Teen Sexual Assault Survivors Felt Isolated And Alone. Now They’re Uniting To Protect Others.

Their project offers tool kits to jump-start student activism nationwide, and to make sure students know their rights.

Delaney Henderson was in the middle of a criminal case against two boys who raped her when she got a phone call in May 2013.

At that point, things were going poorly. Henderson had endured weeks of harassment from classmates who accused her of lying about being raped by the two older boys from her high school. Threats on Facebook were constant, and some students would shove her in the hall or even hurl water bottles at her head at football games. She had even attempted suicide.

One boy, who was 17 at the time of the assault, would take a plea deal as an adult only a couple months later, while the other, who was 16, was sentenced in juvenile court and had his record sealed.

But on that spring 2013 day, sitting on the cement outside of her new school, and talking on the phone, Henderson finally felt hope.

On the other end of the call was Angela Rose, who Henderson said had been "aggressive" in trying to get a hold of her. Rose founded PAVE, or Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, in 2001 when she was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She had been sexually assaulted before college at age 17, and she wanted to talk to Henderson about her experience.

When the two finally talked, Henderson said, it hit her. "I could make this a positive thing -- my whole life is not a negative," she said. "That was the first moment that I realized something good could come out of this."

PAVE knows cases like Henderson's are not isolated, and many girls are unaware of their rights as sexual assault survivors. This is why Rose and Henderson are working on a new project called Safe BAE (BAE a term of endearment meaning "before anyone else"), designed to educate middle and high school students about consent, as well as their rights after sexual harassment and assault.

"The girls need to be the driving force behind this," said Shael Norris, Safe BAE director. "It has to come from them -- we're not going to be able to speak to the social media influence, and all the social pieces that play into it. I'm very aware that students have to take it up as their cause. If it's adult-guided, it'll miss the mark."

What Is Safe BAE?

Safe BAE is essentially a toolkit for students to set up campaigns to talk about sexual violence, consent and harassment at their schools. Students can start their own school chapters, or "SafeBAE Squads," and receive readymade flyers to use, as well as a brief introduction to their Title IX rights to go to school without facing gender-based harassment.

PAVE recruited four survivors of high-profile high school sexual assault cases to help get Safe BAE off the ground. The squad includes a Houston teen named Jada Smith; Daisy Coleman of Maryville, Missouri; a survivor named Ella Fairon who started an advocacy campaign called "Buttervly"; and Delaney Henderson from Florida.

"These four girls were from different parts of the country but their stories were hauntingly similar," Rose said. "I know how isolating it feels to go through something in that age range, and I knew I needed to pull them together."

From left; Daisy Coleman, Ella Fairon, Delaney Henderson, Jada Smith.
From left; Daisy Coleman, Ella Fairon, Delaney Henderson, Jada Smith.
Safe BAE

While much attention has focused on allegations of colleges mishandling sexual assault cases under Title IX, advocacy groups are increasingly turning their attention toward those in high school and younger. The number of federal investigations into how K-12 school districts have handled these cases has more than tripled in less than two years, and more activist groups are pushing for a crackdown on the schools. Lawmakers, too, are looking at ways they can incentivize or even require schools to include consent education in middle and high school sexual education courses.

The problem is multi-pronged, Rose notes. Sexual assault occurs in high school at similar rates as in college, affecting around one in five female students, according to some research. Yet parents are typically "woefully unprepared," Rose said, and many students don't know what they can do if they do experience sexual assault or harassment. She noted that many high school administrators also don't know what their responsibilities are under Title IX to respond to reports of student-on-student incidents.

"Those things existed, but they were being ignored and brushed under the rug," Rose said. "When students have the power and the voice, that's when schools pay attention."

Where Safe BAE Began

Henderson and the other three girls met in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. They went out to dinner the night before a press conference in February organized by Pave and victims rights nonprofit SurvJustice, and that's when they "became a team," she said.

After months of planning, they held the first Safe BAE summit at Washington Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, on Dec. 12, 2015. PAVE collaborated with the advocacy organization V-Day, SurvJustice, activists with #YesAllDaughters and Arlington public schools to host the event. Safe BAE is now planning events focused on students in secondary schools with groups like End Rape On Campus and Love Is Respect.

Each of the survivors involved in Safe BAE had been in the spotlight before, and their families had been contacting each other on their own to offer each other support before Safe BAE formed.

