Warning: This story contains content about sexual assault and rape.
For four years of high school, my daughter swam with the young man who sexually assaulted her. At the end of their senior year, he was given the Coaches Award. As a mother, reflecting on this and much more, I’m left to ponder, “Should I just have told her to quit?” Maybe. But she loved swimming and being an anchor for her team.
As her parents, we did everything we could to protect her from his presence at practice. We requested they swim in the lanes furthest from one another, allowing her to miss training on the “anniversary” and other days when the anxiety was too much.
We explained to her coaches that an “incident” had occurred without saying too much but enough for them to know that they needed to be far away from each other. I thought he would quit when it all played out at school. Or that the school would ask him to leave the team. But neither of these happened.
Our 14-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted
Our daughter was sexually assaulted in the summer between eighth grade and freshman year. The lines of rape are so often blurred. When it happened, because they had a relationship at one time, it was hard to call it what it was, rape.
She had been to a party. They were in the ocean, and he forced himself on her even though she said “no” repeatedly. “I don’t want this,” she said. And “Stop!” Yet, it still happened. Her freshman year was spent in crisis mode. She was already working with a therapist, and we wanted to deal with what happened quietly within the walls of the psychologist’s office.
However, when sexual assault is reported by a teenager, a parent, or anyone under 18, it must be reported to the authorities. We knew that our psychologist would need to do that, and we understood her obligation. However, we had no idea what the experience would feel like going through the process.
We had to report the assault, and that made it very difficult for her
Sadly, those who are sexually assaulted are not treated as victims when dealing with the legal process. I know that doesn’t make sense, and it didn’t make much sense to me back then, but I saw it play out. And that’s part of why I’m writing this because it’s so sad and unfair.
As a freshman in high school, she was obligated to give a statement to the police even if we decided not to prosecute. We just wanted it to go away. She was very young at the time, 14, and she tried to normalize what had happened and deal with it the way that we had dealt with anything that came up emotionally and psychologically with her therapist.
The police came to her school one day and pulled her out of class to question her. A case had been opened by DCF (The Department of Children and Families) due to her psychologist reporting. I was called as soon as they arrived and made my way to the school. It was unannounced but anticipated, as her psychologist had advised me of what would happen.
With this mid-day visit, we were obligated to explain to the school. The police pulled the boy and the girl whose party it had happened out of class to be questioned. My daughter was also extensively and not questioned in the “I just need to know” way, asked in the “I think you might be lying” way.
As her mother, I was also questioned. To the other parents, that of the boy and the girl, it seemed like we had pushed for this questioning to happen. We had not. It was part of the process. I spoke further with the SVU (Special Victims Unit) detective assigned to us, who implored us to press charges. After seeing what my daughter endured after only a simple questioning, we declined.
We decided not to press charges
I had to meet him in a church parking lot to sign off and “refuse” to press charges. I prayed it was the right call, and looking back, four years later, I’m not sure I would make the same decision today. That day, he told me that the young man was “lucky,” and he should thank us that his life wouldn’t be ruined. We never got those, thanks. Our detective also told me that he would question him so he could understand the magnitude of his actions and choices that day.
The school knew. The deans, assistant principal, principal, and headmaster. He faced no consequences since the incident didn’t occur at school. I requested they not be in class together, placed on different days when returning from school after the pandemic, and had different lunch periods, but I couldn’t do anything about the swim team. And she wanted to swim.
Her school friendships changed after the assault
How could I take away the one thing that had always given her solace and a place of peace from her running ADHD mind? Her relationships with her friends changed. The girl at the party felt my daughter had caused the police involvement. She also chose not to believe my daughter about the rape. School friendships from then on were based on whether the individual believed her or the boy.
He was popular, so for many, the choice was easy. She became more and more isolated as depression and anxiety took over. We would alert the school when he stared at her or made her feel uncomfortable. The deans would “discuss with him.”
