and put him somewhere else, far away from me.”
If any good comes from this nightmare account, it’s that other schools will understand that treating a sexual assault allegation in this way is not an example of leadership, and that when it comes to educational institutions, students should feel nothing but safe and protected.