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Carry that Weight: Accused Rapist calls it Harassment. I Suspect it’s Natural Consequences.

Did you see the story last week that Paul Nungesser is suing Columbia University? He’s the student who is accused of sexually assaulting Emma Sulkowicz (and other students), which inspired Emma to create the performance art piece called “Carry that Weight” after he was cleared of responsibility in regards to her alleged rape by the school.

Visual arts major Emma created this piece for her senior thesis where she committed to carrying a mattress everywhere she went as long as she attends the same school as her accused attacker. Paul is suing the school, claiming that “Carry that Weight” is a harassment campaign against him and as a result, its damage to his reputation and job prospects. He also claims that he has been on the receiving end of pervasive threatening behavior by other students who call him a “serial rapist” when he attends school events.

(I must use terms like “accused” and “alleged” because this is a situation where the suspect has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing in a court of law. Please don’t interpret this to mean that I don’t believe Emma or any others who speak out about being sexually assaulted.)

Protester with Placard by WeNews from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Protester with Placard by WeNews from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

This development in this situation leaves me frustrated and emotionally torn. On the one hand, I am a strong advocate of the idea that people are “innocent until proven guilty.” I believe in this ideology because I don’t want to see that justice system manipulated or people being punished based on one person’s word. I believe when a person is accused of a crime, they deserve in their day in court and that it’s the prosecution’s job to build the case against them.

On the other hand, my limited experience with the criminal justice system has taught me that sexual assault cases are very hard to prove. As a lawyer I find myself regularly quoting Tom Cruise’s brilliant line from A Few Good Men: “It doesn’t matter what I believe. It only matters what I can prove.” Sometimes justice can’t be done because the evidence isn’t there to paint a clear enough picture of what happened. That doesn’t mean that the victim isn’t telling the truth. Studies show that very few people lie about being sexually assaulted.

If Paul attacked Emma or any other student (and I believe he did), part of me endorses the idea that he and others like him that get away with sexual assault deserve the natural consequences of their actions. They deserve to have tarnished reputations and to be called out for the wrongdoings that they committed. It’s too easy for a rapist to go unpunished because there isn’t enough physical evidence and/or the statute of limitations has run out. And then they can turn around and victimize the person again by claiming they are being defamed when the victim has the strength encourage to call out their attacker for what they did.

Given that Paul is suing Columbia University and not Emma directly, I think he’s just trying to get money out of the situation. I would not be surprised if he filed this lawsuit in the hopes that the school will pay him a comfortable settlement in exchange for dropping the case.

I Was Cyberbullied – Part 4 of 4

This is the final installation of my four-part story with cyberbullying. You can read it from the beginning here. Back to the story . . .

After finals were over, I filed a formal report with the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities. They said there was nothing they could do at that point, but that people like her engage in the same behavior repeatedly. They suggested that I send my bully an email informing her that any future contact was unwanted and would be reported to the university as harassment. If she contacted me again, it would be actionable. I disagreed with their assessment, but I sent my bully the email.

Seclusion & Serenity by Iwona Erskine-Kellie

Thankfully, my bully only had one more semester of school and we didn’t have any classes together. If we had been in any of the same classes, I would have asked the school to make her change. It was still nerve-wracking to see her on campus, but we never had direct contact again. Last I heard, she moved to California. Shortly after graduation, I blocked my bully and my other former exec on Facebook. Doing that made me feel like I was closing the door on that chapter of my life.

I had an unsettling experience last week with my bully – she asked to connect on LinkedIn! I was surprised she would want to be a connection given her animosity towards me. I suspect she uploaded all her contacts to her LinkedIn account and requested to connect with all of them, not thinking that there might be people in her contacts list that she doesn’t want to be connected to. I looked for the ability to block someone on LinkedIn and was shocked to learn that LinkedIn doesn’t provide that ability. The best you can do is deny someone the ability to connect with you. I expected them to have a stronger anti-harassment provision. I would like to block her on that site too, but that is not an option at this time.

So there’s my story. It was hellaciously stressful to be the victim of cyberbullying. I’m so grateful that I had support from my friends, my family, and the law school. I can’t imagine how much worse it could have been if I had to endure it alone. Unfortunately, that’s what happens to too many children. They’re ostracized from their peers and they’re too afraid to ask for help from their parents or teachers.

To all the victims of cyberbullying, I know it’s hard to admit that you’re being bullied, and I know it’s scary to ask for help, but do it. You don’t have to go through this alone and you don’t have to continue to be the victim.

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I Was Cyberbullied – Part 3 of 4

This is the third part of my four-part story with cyberbullying. You can read it from the beginning here. Back to the story . . .

