New Virginia Law Protects Student Sexual-Assault Survivors

Twitter DM propels delegate Marcia Price to spearhead new student safety legislation

Student sexual-assault survivors in Virginia will soon have more protections in school thanks to a state lawmaker who turned an out-of-district Twitter direct message (DM) into a student safety law.

Virginia delegate Marcia Price sponsored the bill requiring schools to inform all relevant personnel of a protective order affecting a student. The legislation was drafted after Price was DM’ed by the mother of a teenage sexual-assault survivor who was forced by circumstance to be in the same classrooms as her attacker.

Education is a constitutional right, and so I think that it has allowed for a process for the student who is a survivor to be safe in their school environment,” Price, a Democrat from Newport News, told ESME days after the bill was signed by both chambers of the Virginia state legislature.

The path for this bill began last year when Price was working on the unenviable task of cleaning out her Twitter DMs. She had let them pile up unchecked after she earned the ire of white nationalists and their allies for sponsoring a state bill on domestic terrorism as a direct response to the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.

Then, one DM caught her eye.

“I saw this one from a woman, and it was from a verified account. She says she wants me to talk to her daughter. And I love talking to kids,” Price said.

The woman and her daughter lived out of Price’s district, leading Price to assume she’d be speaking to a child about the legislative process, something she enjoys doing.

Instead, the mother wanted to talk to Price about her daughter, Francesca, who was being retraumatized every day at school. For Price, knowing the mother had contacted a legislator outside the family’s home district meant they needed help.

“She was sexually assaulted—abducted and sexually assaulted—the summer before her freshman year,” Price said, retelling Francesca’s story. “When she starts her freshman year, her assailant, who has pled no contest to the charges, attends her same school because there’s only one public high school in her area. She walks into this building, and there he is.”

Francesca and her family got a protective order against the fellow ninth grader, but they quickly found it didn’t do much to prevent the two students from being in the same room.

“When the school board pointed to the [school] code, the only person who was allowed to know that information was the school principal,” Price said. That meant Francesca’s teachers, school counselors, and other support staff were not allowed to be notified.

Similarly, the boy’s teachers were unaware there was a protective order against him by a fellow student.

“The principal isn’t following you around school. They’re usually out of the building handling business or in their office, but they’re not really one that can walk a survivor through their safety plan to make sure they stay safe,” Price said. “Francesca said that if more of her teachers had known, more could have been done to protect her.”

Francesca told Price that she was once sitting in her homeroom when her assailant was sent into the room to pick something up. She sat at her desk, traumatized all over again.

“It wouldn’t happen as an adult,” Price said. “Why would these children be expected to navigate such a plan? And we’re talking about K–12.”

Francesca ended up not being able to endure the trauma of going to school with her assailant and left, enrolling at a private school where Price said she is thriving.

Price is a fourth-generation Virginian. Politics are in her blood, with several family members before her being elected to local legislatures and school boards. Her father, McKinley L. Price, is the mayor of Newport News.

“I always wanted to make sure that people who live in my area, the peninsula part of Virginia, that they had the same opportunities that I had,” she said, “that this amazing childhood and educational journey that I had was accessible to all.”

After Price’s initial phone call with Francesca and her mother, she coincidentally attended a conference in Washington, DC, that included a session with Know Your IX (pronounced “Know Your Nine”), a survivor- and youth-led project fighting to end sexual and dating violence in school. The conference session, Price said, was about how students were being let down in school and not getting due process for reporting and getting convictions for sexual assault.

“As I was sitting there, I knew I was supposed to carry that bill,” Price said. “I knew I was supposed to help Francesca.”

But she didn’t have much time. The deadline to have drafts prepared was fast approaching if Price wanted to move the bill in 2019.

In the end, it was Francesca herself who ended up helping Price craft the bill.

“Her ideas were really good ideas,” Price said. “It was based on what could have helped her be safer in her school environment.”

The bill not only protects students such as Francesca but also allows for more school personnel to be aware of protective orders taken out against people outside the school. And it also helps, in a way, protect assailants who are trying to abide by their protective orders but who may inadvertently come into contact with the survivor at school and then face further court involvement.

But students such as Francesca are Price’s priority.

When people talk about school safety, she said, it’s often about measures such as bulletproof whiteboards and safeguards against school shooters.

It’s an important conversation, she said, but “we missed a lot of opportunities when we needed to talk about some of the other things that were happening within the school building that would render it unsafe for children.”

Thumbnail credit: Screen shot from “Del. Price’s interview with Woody Evans” via Delegate Marcia Price

Sarah Netter, ESME’s Adoption Resource Guide, is a single mother by choice to a fabulous little boy, one neurotic Italian Greyhound, and two Spanish Galgo puppies. She is a full-time journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ABC News.

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