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It's Not Rape, If It's a Freshman: An Open Letter to Parents

02/04/2014 06:22 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2014

Maybe it's the nature of sexual assault, the things I have to read for my daughter's case are not only unspeakable, they are unimaginable.

-- Written from me to my daughter's college advisor on December 6, 2013.

On September 8th, my daughter, an eighteen-year-old freshman, had been at college just three weeks when she called to tell me she had been sexually assaulted by a group of football players at campus parties the night before. Looking back now, I recall it took me at least twenty-four hours to let myself actually feel anything. When it hit, the pain was unimaginable.

My job is to protect my daughter. Where was I when she needed me most: during the assault, at the hospital, during the rape kit? I wrote her a letter I never gave her; a letter in which I told her how my most fervent wish was to have been able to switch places with her that night and endure the violence and pain she endured. Today, I accept this will never be possible and I no longer imagine such things.

What I cannot accept, however, is that even with the substantial evidence from a rape kit by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, these football players were found not responsible by a college judicial board. What I cannot accept is that while I slept peacefully, remembering my daughter's words hours before, "I love college, you would be so proud of me," she was in a hospital, where they found blunt-force trauma, abrasions and heavy inflammation from assaults the college would later say had "more likely than not" never occurred. What I cannot accept is that, even with an eyewitness, these football players denied having sexual intercourse with her and were not held accountable for any of the thirteen charges against them.

These football players walk freely through the campus of my daughter's college. They continue to be applauded on and off the field, and glorified on the school website. I wonder how a college that had such a beautiful, welcoming orientation on August 23 could fail my daughter so devastatingly in so many ways, just three weeks later. In my daughter's words, "The betrayal is palpable."

Today is day 149 and counting, and my daughter's appeal of the college's finding of non-responsibility sits on a desk. The covering up of sexual assault should never happen but it does -- far too often. What happened to my daughter is not only imaginable, but, in fact, commonplace. And when it happens, colleges and universities must be required to hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable, and afford the women who suffer at their hands the support to come forward and not hide in shame. Today, I understand who should feel shame, and it is not me, and it should never be my daughter. I could not protect my daughter that night, but I hope that our story might protect yours one day.

We believe we live in a culture so far removed from the atrocious gang rapes we read about in distant countries. Yet right on our college campuses, alleged rapists are awarded the Heisman and celebrated by their universities as heroes. I applaud President Obama on addressing this issue, but it is not enough, and for many, like my daughter, it is too late. In 1977, I was a freshman at Cornell University and marched in the first "Take Back the Night" protests. It is painful to see how little progress has been made on this issue in over thirty years. As our President has reminded us, the arc of the moral universe may be long but it is bent toward justice. For my daughter and me, thirty-seven years is too long.

The day after my daughter's assault, a friend told me to look up the Clery Act. I had never heard of Jeanne Clery, a college student who had been assaulted and murdered in her dorm room 25 years ago, which lead to landmark federal campus safety legislation. I was shocked I had not read about this before. Afterward, it took me quite a while to find the Clery numbers for my daughter's school, and they seemed very low to me. After the finding of non-responsibility, I had the time to review Title IX, a law that many think applies only to college sports teams. I learned it is a federal law that prohibits sexual harassment and sexual assault at colleges that receive federal funding. I then found the Dear Colleague Letter of April 4, 2011. That is when I began to understand my daughter's rights. I hired a lawyer to help us because I can afford one. What happens to a woman without these resources, without a mother with whom she is close, or without a family with the means to fight back?

A few weeks after my daughter's assault, a protest sign was placed on her door. It read, "It's Not Rape If It's a Freshman." Though the signs were meant to be ironic, calling out the sexism that exists at the college, they were placed only on her door as a form of harassment. When this phrase can be used as a protest sign and a threat, we have a serious problem, and as parents sending our students to college, we must be vigilant.

What is unusual is that my daughter has chosen to return to college this semester. She will not let this define her. It is her right to be there. She has chosen to take a stand even if it means being on the same campus as her assailants. I am more proud of my daughter today than I have ever been. I am overwhelmed by her courage and cannot imagine myself ever being so brave.

Today, I honor her courage by sharing our story.