We reported it when the boy’s sister threatened my daughter at a beach party. The deans “addressed it” as a violation of the honor code that every student agrees to. She contemplated ending her life. It pains me even to write that. Instead, a young woman walked into the school bathroom and told her, “everything will be ok,” and asked if she needed to talk. That young woman didn’t know it, but she saved my daughter’s life that day. Thank God for her.
Therapy shaped my daughter’s high school years
Therapy shaped her high school years from that point on. Psychotherapy every Tuesday, DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) every Thursday, eventually brought on a psychiatrist, and medication was prescribed for anxiety and depression. In her senior year of high school, she completed a session of EMDR to work through her trauma. Every year, the anniversary of the assault was debilitating as the nights became more sleepless and school was more difficult to attend — no swim practice on the anniversary.
She even missed a meet one year because it fell on that day. I share all this because there is that part of me that feels like I must, so you will believe she was a victim of rape. And so you will hear what I’m asking or suggesting. No one should go through what she did and what we did as a family.
Education about rape and sexual assault begins at home
Schools need to do better when addressing sexual assault and rape. Our school, our private school, did not support her. They let her down in so many ways. Education about rape and sexual assault should start at home. Parents must educate their kids about consent and that “no means no.”
One out of every six American women has been the victim of attempted rape or completed rape in her lifetime, with ages 12-34 being the highest risk for this. Nearly half of those years are spent in grade school, high school, and college, schools are obligated to educate about sexual assault and rape.
Our daughter was obligated to take a health class in her senior year. The topics covered included healthy eating, exercise, alcohol and drug use, and vaping. The course did not touch on sexual assault or rape. There was no discussion of sexual safety, no sexual education, and no explanation of consent.
Perhaps they are concerned that it will become a topic if they address it. More victims of sexual assault perhaps would come forward at the school. Maybe that is too scary for the school. Because it happens often. Sadly, my daughter knows many young people who have had similar experiences to hers. When asked, she said, “A lot. At least ten others.”
Schools need to look at the way they support students
The school needs to take a long hard look at how they provide support for students. My daughter requested a round table meeting with the deans and heads of school a couple of years ago to shed light on how unsupported she felt during her freshman year.
She made a call to action and asked them to come up with ways to support the psychological well-being of their students. When nothing changed, she felt like she had wasted her time.
I explained that it was never a waste of time because her voice had been heard, and she could speak her truth, acknowledge her needs, and get out what she wanted and needed to say. Much like I am today.
Anti-rape advocacy must have a place in high schools. With her younger brothers still at her school, our daughter has asked them to consider starting a club like the SWEAR (Stand with Everyone Against Rape) group in New Hampshire to hopefully change the dynamic. It will be worth it if it prevents one rape or one sexual assault. Change the thinking first, and change the stigma.
She said goodbye to swimming at the end of her high school swim season. No more practice swimming in the lane beside the young man who assaulted her. No more panic attacks underwater, her heart racing, and her breathing making her swim stroke impossible.
My daughter feels good about what she has accomplished
She walked away with the happiness in her heart that she was part of the school’s record-setting women’s relay team. She didn’t get any award for swim as she said goodbye to the school she dedicated nearly every afternoon to for six years.
He got the Coaches Award. But today, she can hold her head high, know what she has contributed, and know her hard work for herself. And that’s more important than any damn award.
She has found a new place, on a beautifully cold, frozen form of water where she ice-skates nearly every day, perfecting spins and twirls, with a newfound sense of overwhelming joy and peace. She will start college in the fall, where she can create her beautiful future, carrying the healing scars of a difficult high school experience.
I almost couldn’t ask for more. But I will. I will implore high schools, schools in general, to take a long hard look at our story and do better. Do better for the victims who haven’t been victimized yet. Just do better.
The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.
National Sexual Assault Hotline: Confidential 24/7 Support
National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
More Great Reading:
How to Talk About Sexual Assault With Your College-Bound Teen