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Opinion D.C. has a new law to help student victims of sexual assault

Activist and #MeToo Movement founder Tarana Burke. (KK Ottesen for The Washington Post)

Michele Booth Cole is executive director of Safe Shores — The DC Children’s Advocacy Center. Ashley Harrell is director of the client advocacy services program of Safe Shores. Jordan Barksdale is teen advocacy services coordinator of Safe Shores.

In 2021, D.C. implemented the Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Amendment Act of 2019 (SAVRAA), which gives 13- to 17-year-old victims of sexual assault in D.C. the right to an advocate — a trained professional from a community-based organization — to help teen survivors understand their medical, legal and mental health care options as well as support them in whatever choices they make.

For a 15-year-old girl on her way to school one morning last spring, the right to an advocate became real. As cars and buses hummed by on the street, a stranger appeared in the girl’s path, pulled her into an alley and forced her to perform oral sex.

Shaken and scared, the teen, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, somehow made her way to school and immediately told her school counselor about the assault, which activated the city’s multidisciplinary child abuse investigative response. The counselor reported the teen’s allegation to the police department and to the teen’s parents. The responding Youth and Family Services Division detective put the teen in contact with an advocate from the Teen Advocate Initiative at D.C.’s Children’s Advocacy Center. The advocate arrived at the school within an hour and began the work of helping the teen navigate a complex process amid a physical and emotional crisis.

First, the advocate talked with the teen to find out whether she wanted to move forward with a sexual assault medical exam. Then, she went with the teen to the emergency department of a hospital, sat with her in the exam room and explained in the soft voice of compassion that the nurse would need to collect DNA for legal evidence.

The advocate shared her laptop with the teen to watch a lighthearted Netflix show while waiting to be triaged and examined. By the end of the hours-long hospital visit, the teen’s polite but vacant stare had given way to a shy smile. Her healing journey had begun.

The letter and spirit of the sexual assault victims’ rights law came to life in that case. It was an all-systems-go response, rooted in the needs of the young survivor. Her school had sounded the alarm. Police connected the teen with an advocate. Then, that advocate provided the teen with information, referrals, safety planning and emotional support — all centered on honoring the teen’s voice and encouraging her agency.

This case illustrates the power of SAVRAA to effect meaningful change in how D.C. addresses teen sexual assault. It also shines a light on the unique responsibility and critical role law enforcement and schools have in making sure the system works optimally for young crime victims. Schools have a nonnegotiable duty to protect students and report allegations of abuse and assault timely to law enforcement.

The city’s middle and high schools, in particular, could be natural allies of teens. At a minimum, D.C. schools have a legal and ethical obligation to report reasonable suspicions of abuse and allegations of teen sexual assault promptly to appropriate local authorities rather than attempt to conduct their own investigations. The School Safety Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018 requires all employees and contractors of D.C. schools, including school officials, teachers, coaches, nurses and mental health professionals, to report suspected child abuse and neglect.

So, a logical and urgent next step for D.C. schools, which have daily contact with the majority of District youths, is to educate their students, faculty, staff, parents, caregivers and contractors about preventing sexual violence and about the right teens now have to an advocate and how to access one.

By informing D.C. students of their right to an advocate, schools could play a powerful role in addressing an underlying criminal justice and public health problem that has wide-ranging repercussions: the underreporting of teen sexual assault. Often, teen victims don’t tell anyone about the violence they’ve experienced because of shame, threats by the perpetrator, fear of not being believed and fear of being separated from or rejected by their family, among other reasons. The $380 million USA Gymnastics settlement with more than 500 victims of child sexual abuse as well as the recent conviction of Ghislaine Maxwell on charges stemming from teen sexual assault have shown us that.

The underreporting of teen sexual assault means a staggering number of D.C. teens are struggling with the aftermath of sexual assault alone. Yet D.C. has enacted laws to prevent this.

By upholding these two D.C. laws and proactively protecting students, D.C. schools could make the #MeToo movement a reality for many of the city’s youngest victims and throw open the gates to justice and healing for thousands of young victims of sexual violence.

Tellingly, the #MeToo movement, which has impacted the lives of so many women, is rooted in girls’ experiences with sexual assault. Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, originally uttered the phrase “me too” silently to herself after being unable to respond to a 13-year-old girl who confided to her that she had been sexually assaulted. Burke said she later wished she had simply told the girl: “Me too.”

When more D.C. teen survivors of sexual assault know that respectful, nonjudgmental, compassionate, personalized, ongoing support is available to them right away, wherever they are, in the event of a sexual assault, there could be a huge shift for young victims. That shift would start with an increase in reporting, leading to an increase in teens’ access to medical and mental health services, which would ultimately result in a healthier, safer, more productive D.C.

Another school year is right around the corner, and the time to prioritize student safety is now. We need a D.C. where teen sexual assault is reported as soon as it’s known, and right away teens receive the help they need and deserve. We need a D.C. where every school implements abuse prevention and student protection protocols and codes of conduct that govern how students are treated. We need all D.C. schools to report allegations of child sexual abuse promptly and consistently.

What would happen if students experienced a government and community that worked for and with them to help and protect them? Imagine the shift and its ripple effects. What would happen, indeed? There’s only one way to find out.

To report teen sexual assault in D.C., call D.C.’s Child and Family Services, Agency 202-671-SAFE or the Metropolitan Police Department, 911. To get help after teen sexual assault in D.C., call the DC Victim Hotline, 844-4-HELP-DC (844-443-5732).