Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Medium and reposted with permission. The opinions expressed in this piece are solely of the author.
Recently, my alma mater Harvard Law School wrote to me asking for a donation for my 15th reunion, a class I’ll always share with the guy who sexually assaulted me when I was a teenager and completely got away with it. It’s a part of my life that I wanted to keep buried forever because it filled me with such shame, not just the fact that I was sexually assaulted, but the fact that the faculty of Harvard Law School actually voted on whether to take away my degree for speaking up about it.
I was only eighteen years old when it happened, having skipped several grades, gone to college at 13, a first generation immigrant, a young woman of color who had overcome poverty and beaten the impossible odds to get in. The last thing I expected would happen to me at Harvard Law was sexual assault.
I remember my attacker telling me after the assault, “I should probably go to church for what I just did to you.” This followed by “And you should probably take a shower.” I did take a shower. I wanted to take a million showers. The showers did little to assuage the fact that we went to the same school. His apartment was across the street from my dorm. He sat behind me in one of my classes.
I saw him nearly every day, at law school events and law firm interviews. Whenever I saw him, my stomach would twist into a knot so tight, I felt like I was going to hurl. In the weeks that followed, I went the university nurse, got the rape tests done, told the Dean of Students what happened, switched dorms, and filed an anonymous report to the police.
None of this was enough when I filed a formal complaint against him. Harvard Law School at the time adhered to the “clear and convincing evidence” standard, a higher standard for rape victims which Secretary DeVos is now allowing schools to go back to.
Despite this incredibly high standard, in my third year of law school, I filed a formal complaint in Harvard Law School’s administrative board against my attacker. Graduation was fast approaching and I couldn’t bear the thought of my immigrant parents having to witness their daughter getting her diploma next to the guy who sexually assaulted her. So I talked to the new Dean of Students as well as the Dean of Harvard Law School and brought charges of sexual assault in Harvard’s Administrative Board.
The Ad Board is Harvard’s own mini-court system, the “jury” made up of faculty members and students. In order to proceed with the ad board, the law school required me to write and sign a document saying I would not bring a criminal complaint with the police. I signed it, thinking that the institution that stands for justice would find justice on my behalf.
The “trial” required me to sit in a room in front of my attacker and listen for hours as he called me a liar — a traumatizing and soul-crushing cross examination process, which Secretary Devos now wants to make mandatory on campuses. Still, I presented my evidence as best I could, including emails and health services records. In the end, Harvard Law School still found my attacker not guilty.
Then, the other shoe dropped: the university was now investigating me for “malicious prosecution.” The days that followed were the darkest ever as I waited for the faculty to vote on whether to yank away my own diploma. The law school told me that I could make the whole thing go away if I just dropped the charges. My traditional Chinese parents urged me to consider backing down, worried if this got out, it would bring shame to me and my family. But I refused to drop the charges. My voice was my armor.
The day I was found “not guilty” was one of the most heart-wrenching days of my life. I was relieved; and gutted in my relief that the only justice I got for being sexually assaulted was I was allowed to keep the degree I earned. A faculty member actually came up to me afterwards and said, “Congratulations! You get to graduate! Let me give you a bit of advice. Move on!”
I did move on, sort of. I moved away from law, having had my entire legal education hijacked because of this experience. I started teaching and writing. I stuffed what happened to me in a shoebox until 2014, when the Department of Education found that Harvard Law School was “in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 for its response to sexual harassment, including sexual assault.”
The Dept of Education found multiple cases of sexual assault where the school failed to respond appropriately. Tears streamed down my face when I read the words — all this time I thought I was all alone. Reading the report was like turning on a light in a dark cave; I had no idea there were others.
Harvard Law School issued a statement in response: “Harvard recognized that we could and should do more.” They are the closest to an apology that I’d ever received from the institution that I felt wronged me, an institution I admired since I was a little girl.
The Department of Education findings — coupled with witnessing the bravery of all the women who stepped forward in the Harvey Weinstein case — empowered me to finally share what happened to me in PARACHUTES, my debut young adult novel about two girls who experience sexual misconduct in an elite private school and the length the school goes to cover it up.
While I can never get back those three years of law school, I hope that in telling my story, more schools will prioritize protecting the students, not the brand. I hope what happened to me serves as a cautionary tale for the new rules on campus sexual assault that Secretary DeVos just finalized. If implemented, they will make us go back to a system which in my opinion works against the victim. They will dilute the courage of so many women in coming forward and speaking out — myself included. They will make it that much harder for victims of sexual assault and sexual misconduct to seek and find justice.
About the Author: Kelly Yang is the New York Times best-selling author of FRONT DESK, winner of the 2019 Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, and the young adult novel PARACHUTES, based on her experience navigating sexual assault as a young student at Harvard Law School, publishing on May 26, 2020 from HarperCollins. She went to college at 13, graduated from UC Berkeley, and attended Harvard Law School from 2002-2005. She was one of the youngest women ever to go to Harvard Law School at 17 years old. Follow her online on Twitter and Instagram @kellyyanghk and kellyyang.com.