In my creative writing class in high school, I envisioned a fantastical future where I worked as a district attorney prosecuting sex crimes and living in a high rise in Boston. My imagination hadn’t traveled far. I was simply making sense of what I had survived. I would fight for a justice I would never find for myself. I would be powerful and unafraid. I knew, too, that it would feel good but empty, fulfilling but insufficient. When
#MeTooK12 first started trending, I was hesitant to fully engage with the moment. My #MeTooK12 moments are extreme and will probably always be the most sensitive pieces of me. I wanted to protect these dark places from unwanted attention. Though I cannot tell you all of my story, I can tell you this. When I was 12, I didn’t completely understand what happened in the band room after violin practice, with two boys, against a desk. I was disoriented and scared. All I knew was that I had no one to tell. When I was 13, my boyfriend became so jealous that he started destroying his furniture with knives. As his physical violence escalated, so did his ability to convince me that everything he wanted me to do (with him and his friends) was normal and everything wrong in our relationship was my fault. When I was 14, I got a restraining order against him for one year. I continued to attend the same school with him and my other tormentors until we graduated over three years later.
Our K-12 schools are not insulated from rape culture; they are a microcosm of it. If you ask most girls and young women if they have been harassed, they will likely say yes. The catcalls and the ass slaps in the hallway—these are “normal.” This behavior can occur even when teachers are present. Teachers and school staff aren’t
trying to turn a blind eye—not the majority of them, anyway. But in my experience, when teachers know about student-on-student sexual harassment or assault, they lack the training to adequately and effectively address it.
In the throes of my #MeTooK12 moments, I didn’t completely understand what was happening to me. It was my first relationship and I had not yet learned how intimate relationships are supposed to work. I had an inkling that maybe my inexperience was part of my confusion, but I had no one to confirm my suspicions. I would stare at my ceiling at night, and circle around the idea that maybe
he was the one doing something wrong. I would allow myself to get angry with him and plot my next attempt to escape. But his
gaslighting won. I always concluded that he knew best. To put it simply: This abuse—all of it—should not have been allowed to happen. Sexual abuse in K-12 schools between partners should be addressed by adults. This includes creating an environment where students know the school has a responsibility to intervene in dating violence, that reports will be taken seriously and treated compassionately and confidential resources will be offered.
Eventually, I realized that I had two choices. I could risk my safety and break up with him, or I could spend the rest of my life in his prison. I finally chose the former after a fight that ended with him telling me I needed to ask for his permission to spend time with my friend. That was the beginning of the end. Coincidentally, a few days later a play came to my school called “
The Yellow Dress.” It was a one-woman show that depicted a teenager in an abusive relationship. It was like watching my life being portrayed on stage. They gave us a pamphlet with all the warning signs of abuse, and I dutifully got to work circling everything that applied. I may as well have circled the entire page.
At the end of the play, the young woman is murdered. I walked out of the auditorium feeling dizzy and disoriented. I was brought back to earth when the superintendent, who was standing in the doorway, placed her hand gently on my arm and said, “We can’t let that happen to our students, can we?” I was so taken aback I blushed. “No,” I said meekly as I walked out the door. How did she know? Why didn’t she reach out to me? I later learned that my school was required to address teen dating violence in compliance with
Title IX, a federal civil rights law that aims to prevent discrimination against girls and women in education. It is clear to me now that the school didn’t understand their obligations under Title IX to protect students from sexual harassment and assault. I would be a different person if it had. A few days later, I told a guidance counselor that I had broken up with my boyfriend and that he was harassing me and threatening to kill himself. She referred me to the crisis counselor and the crisis counselor recommended that I get a restraining order. I am very thankful to my school for inviting “The Yellow Dress” to perform and for recognizing the threat of teen dating violence. It was an intervention that only I knew about. I had been rescued. But with an intervention, there is
a plan in place to ensure safety and success in the aftermath. That structure never came. Looking back, I know that this is what I needed: my teachers to tell me that they were there if I needed to talk or if I needed help; to know that I wasn’t alone; consistent counseling; someone to ask me if I was OK; someone to tell me that what happened was, unequivocally, abusive and violent; someone to hear my story, carry my story, so that I didn’t have to do it alone. I needed someone to tell me: “Yes, you were raped. I am so sorry. What do you need?” I also needed the school to remember. After the restraining order expired, I needed them to intervene when we were fighting outside my locker. I always wondered, “Why has no one asked if I am OK with this?”
Filling the Cracks
My story is far from unique. And while the actual events I haven’t detailed were extreme, I’ve learned that extreme only matters to a certain point. If you’ve been abused or assaulted, it tends to define you. The greatest tragedy is that I will never know who I would have been had I not been raped; who I would have been if I had safety, protection, full access to my education, the freedom to define my identity. I can’t retroactively provide these necessities to my teenage self. They were needed in vulnerable moments that are long gone. All that’s left now is to try and fill in the cracks. When the #MeToo movement took hold, I allowed myself to imagine a world where violence against women is finally, mercifully, eliminated. What if the only trauma of my future daughter’s middle school years is hormones and awkward growth spurts? I want her—all of our children—to have the freedom to grow and learn without sexual harassment or abuse. The moment has come to stop being afraid to have these conversations. The loss to the individual and to our society is simply too great to ignore. For more information on the epidemic of K-12 sexual harassment and assault, visit the resources at
Stop Sexual Assault in Schools. To take action, visit the
Michelle Seyler lives in Los Angeles where she works in immigration law, providing naturalization and family-based services to the community. She has also worked directly with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, both in the immigrant community and at a domestic violence shelter. Before moving to California, Michelle lived in Washington, D.C., where she worked to protect the rights ...