I never thought I would entitle a blog post as such, but, alas, I now know how to file for an HRO–an harassment restraining order. I’ve been writing about sexual harassment in my medical school program because I’ve been experiencing it for over a year now. I’ve followed every procedure to the letter, and the harasser will not stop. He has escalated to making veiled threats against my children. He is a 26 year-old dude for crying out loud. Only five years older than my daughter! And yet he has fixated on me. It has created a very strange reality; I’m actually afraid.
On Tuesday last, I went out to dinner with another student who has experienced similar circumstances in our program, and I had a wonderful time. She is a very courageous woman who has navigated the legal system with the help of an advocate from a local women’s advocacy center. I felt profound admiration for her tenacity and deep anger for the injustice of her situation. As she narrated her story to me over dinner, I could scarcely believe it. A restraining order? Against a fellow student? In our school? And the very next day, I had to do the exact same thing.
The student who has been harassing me escalated his behavior. I felt paralyzed. Lo, guess who was just a room away. My new friend who was just with me the previous evening. She swept in and took me to the women’s advocacy center. I disclosed the situation to two advocates, showed them all my previously filed legal documents with the Office of Civil Rights, the legal disclosures filed with the school, and personal documentation of his past actions. The advocates unanimously agreed that the best course of action was to fill out and file an HRO. In this way, the police could act upon my behalf, and steps could be taken to keep me and my minor children safe.
Can I just say that none of that felt real to me? I felt out of body and triggered by the entire circumstance. I was having a problem speaking words. But, I did it. I filled out the HRO and printed out every piece of supporting evidence for the court. My new friend and another woman from school went with me to the courthouse on Friday morning as I filed the HRO. At that point, it is a petition for an HRO. A judge has to grant it. We went to a diner across the street, had breakfast, and waited together. The court called me a few hours later. My hands were trembling when I answered the phone.
The judge granted it. I now have a restraining order against my harasser. He has 20 days to contest it, and, if he does, I have to go to a hearing with an attorney.
There are obvious reasons why this situation is unjust and wrong. I could go into great detail about it, but I won’t.
To me, however, there is one reason why this situation has been really good. I have experienced the support of fellow women in a truly meaningful way in the context of social injustice. There have been people in my program who have looked the other way and pretended that nothing was going on. Teachers and administrators as well. Even worse, other students have observed the harassment and buried their heads in the sand so to speak. The community at large has condoned the harassment, and this is what perpetuates it. Think about it. If an entire workplace of employees protested sexual harassment, then would it continue? If an entire university or college protested sexual harassment and violence, would the administration continue to support the student perpetrators? Consider Penn State. Well, they couldn’t. They must get tuition from somewhere. Sexual violence, hatred, and bigotry are as much a community problem as they are an administration problem. One blames the victim while the other condones harassment and violence through silence.
It’s a difficult subject because once you start to speak up on behalf of someone else, you start to become an advocate; and advocacy will always cost you something. You could experience retaliation. Other people may distance themselves from you because they associate you with the people you are advocating for–guilt by association. You could become a proxy representation and begin to receive more abuse than anyone else. Look at Martin Luther King, Jr or Harvey Milk. Advocacy doesn’t end well sometimes. There are risks, and, let’s be real, who signs up for this? No one. But, who signs up for harassment? No one. Someone has to do something. Don’t they? Who’s going to be the person who stands alongside victims and say, “I stand by you. This won’t continue. I’ll do something about this”?
Here’s the thing. Nothing will change in a meaningful or permanent way if we don’t start standing up for one another. And, I’m not necessarily talking about change on a macro-level. I’m talking about micro-changes. Using my college as an example, there is an established and documented pattern of sexual harassment within the school environment as more than one student experienced it. We also experienced and continue to experience an apathetic response from the administration. We are referred to law enforcement if we need help. One might say, “Well, that is the school’s right. They don’t have to help their students deal with harassers. What’s the problem?” Good point.
The problem is that if a school receives federal funding, then they must comply with all Title IX laws concerning discrimination. Under Title IX, sexual harassment falls under discrimination, and the legal language is very specific about definitions and what a school is required to do about it. If a school does not comply with Title IX, then they are in violation of it. They have broken federal laws. If a school is aware of discrimination and fails to address it, then they are not in compliance and must be investigated.
This is where documentation and reporting are absolutely vital. The more people who are willing to report what they see, the better. The more people who are willing to do this in a legal sense, the better. Victims of harassment on school campuses can get little action from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) without documentation. This is, however, how real social change comes about. We’ve seen it happen right before our eyes this year what with the Weinstein Effect. Story upon story came forth, thusly, destroying Harvey Weinstein and Miramax Entertainment. Witnesses finally came forward to corroborate other witness statements. It was never one big event that took down the giant. Just a community of people who stood up for each other in real time and risked something.
I, therefore, challenge you. We can’t complain about sexual harassment and terrible bosses, fellow employees and students if we ourselves won’t say anything or support another person experiencing it. If we see it and know about it but fail to do anything, then how are we essentially different from the harassers? We are creating the environment that enables the abuse. Social injustice will not stop until the environment that supports it makes no room for it any longer. That begins with you. And me.
Title IX: Know Your Rights
The Office of Civil Rights and Harassment Complaints
About the Office of Civil Rights (OCR)