Saratoga, California. “Isn’t that where that girl got raped?” “I think I saw that on CNN.” A few weeks ago, this place was just my safe and quiet hometown. Now, it’s the location of a nationally recognized tragedy.
In September, 15-year-old Audrie Pott hanged herself, and although reasons for her suicide remained largely a mystery at Saratoga High School, vague rumors of cyberbullying had circulated. Seven months later, April 12, three local high school students (two current Saratoga High sophomores and one who had recently transferred to Christopher High School in Gilroy, Calif.) were arrested and charged with sexually assaulting Audrie. Suddenly, reports surfaced of viral photos of Audrie’s assault, allegedly taking place during a small Labor Day weekend house party where Audrie and other attendees (approximately 10 were present) drank considerable amounts of alcohol mixed with Gatorade. Audrie then fell asleep alone in an upstairs bedroom, where, allegedly, she was later sexually assaulted, drawn on, and photographed as she lay unconscious on the bed.
Piecing together parts of what happened that night, Audrie wrote in a Facebook message, “My life is ruined … I have a reputation for a night I don’t even remember and the whole school knows.” She killed herself eight days later.
The emotions behind Audrie’s words are raw and speak for themselves, but other aspects of her experience may not have been exactly as portrayed in the media. Although undoubtedly circulated to a subset of Saratoga students, possibly in person and over text messages between those who attended the party, as some students have alleged in The Saratoga Falcon, photos of Audrie’s assault were not widely known to the approximately 1,400 students at Saratoga High. It’s still unclear how the authorities received the photo evidence and when they identified the suspects, but the fact that Audrie’s sexual assault came as shocking news to many Saratoga High students, even those in her own grade, demonstrates the extent to which the community stayed in the dark. That is not to say that the mere act of taking such pictures is not disgusting and preposterous enough, because it is, and sharing them with anyone should be a harshly punished crime. Audrie was violated by classmates whom she had considered friends, and seeing visual evidence that could and would be viewed by even more members of her small community was clearly devastating.
On one hand, it’s shocking that the photos were not more widely known and did not provoke more public outcry, but on the other, it speaks to the maturity of many students that they did not allow the distribution of the photos to actually go viral. They did not blindly forward the photos to all of their friends, and this is a small step in the right direction. I hope that those who did receive the explicit and disturbing pictures took another step and reported them to the proper authorities, but I also wish that someone could have successfully reached out to Audrie and prevented her untimely death. Saratoga is a unique place, where students are mostly wrapped up in pursuing perfect SAT scores and courting the Ivy League, and many become so nervous about the possibility of trouble with parents and teachers—or the law—that they take few risks. This environment surely contributed to the hesitation students showed in addressing this issue, ensuring that the suspects were arrested, or, most importantly, reaching out to Audrie.
Through all of this, I am proud of the Saratoga community. I’m not proud of parts of the administration, which should step forward sooner rather than later and make a statement regarding how they acted and how they plan to act in the future regarding this entire situation; however, I’m proud of the majority of students, parents, and alumni who have now shown support for Audrie’s family in some way or spoken against her tormentors. This is not like Torrington High School or other rape cases, in which excessive victim-blaming occurred within the community; this is a case in which Saratoga has the power to set a better example. Unfortunately, the support has come too late for Audrie, but it has not come too late for other survivors who need advocates and a blame-free, safe environment.
It’s a shame that if she hadn’t hanged herself, this might not be such big news. It’s a shame that for women across the world, Audrie’s story is something to which they can relate. It’s a shame that so many stories don’t come out until someone dies. Audrie is dead; a beautiful 15-year-old child, whose family loved her dearly, is never coming back. But that doesn’t mean that she can’t change the world.
Regardless of the type of sexual assault that occurred in Audrie’s case, it has highlighted the importance of removing society’s rape culture. We need to teach society that no one deserves sexual assault, and we need to continue to drive home the fact that an absence of a “no” does not mean a “yes.” Any act that is not mutually consensual, especially one viewed as typical—like wordlessly grabbing a person and grinding on him or her—plants the idea that seeing a person pressure another is acceptable. It’s easy to comfort ourselves into thinking everyone understands the necessity of consent, but Audrie’s classmates since middle school clearly did not. Like so many sexual assault survivors, she was unable to seek the help she needed in order to report what was done to her, and she ultimately took her own life. Others silently carry such experiences for years, while the people who violated them continue to live freely, even sometimes preying on more targets.
Her story also highlights the unfortunate reality that nowhere is ever truly safe. It’s easy to get too drunk and assume that someone will take care of you—but isn’t that what Audrie did, in the company of people she’d known for longer than most of us will even be in Claremont? It’s easy to say, “That wouldn’t happen in Claremont,” but that’s exactly what everyone said about Saratoga, “the place where nothing happens.” The unfortunate truth is that it can happen anywhere, to anyone. It can happen with your hallmates, your teammates, your mentors; it can happen at home or it can happen outside. I’d always been told this, but it took seeing my high school on the national news to really understand that. I sincerely hope that none of us are forced to have the same experience with Claremont.
Some may say that it’s up to the legal system now, that we’ve done all we can do and can’t do anything as individuals to bring these criminals to justice. Well, no, I cannot personally handcuff them and put them in a cell, but there’s so much more this nation can do. We must help survivors of sexual assault and promote programs like the Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault here in Claremont, which support those who have been assaulted and seek a safe place to talk. We must promote “Audrie’s Law,” which will ensure that adolescent sexual assault suspects are tried as adults, because making the decision to commit such a horrible crime means making the decision to live with the consequences. We can’t let there be more Audrie Pott stories, of girls silenced for days and then silenced forever, because they felt hopelessly trapped and alone.
Audrie’s family created the Audrie Pott Foundation, which accepts donations that will contribute to art and music scholarships, as well as allow the foundation to continue working toward helping young people receive counseling and education. To learn more, visit http://blog.audriepottfoundation.com/.