For months, she didn’t know anyone else who had gone through what she had.
Samantha* was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance at a friend’s house after a party last April, she said.
“No,” she had told her attacker during the assault. “I don’t want to, please stop, get off me.”
Samantha said she thought “he kind of took it as funny that I was struggling to push him off of me.”
She was only able to leave the room “when he was done, when he wanted to stop.” She then rushed to find the two others who were in the house, sleeping in a different room, and told them she wanted to stay with them but did not say why.
One of the two friends didn’t find out about the assault until Samantha told her a week later, and the second didn’t know until Samantha spoke about her experience during a school assembly Dec. 3.
“I was kind of playing it off because I didn’t want anyone to be worried about me,” Samantha, now 18, said. “I’d never heard of someone else [I knew] having to deal with that. I didn’t know what to do.”
Colleges across the nation have come under intense scrutiny this year for their handling of sexual assault cases, but the issue isn’t limited to college campuses. In a Chronicle poll of 432 students at Harvard-Westlake, 10.9 percent said they had been sexually assaulted, 4.9 percent of the males and 17.5 percent of the females.
In the past week, at least 11 students from Venice High School were arrested on allegations of sexual assault and lewd acts with minors involving a group of male students conspiring to pressure female victims. The victims and those arrested were all 14 to 17 years old.
Most cases of sexual assault never make it to law enforcement. Only one out of about 20 student victims will ever tell an adult, school psychologist Luba Bek said.
The day after her assault, Samantha didn’t get out of bed. Her parents sensed something was wrong, but they couldn’t have guessed what had happened, especially because she tried to pretend things were normal. The only person she talked to was a boy she had been dating on-and-off for five years who was not involved in the assault. Otherwise, she isolated herself completely.
Two days after the incident, Samantha ran into her attacker again. She made an effort to avoid him after that, but it didn’t help.
“It got worse,” Samantha said. “I got more and more upset, and I blamed myself more and couldn’t pay attention at school. If I wasn’t at school, I was in my bed and not speaking to anyone.”
She didn’t tell her therapist what had happened until months later. Instead, Samantha went to school every day and “concealed,” she said. “I felt really, really alone.”
The most important step to recovery for someone who’s been assaulted is talking about what happened, Bek said.
“The more you talk about a traumatic event, the more you realize that you’re not a victim, you’re a survivor, and that you want to take the power from the person who assaulted you and give it to yourself,” she said.
At age 13, Daisy* ’15 was digitally penetrated by a family friend who was about her father’s age, she said.
She didn’t tell anyone until she was a sophomore, when she told four friends after one of them confided in Daisy about her own rape.
Daisy said she saw her attacker occasionally at subsequent family events, during which he continued to act as though nothing had happened until he moved to another state.
“It’s just incredibly embarrassing because I never actually said to him, ‘No, stop,’” Daisy said.
Daisy said she didn’t know why she didn’t say anything to her assailant.
“I guess it was immature,” she said. “I was afraid of offending him, kind of. I know that makes no sense, but at the time, it’s confusing.”
“There are so many other emotional consequences that [survivors of sexual assault] have to deal with, but one of the things is that they hate themselves, and they think they deserve whatever happened,” Samantha said. “But that’s not true. No one deserves to go through that.”
Friends sometimes reinforce the message that the victim is to blame.
When Samantha started telling her friends, most supported her. Others, however, cautioned that she was making a “really serious accusation, which “made me feel really awful,” she said. “It made it feel like it was my fault.”
Daisy also felt hurt by her friends’ reactions when she told them about her assault.
“The most frustrating thing is that it’s like you’re somehow marked,” she said. “Most of my friends were supportive, but there was [one friend] that it was weird with. She was nice about it, but acted different. We couldn’t just talk about boys or sex or whatever anymore.”
Upper School Dean Beth Slattery said that when students tell her about sexual assaults, they often say that they “don’t want to ruin anybody’s life,” she said. “It makes me crazy.
“Sometimes, kids will talk about an experience they had that they don’t even identify as sexual assault,” she said, and she’s the one to realize that the situation was non-consensual.
Samantha said a lack of sufficient consent for sexual contact permeates the party atmosphere for many Harvard-Westlake students.
“It’s partly because boys often want to hook up with girls just “to tell their friends that they did it,” Liam Hyde ’17 said. “Guys feel like they have to prove something.”
Hyde thinks that some boys are concerned about crossing consensual lines during hook-ups, but “the majority are not.”
Anna* ’16 agreed to go to a dance with a boy because she felt bad for him. The two didn’t talk much during the event itself, but at an after-party, he approached her friends.
“Anna, he wants to hook up with you,” they said to her.
She told them to tell him she didn’t want to, but they kept coming back.
“And it was kind of like, ‘Oh my God, Anna, just do it. It’s not even a big deal,’” Anna said. “They weren’t telling him no.”
Later, when Anna was alone, he walked up and announced, “I’m gonna kiss you now.”
She explicitly told him no, but he grabbed her shoulders and stuck his tongue into her mouth. “I tried to get away from him, but he was holding on to me,” Anna said.
Anna wouldn’t call what happened sexual assault, but it frustrates her that “he felt like he was entitled to do this,” she said.
One of Anna’s friends who was there confirmed her account of events.
