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Victim-Turned-Victim’s Rights Attorney Builds National Organization
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Laura Dunn, who reports being a victim of sexual assault by two men from her University of Wisconsin-Madison crew team, was fueled by her experience to not only earn a JD but also to launch SurvJustice, a national organization working to support other victims of campus rape. Dunn is an accidental social entrepreneur driven by a passion to make America’s campuses safer.
The scale of the operation at SurvJustice, with just three people on staff, doesn’t do justice to the work of the organization. Operating on a shoe-string budget, the nonprofit has impact beyond what you’d expect.
Dunn leverages volunteer interns and a small but impressive board to expand the organization’s reach.
Board member Lilibet Hagel, wife of the former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, says she was impressed by Laura and SurvJustice. “I was impressed that SurvJustice offers valuable ‘nuts and bolts’ legal assistance to survivors and good, well-informed advice on how to navigate the crazy campus landscapes, none of which seem to be the same.”
Dunn measures the organization’s impact in the proportion of cases of sexual assault where perpetrators are held accountable for their actions.
She says, “In 2010, the Center for Public Integrity did the first investigative series into the issue of campus sexual assault and found that only two out of 33 campus cases had the accused found responsible with only meaningless sanctions imposed as a consequence, such as a summer suspension.”
Just six years later, things are improving meaningfully. She explains, “Through its effective legal assistance, SurvJustice is already increasing the prospect of justice for survivors by holding perpetrators of sexual violence accountable in almost 75 percent of campus cases. It has also expanded into civil legal systems to hold enablers, such educational institutions, accountable for allowing sexual violence to go unchecked on campus.”
When she first started, Dunn said she worked on a small stipend “with back pay accumulating for when funding came through.” At the same time, two law school colleagues volunteered to help. Cheri Smith served as staff attorney and Sweta Maheshwari served as legislative director. Together the trio handled over 100 requests for help and developed he policies and procedures to handle more. Since then, SurvJustice has been able to pay a small staff. Dunn has not yet collected her back pay, deferring it at her request until “collection of our first civil settlement.”
Laura Dunn, courtesy of SurvJustice
The nature of a campus hearing, Dunn notes, is different from a criminal trial. Federal guidelines tell schools to take no more than 60 days to investigate and the hearings typically occur within 30 days, meaning that they don’t chew up as much time as a criminal case, allowing the small staff to help more victims. At the same time, Federal investigations of the complaints filed by SurvJustice take years and don’t require active involvement from staff attorneys.
To understand the enterprise Dunn has created, it is helpful to understand the context in which SurvJustice operates. Sexual violence on campus has bubbled up into America’s collective conscience over the past several years, in no small part because of Dunn and others like her. The problem, however, isn’t new.
The statistics on sexual assaults on campus are staggering. Dunn points to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report in 2000 that suggested 20 percent of women would experience sexual victimization while spending four years in college.
Board secretary, Daniel Carter, who works as a campus security consultant, notes that the work of SurvJustice is critical. “The need for legal assistance for survivors of campus sexual violence is high, due to the overwhelming disparity in power invested in colleges and universities who usually have one or more attorneys involved in any type of case or proceeding while survivors are usually left on their own.”
Carter acknowledges that simply eliminating this disparity doesn’t constitute a solution to the problem of sexual victimization of women on campus. That said, he notes, “Ending this disparity is an essential element to getting survivors justice and eventually reducing victimization by changing the culture to one of accountability, both for perpetrators, enablers, and institutions.”
Dunn says, ”While research often focuses on the high rates of those victimized, SurvJustice focuses on the heart of the problem, which is repeat perpetrators that researchers estimate to account for 90% of campus sexual assaults. These perpetrators are too often shielded from accountability by educational institutions.”
“In response, SurvJustice seeks to increase the prospect of justice for survivors courageous enough to report by working in campus, criminal and civil legal systems to hold both perpetrators and enablers accountable for sexual violence,” Dunn continues. “Through our successful legal efforts, we believe more survivors will report to help quickly identify repeat perpetrators and hold them accountable before they harm an average of six victims on campus.”
The tiny organization attacks sexual violence on campus on three fronts, Dunn says: campus, criminal and civil legal systems.
Campus: “On campus, we assist survivors reporting violence, seeking accommodations, obtaining safety measures, going through investigations and adjudications, and appealing the results at the campus or federal level through an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.”
Criminal: “ In the criminal system we advocate for investigation and prosecution while providing services for the few cases that make it to trial.”
Civil: “Our civil works has us represent survivors in lawsuits, co-counsel on other cases, and provide expert consultation or witness services.”
“Beyond legal services, SurvJustice trains institutions, advocates and attorneys on how to address campus sexual violence in compliance with Federal [law],” she adds.
Hagel adds, “Laura and SurvJustice also offer terribly important moral support and direction to survivors and their families through SurvWellness, a small but important adjunct organization.”
SurvJustice, for all it has accomplished, faces a deluge of complaints. Over its two year history, it has received 420 requests for assistance in 49 states and five countries. The organization provides direct assistance to about 25 percent of those who request it and refers another 25 percent to other qualified providers, Dunn says.
She notes that qualified providers are few and far between in a field that basically didn’t exist until about five years ago, when the issue finally garnered national attention.
In order to address the problem head on, SurvJustice trains bar associations and other organizations help meet some of the demand. “We are also expanding our Board to help fundraise and expand our services to meet demand,” Dunn says.
Dunn acknowledges that there are limitations to the organization’s ability to help survivors. Despite several requests for help in the Baltimore area, SurvJustice can’t help. She explains, “The U.S. Department of Justice just released its findings regarding law enforcement within the city of Baltimore, where I went to law school. There is a whole section on the mishandling of sexual assault and rape cases. While our policy advocacy and institutional training service can support such broader reforms, the criminal justice system in the United States is pretty broken and will require national and state-level commitments to change.”
Hagel, noted, when asked about the challenges to reducing gender-based violence on campus, said, “I’d say the lack of transparency and insular cultures that dominate most academic settings is a huge enabler and impediment to ending this problem. That is changing, thankfully, but institutions are far behind the eight ball in understanding how to respond.”
Hagel adds, “That is where the work of Laura and SurvJustice and others comes in — people who understand the history and what works and doesn’t work, and what policies must be instituted to protect both the survivors and the institutions.”
Dunn notes that she and her organization have already had national impact. “As a student, I contributed to the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter that reformed how institutions of higher education respond to sexual assault under Title IX.”
Notching another win, she says, “SurvJustice then worked to draft and successfully lobby for the 2013 Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization that amended the Clery Act to create procedural standards and victim rights on campus for sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and stalking reports.”
More recently, “SurvJustice also worked with student-survivors organizations like Know Your IX to lobby the federal government for broader reforms through the ED ACT NOW campaign, which led to the White House Task Force to Protect Students Against Sexual Assault.”
“SurvJustice will continue using legal assistance, policy advocacy, and institutional training to broaden the change we have already begun that has led the issue of campus sexual assault to be taken seriously.”
The national outcry over Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s short sentence for the on-campus sexual assault of a comatose woman is also a sign of the progress that the organization has made. At the same time, the short sentence itself is evidence of the room for further progress.
As a result, Dunn will continue her work as an accidental social entrepreneur.
On Wednesday, September 7, 2016 at 4:00 Eastern, Dunn will join me here for a live interview to discuss her work, the remarkable impact she’s had with so few resources and where her work is heading. Tune in here then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.
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