Op-ed: I Was Sexually Assaulted at School

Andrew Lawless was attacked in the one place where teens are supposed to feel safe — school. But now he's working to make sure it never happens to anyone else again.

BY Andrew Lawless

May 06 2013 4:00 AM ET

I never expected to become a target of violence. But then again, who does?

At school, I had a 3.6 GPA and more or less enjoyed my classes. I was proud to be granted approval to graduate a year early. It fueled my aspirations for college with New York University at the top of my list.

I was also actively involved at school and in my community. I started a bullying prevention club on campus and became a part of GLSEN Middle Tennessee’s Jump-Start Leadership Team that advocates for safer schools issues in my area.

I was relatively happy. But much of my drive and positivity changed in mere minutes.

January 18 was like any other day at school. I remember not having any homework. A pep rally was scheduled and everyone was pumped. In a small school like mine, you can feel the excitement and energy flowing through the air.

I was sitting in French class trying to grasp a verb conjugation when I suddenly had an idea involving a field trip for our bullying prevention club. I received permission to leave class and headed off to speak with my club’s faculty advisor about the idea.

On my way, I stopped at one of the school’s bathrooms. I didn’t think anything of it until a bad feeling overwhelmed me when I entered the bathroom. That feeling was only confirmed when I heard someone say, “Hey faggot.”

I was slammed against the wall where two male students continued hurling antigay slurs at me. I didn’t know what to do because I was afraid and nothing like this had ever happened to me or anyone I know.

The two students pushed me into a stall. And that’s when my safety was taken from me. I had become a victim of sexual assault.

Both students eventually left. That’s when I slouched on the bathroom floor, completely numb. I could no longer feel the excitement in the air and no smile lined my face that I always admired for. I was hurt physically and emotionally more than I ever thought possible. I had just been violated.

At the time, I didn’t want anyone to know what happened. So I kept the incident to myself without reporting it to anyone at school. I felt ashamed and was especially afraid my friends would look down on me. I didn’t want them to know that I failed to scream and get away. That I didn’t fight back.

I ended up missing nearly two solid months of school because of the fear, shame and depression.

My grades fell to a 3.0 GPA. Now, I will only be able to achieve a 3.5 GPA if I make straight A’s during the rest of my time in school; this could ruin my chances for applying to New York University.

I am now back at school, but it has become radically different for me. I now change clothes for gym class in a separate bathroom. I only use faculty restrooms for similar reasons.

My school has done a lot to support me. They developed a safety plan to prevent future incidents, only for me. They constantly check in and insist that I report anything and everything that makes me feel uncomfortable.

My family has also been limitless with their love and support. My boyfriend has been at my side the entire time and helped me the best that he can. And my friends at GLSEN Middle Tennessee continue to rally behind me.

But there is a constant fear in my head. I worry about entering an empty classroom and someone shutting the door behind me. I worry about being attacked in the hallway. I worry about someone following me home to hurt my family or me. I also fear for my boyfriend’s safety.

I am lucky to have the support from everyone around me. I wouldn’t be here without it. But I refuse to sit back and remain silent. What happened to me could happen to anyone.

I consider myself fortunate to attend a school with a supportive administration. But a majority of my peers do not. In fact, nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experience harassment because of their sexual orientation. And 43% reported being victims of assault.

Many students like me in Tennessee have become statistics of harassment and discrimination. And yet, there are some politicians in my state who have tried to pass a law that would make schools like mine even less safe.

I recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend GLSEN’s Safe Schools Advocacy Summit where I met with my members of Congress. I was nervous, but I shared my personal story. And I asked them all to support the Safe Schools Improvement Act.

The school year will soon end, but I remain passionate about fixing the major gap students — like me — face in school. My head is high and my feet are moving because we need to build support for this bill. No student should ever have to go through what I did because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

I never expected to be a victim of assault. Who would, right? But here’s one thing that I do expect: a fair chance to become something great in a safe atmosphere. Shouldn’t we make that happen for millions of other students like me in school?



ANDREW LAWLESS is a young LGBT activist; with his constant work alongside GLSEN and starting his own anti-bullying/GSA club he is deeply embedded in his community. 

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