Walking Away by Jeremy Raff-Reynolds

At that point, I was done with her harassment. I investigated whether I had options for recourse through the school given that I was experiencing student-on-student harassment and all the emails were sent over the ASU email system. My research revealed provisions of the Arizona Board of Regents Student Code of Conduct that prohibited harassment and discriminatory activities.

I set up a meeting with the Assistant Dean of the law school where I explained what had been occurring and showed him all her emails. By then the semester was drawing to a close. He and I decided that the best course of action was for him to meet with my bully after she was finished with finals to discuss the inappropriateness of her behavior. At the end of the meeting, I turned over my copies of the emails to him to put in her permanent file. If anyone calls the school to ask for a reference for my bully, they may be told a report was made against her for cyberharassment.

My bully reportedly left town immediately after her last final, so the assistant dean was unable to get her into his office for a meeting. Instead, he spoke with her by phone. According to him, she wasn’t very receptive to what he had to say and didn’t take any responsibility for her behavior. Shortly after the call ended, she made the following post on Facebook:

“ruth carter is a giant cunt and a poor person. tell the world I said this.”

She must have realized that creating that post was a poor decision and removed it, but not before I took a screenshot of it and sent it to the school.

The assistant dean and I were astonished by her behavior, and I had concerns about her level of impulsivity. I still had one final to go, and the finals schedule is post publicly, so she had access to information regarding when/where I would be on campus. We weren’t certain that she had actually left town or that she wouldn’t come back.

We decided it was be better to be safe than dead. To protect my physical safety, we decided it would be best if I took my last final in a different location, so I took it in a windowless room, by myself, where only one other person knew where I was.

Read the conclusion to my cyberbullying story in Part 4 of I Was Cyberbullied.

 

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I Was Cyberbullied – Part 2 of 4

This is the second of my four-part experience with cyberbullying. You can read Part 1 here. Back to the story . . .

Alone by Tanya Little

For weeks, I was anxious every time I went to campus. I was so nervous that it made me sweat profusely. I stopped wearing professional clothes to school out of fear I would ruin them with sweat stains. Instead, I wore jeans and a t-shirt, and kept a fresh shirt in my locker. It was common for me to change my shirt during lunch because my first one was soaked with sweat. I got down to my lowest weight in law school that semester because I was too anxious to eat and I was sweating so much.

My bully was in one of my classes that semester – trial advocacy – and she sat right next to me. There were only 12 of us in the class and only 12 seats in our seating area. I didn’t want to ask someone to exchange seats because it would have brought up questions about the situation. So every day we had class, I sat there, sweating like crazy, but refusing to let her know how much she bothered me.

My trial advocacy final was a mock trial. Thankfully my bully wasn’t my co-counsel or the opposing counsel for my mock trial. Our trials were on a Friday night, and we didn’t finish until after 10pm. Her group finished before mine. I was petrified walking to the parking garage that night. I didn’t know if she’d be waiting there for me. I was so relieved when I didn’t see anyone in the garage.

My goal for the student club that my bully and I were executives for became to get the club through the end of the school year, pass it off the next year’s executives, and be done with my bully and the other executive. The club’s faculty advisor caught wind of what was going on and asked to meet with me. When I told her about the emails, she said my bully was out of line and she would do what she could to help get the club through the end of the year.

Our advisor called a meeting for all the executives to plan the remaining weeks of the semester. When my bully and the other exec tried to bring up the gala invitations, she immediately cut them off and refocused on the club’s future. I walked out of the meeting with the impression that my bully and the other exec were not going to stop trying to turn the gala invitations into a group decision and that they were going to view everything I did in a negative light. I decided at that point to resign my leadership role. It wasn’t worth my effort to keep putting up with them.

All the executives in this club were equals when I was in it. We didn’t have designated roles like president and vice president. All club decisions were made by a majority vote. However, I was often the point person on projects and a lot of people sought me out when they had a question about the club. After I resigned, I had nothing to do with the club. When anyone asked me about the club, I referred them to the club’s email address.

Shortly before I got my bully, I was the point person on an event put on by my and another law student club. The post-event paperwork didn’t get done until after I resigned. An exec from the other club started it and asked for my help, but by then I couldn’t sign off on anything because I wasn’t a leader anymore. I referred her to the club’s remaining execs.

I could have done the work in less than 3 minutes, but I wanted to take a stand. I wanted my bully and the other exec to know that when they make it impossible to work with them, I’m not going to work with them. By then, I had no obligations to them or the club. I responded to all their emails by politely informing them that it would be inappropriate for a non-executive to fill out executive paperwork. That resulted in my bully sending me the nastiest email to date:

“Ruth you are a giant cunt and a poor person.”

Read how I responded to her nastiness in Part 3 of I Was Cyberbullied.

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I Was Cyberbullied – Part 1 of 4

Cyberbullying sucks. I know because I’ve been through it.

I’m sharing my story to show that it can happen to anyone, at any age, and that there are things you can do to combat it.