When Anna ran to her friends after the incident and told them about it, some of them “kind of thought it was funny,” she said.
Because of the incident, Anna no longer attends parties.
“When kids lose inhibition, it really leads to unpredictable circumstances,” Bek said.
In general, when students report assaults to school counselors, Bek said “we always believe the victim, because knowing that one out of 20 people come forward, she has a reason to be coming forward.”
“We have to make sure that the person involved in this is safe, and we have to make sure the community is safe,” she added.
Most adults on campus are mandated reporters of abuse. They are required to report information to the administration or school psychologists, and school psychologists are required to report information to the proper authorities.
Sometimes, Bek said, a student tells her about an assault without knowing she is required to report it to the police, then refuses to tell the police anything when they come to interview him or her.
While Samantha is glad in hindsight that she talked to her therapist, if she’d known the therapist had a legal mandate to report sexual assaults to authorities, she said she would not have done so.
Another issue victims face is the need for evidence for legal cases to go forward. Physical evidence often expires before victims report sexual assaults, making it difficult to prove attacks occurred.
In the Venice High case, there was at least one photograph showing sex acts, according to the Los Angeles Times. Not all sexual assault cases have such evidence supporting them.
Samantha said that when she talked to the police after her therapist reported what had happened, they told her that her case was “he-said, she-said.”
Samantha and other victims interviewed for this story asked the Chronicle not to speak to their accused attackers for fear of what they might do. The Chronicle honored those requests while verifying details of their accounts with other sources.
One of Samantha’s friends who had been in the house where she said she was sexually assaulted verified details of her account and said that Samantha told her what exactly had happened a week afterward. The boy Samantha had been dating on-and-off also verified her account.
Detective Deann Maltos, who supervises the LAPD West Bureau special assault section, confirmed that Samantha’s case was investigated.
In working with both the Beverly Hills Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department, Samantha said she was asked to recount her story in detail multiple times. The investigation spanned three months and ended, Samantha said, when she was told that nothing could be done unless she personally called the accused on the phone and got some evidence in the form of a recorded confession out of him.
Samantha said she couldn’t have talked to her assailant again.
“I felt like I went through hell and back having to relive that so many times to get something to happen, when nothing did,” she said.
Maltos, the police supervisor, said she couldn’t comment on specifics of the case or strategies generally used by police because their disclosure could harm ongoing investigations.
“If there is not evidence to prove a crime occurred, a district attorney’s going to decline to file a case,” a different source from the LAPD’s West L.A. Community Police Station said. “Our country forbids us from charging people without evidence. It’s our Constitution.”
“I guess ultimately, it was my decision to end the investigation, but I felt like I didn’t have that many choices,” Samantha said. “I was angry that he had that kind of power over me. It made me so sad — that it could keep me so low for so long.”
Because so few victims report their sexual assaults, and because the few who do come forward encounter so many obstacles along the way, perpetrators often don’t face the consequences they need to, Bek said.
“They will never learn,” she said.
Teens generally don’t start off knowing the requirements of proper consent, LAPD Officer Jack Richter said.
“Hopefully, this’ll bring this issue to the minds of these young people,” he said, referring to the Venice High case. “They probably have no idea what the laws are in the state we live in.” Under California’s penal code, sexual contact involving a person under 18, consensual or not, and including when both participants are under 18, is unlawful.
The day after Anna was forcibly kissed by her date, both her date and his friends texted her, trying to justify his actions and questioning why she was upset.
Sonia Rivera, the East Los Angeles Women’s Center’s Director of Sexual Assault and Emergency Services, said forcible kissing can count as sexual assault.
“Somebody’s forcing themselves on you, and if you’re not reciprocating,” it’s sexual assault, she said. Forcible kissing doesn’t get people prosecuted, however.
In general, Rivera added, “no is no, regardless of whether [the person forcing sexual contact] is drunk or not. You can’t give consent while you’re drunk, and there always has to be a yes for everything.”
Trishta Dordi ’15, who plans Denim Day events at the Upper School, hopes this year to organize an “open conversation between boys and girls” to promote a greater understanding of consent. This year, Denim Day will take place April 29, and Mentors in Violence Prevention co-founder Jackson Katz will speak at an assembly April 20 about violence against women.
“[The lack of understanding] does hurt both genders … I think it’s upsetting if a guy gets in trouble for something he didn’t think he was doing wrong,” Dordi said.
In the weeks following the assault, Samantha was thinking about what had happened “almost every second of every day.”
Now, “it’s something I can push out of my head,” she said.
Only two days beforehand, Samantha decided to speak about her experience at an upper school assembly.
She began by asking every female at the assembly to stand up.
“One in five women will be raped,” Samantha told them. “And one in three will be sexually assaulted. I was one of that third.”
In the face of a culture in which men and women are objectified every day, “we as a community need to appreciate everyone in this room,” she said.
Samantha could count on her fingers how many people she’d told about the sexual assault before she shared her experience with more than a thousand.
For the first time, she heard from others, about 10 of them, who had survived sexual assault, too. Soon, Samantha started a support group for students who had been sexually assaulted or raped.
“When I see the girls around school, I feel like we understand each other in a way that maybe other people don’t, and I think it’s been nothing but positive,” she said. “Being able to handle it – that means you’re really, really strong. It’s not something to be ashamed of.”
*Names have been changed