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.
One year later…
It’s been one year since we watched the young man who sexually assaulted our daughter walk across the stage to receive the coach’s award for swim. One year since I watched her gaze shift to the floor, realizing that after all the blood, sweat, and tears she left in those waters, the young man who took everything from her that day, also took this swim award. One year since I vomited my words onto paper about my daughter’s rape in the summer after eighth grade because if I kept them inside any longer my thoughts might just poison me.
Our daughter graduated high school last year from a prestigious private school in our community. While most celebrated the awards and the accolades, we celebrated survival. Survival from a moment, at a party, that tainted every moment of her freshman year and almost her entire high school experience. Survival of seeing her assaulter on a nearly daily basis, except for the year and a half she was remote due to COVID.
Freshman year of college had it’s challenges
With graduation, came the willingness for one more form of therapy, EMDR, to hopefully alleviate the trauma she was still living with. EMDR reshaped the trauma and gave our daughter a way to frame what happened. To create it almost as a television show that she simply watched as a viewer, from the outside, not as the one experiencing it. After several sessions, there came a change, a true sense of healing. She left for college, a young woman with grace, who had experienced the unimaginable, yes, but had overcome.
Freshman year of college had its trials and tribulations without a doubt. Relationship challenges, struggles that accompanied newly found independence, life/school balance challenges, even a surgery due to a fall ice skating. But not seeing the young man who assaulted her every day had an impact that none of us could have realized or imagined was possible.
The young woman who contemplated taking her life that day in the restroom walked her grand college campus with her head held high with the realization and confidence of a survivor, no longer a victim. The anniversary of the assault came and went with a simple acknowledgment, a couple of tears, and a determination to move quickly through the day. Our daughter had done her work and the rewards she reaped were plentiful. She had her life back. We realized then that healing from the wounds that felt like they might never close was possible and that the scars might be able to fade with time.
We are working with the school to “do better” in terms of sexual assault education
After my article was published last summer in Grown & Flown, I shared it with my small circle who knew what happened. More importantly, I shared with the school she graduated from, where they both had been students. I implored them to please hear what her experience was and asked them to “do better” in terms of an education program for students and parents. Assurance came in the form of an email connecting me to the counselors at the school, with grandiose plans for speakers and programs, come April. April, after all, is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
As the months passed, the emails grew sparse and lacked response, despite the ones I continued to send. The light grew dim in the hopes the school would address this issue, regardless of the most recent findings by the CDC regarding grief and sadness experienced by young woman, with a causal effect being sexual assault. When I finally received a response, I was advised that prom and senior event planning, had unfortunately taken precedence over the events and speaker for Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
I couldn’t help but think of the irony of that. Would anyone be assaulted on the night of prom? Would a young woman or man’s night be forever changed because of an occurrence, or an unfortunate choice made? Would a young person with new freedoms in college not hear, or comprehend, the word “no” in the heat of the moment? I could only pray that wouldn’t be the case. The apologies and the fumbling of words in the most recent emails, sadly, gave me the realization, that our school is not quite ready to “do better”.
As I fly to help my daughter move out of her dorm, I anticipate we will pack and clean, not only items, but the hopes and dreams of freshman year that she has filled that room with. Hopes and dreams of a future that I can say I was scared might not exist a couple of years ago when she was just barely hanging on.
The work of healing is ongoing
The school has assured me that we will start conversations now regarding the speakers and plans for next April. I have assured my daughter that I will fight for this and push to bring a level of education around sexual assault to this school, before her brothers walk that graduation stage in two years.
The work of healing is never done. But today I celebrate our soon to be sophomore daughter, who closes the chapter of a beautiful freshman year, so different from the freshman year, four years ago, that she was robbed of. I celebrate the gifts of healing, both our daughter’s and my own. I celebrate my own empowerment because I know I have a job to do as the mother of a daughter who has experienced sexual assault. It’s still time to “do better”.
The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.
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