My story begins in February 2010, the spring semester of my second year of law school at Arizona State University. I had a full load of classes and an internship at a large Phoenix law firm. I was also an executive officer on multiple student clubs at the law school. It was because of the connections I made in a leadership position that lead to me receiving an invitation to attend the HRC gala. The invite was written and sent to me in an email that was to my personal email account, not the club’s email address.

One of the other execs, another law student, did not receive such an invitation. She became my bully.

For the following three months, I dreaded seeing the notification that I had new email in my inbox.  Every email from her was filled with anger and disrespect. She called me dishonest, unethical, phony, dumb, seedy, a poor leader, and made discriminatory statements about my sexual orientation.

From the beginning, I sensed this could be a heated situation and may not end well. I elicited the help of four of my friends:

  • Michael: former assistant dean of the law school who has a wealth of knowledge regarding law students and the ASU system,
  • Jeff: my friend who has experience with handling public criticism,
  • Andrea: was the president of an LGBT student group at Oregon State University when I was a student there, and
  • Julia: my classmate who is a former national speech champion. She is the most articulate person I know, and she’s brilliant at handling difficult people.

Project 365: Day 57 by Cara Photography

Every time I got an email from my bully, I forwarded it to these four. After her first email, I never sent a response without giving myself several hours to let my emotional response subside and to formulate the best response based on the goal of getting the harassment to end.

My bully’s impulsiveness scared me. She reacted to every email with such anger. She responded without taking any time to think through her response. I was pretty sure that she wouldn’t shift from being verbally impulsive to physically impulsive, but I wasn’t completely convinced.

After one particularly cruel email that I forwarded to my support team, I got a one line email response from Michael: “Ruth, you need to stay away from this person.” Michael has counseled thousands of law students in his career. A warning like that from him carried significant weight for me.

I reached out to Gavin de Becker and Associates, a firm that assesses threats in personal relationships and the workplace. De Becker is the author of the bestselling book, The Gift of Fear, a book I recommend everyone read to identify and respond to people who threaten your safety. I explained the situation to an associate, and he responded that I likely had cause for concern.

I was 30 years old, and for the first time in my life, I was afraid to go to school.

Read more about my experience with cyberbullying and how I fought back in Part 2 of I Was Cyberbullied.

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Heartbreak of Cyberbullying

One of the legal issues that pulls at my heart strings is cyberbullying, especially when it involves kids.  It’s hard enough to be a young person when you don’t have to worry about being taunted and threatened every day.  With regular bullying, students dread going to school.  With cyberbullying, students can be constantly harassed by their peers via emails, text messages, or worse – a website dedicated to torturing them. I was cyberharassed at school last year, and it was awful.  For the first time ever, I was afraid to go to school, and I was 30 years old with the support of family, friends, and my school’s administration in my corner.  I can’t image what it would be like to go through the same thing as a kid and alone.

I hope with my law degree, I can help students and schools combat and prevent the bullying of children.  My heart breaks every time I hear about another student taking their own life, in part because of bullying.

Big rainbow flag hanging on side of building

Image via Wikipedia

Arizona has a law that requires schools to have policies and procedures in place regarding harassment, intimidation, and bullying on school property, buses, bus stops, and at school sponsored events.  Schools must investigate suspected bullying and disciplinary procedures for those who are found guilty.  A revision to this law was proposed in February 2011 – SB 1549.  This law would expand harassment to include behaviors involving school computers, networks, forums, and mailing lists.  I think this is a good start, but I wish it would be expanded to specifically include any harassment that occurs on school grounds or at a school sponsored event that occurs via any electronic means.  This could expand the definition of harassment to include text messages and any communication that occurs via the internet on a school computer or a student’s smartphone that is present on school property.

Central High School in Phoenix was kind enough to send me their current policies and procedures for addressing bullying and harassment.  Their definitions for harassment and bullying seem to encompass all the behaviors that should be prevented in schools.  I was also pleased to see that their rules already address cyberbullying and that the procedures include involving the police if warranted.  It suggests that they take bullying seriously and address it as such.

I would have liked to have seen their definition of harassment specifically include harassment based on sexual orientation.  Given that gay teens are much more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts, schools have an obligation to keep a special eye out of these kids.

Unfortunately, a rule is worthless unless it is enforced.  Historically, teachers at schools across the nation have turned a blind eye to bullying or tell gay kids to expect harassment if they’re going to act like sissies.  I feel horrible for any student who is legally obligated to attend school where they are harassed on a daily basis, with disciplinary system in place that isn’t being utilized, and an administration that turns a blind eye to these kids’ pain.  I hope that there’s something I can do after graduation to address these problems, whether it’s by empowering school administrations to support these kids or helping to protect these kids who cannot protect themselves.

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