Henderson had been on "48 Hours" in October 2014 when the show followed her and Rose as they met for the first time at an art show in Los Angeles. It was a fundraiser for PAVE, and would be Henderson's first time speaking about her experience in front of a crowd.

Jada Smith was thrust into the public spotlight in July 2014 when her sexual assault turned into a cruel meme: Teens posted photos of themselves lying in what they called a "Jada pose," based on photos of Jada unconscious after her assault.

Ella Fairon was sexually assaulted in high school, but decided to turn her experience into a effort to get teens to address rape culture and support victims.

'I Almost Owed It To Audrie'

Coleman's case gained notoriety due to allegations that the grandfather of her alleged assailant used his political influence to halt the prosecution. Classmates harassed her, and she received death threats. Her house was even burned down, though investigators never conclusively determined how the fire started.

Coleman's experience is chronicled in a new documentary, "Audrie & Daisy," that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. The film also details the case of Audrie Pott, a California teen who committed suicide in 2012 before her assailants confessed to sexually assaulting her. Coleman said she paid attention to what happened in Pott's case, and has worked with PAVE over the past couple of years to to talk to teens about sexual violence.

"I think after the ball got rolling it was kind of a snowball effect -- I just couldn't say no to every little speaking engagement," Coleman said. "I almost owed it to Audrie."

Coleman, now a 19-year-old Missouri Valley College student, believes she might be able to connect more as a speaker with young adults and high school students than with older audiences.

"People just kind of want to ignore that sexual assault is actually happening [in high school] and pretend in their little fantasy world that it's not a thing," Coleman said. "I want to at least change some people's mindset about rape culture and make them somewhat less blind to how real it is this day and age."

Activists involved with Safe BAE gather for a photo in Washington, D.C., in 2015, when they started the campaign to educate teens about their Title IX rights.
Activists involved with Safe BAE gather for a photo in Washington, D.C., in 2015, when they started the campaign to educate teens about their Title IX rights.
Safe BAE

How K-12 Schools Can Help Combat College Sexual Assault

Some of PAVE's other goals include teaching boys how to treat women with respect, and how to stand up against a friend who might be pushing a girl too far, the activists said. Experts commonly say college campus rape will never end if more preventive work isn't done at the K-12 level.

Research published last year found 10.8 percent of men surveyed had committed rape between the age of 14 and the time they graduated college. A little less than half of those men did so before college. Of those male students who committed rape in high school, the study found, 40.5 percent did so again during college. The researchers concluded that rape prevention efforts need to start much earlier than the typical presentations during college freshman orientation.

Abby Raphael served on the board of Arlington Public Schools and on Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe's college sexual assault task force. One of the recommendations by the task force was to do more at a K-12 level.

Raphael said Arlington schools worked with PAVE to facilitate conversations and events around consent education, offering up schools in the area to host PAVE and Safe BAE projects, like filming educational videos with teens. One thing that's really important in these efforts, Raphael said, is to go beyond having one school assembly and calling it a day.

"It's got to be a combination," Raphael said. "You can't just do a one and done -- kids have to be hearing these messages repeatedly, and it has to be age-appropriate."

For instance, that may mean talking to kindergartners about a "safe" versus "unsafe" touch, Rose explained. As students move into middle and high school, then educators can introduce whether it's acceptable for someone to hug or kiss them, and then talk about sexual activity when the age is right.

Work done at the elementary and middle school level is "laying the groundwork," Raphael said. "It changes as the kids get older, and by high school you can have more direct conversation, without saying 'Yes, it's OK to have sex,' or 'We think everyone's having sex.' We have to be respectful of people's values."

Turning Pain Into Something Positive

Henderson is now in college in Florida and plans to pursue a career in criminal justice. The sexual assault "shifted my whole life," Henderson said. But now, she uses her experience to help people, which she enjoys.

"Before, when I wasn't involved with PAVE, I felt very alone, and very excluded," said Henderson, now 20. "I really thought my perpetrators were stronger because they were louder than I was, but now I feel like I can push back and be louder."

Which is what Rose was hoping for when she recruited the girls.

"Turning my pain into something positive was a very healing thing," Rose said, "and I think the young women and I share that."


Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter who covers sexual violence and is based in New York. You can reach him at tyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade

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