Just before August recess, U.S. Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) introduced H.R. 3415, in honor of Megan Rondini, a young woman who should have graduated college last May. She and I were freshman at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in August 2013, both out-of-state students on scholarship: despite both also being in Honors College, we never once met.
Megan transferred schools the spring of our junior year in 2016, and died by suicide that February. She was 21, a new student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and an alleged survivor of sexual assault. The Tuscaloosa News published documents related to the case earlier this week.
Megan's death, Poe believes, can be attributed to failure in the systems designed to protect her — at every turn.
And that's what Poe's bill hopes to address.
SAFEs, which Poe's bill would require to be at every hospital or require that hospitals have a plan to connect patients with such trained professionals, are trained in working with alleged sexual assault victims, knowing how to properly collect evidence, and complete the exam if the patient gives consent. SAFEs will continue to assist them by working with law enforcement, legal responders, additional physicians, and community advocates, depending on their wants and needs. That, Poe said in a statement, will help young people who may have been sexually assaulted regain their agency. There were no sexual assault nurse examiners at the hospital Megan visited after her alleged assault.
"I filed the Megan Rondini Act to ensure victims of crime have access to assistance and the ability to pursue justice," the statement said. "Hospitals across the country must have a SAFE on staff 24/7 or have a plan in place to get the victim to a nearby hospital that can provide forensic services. The failures that drove Megan to commit suicide must not be allowed to continue in our society. Victims must be given a voice and the ability to have evidence collected and tested to bring them justice. This legislation helps give them both.”
That's not the only change that's come about since Megan's death. In the months since Poe filed the legislation in July, the University of Alabama announced a SAFE-certified facility is set to open in Tuscaloosa this fall.
Per an article in the Tuscaloosa News, the program is a partnership of Druid City Hospital (DCH) Health System, the DCH Foundation, the University of Alabama, the Tuscaloosa County District Attorney’s Office, local law enforcement, and city and county leaders, according to spokeswoman for UA Systems, Kellee Reinhart. A news release mentions that the program has been in the works since last fall, and Reinhart told Tuscaloosa News that the timing of this program is not related to Megan’s case. When Megan went to DCH for an examination after her alleged assault in July 2015, the hospital did not employ SAFEs, and her examination became part of the backlog of untested kits in Alabama, according to Megan's family's wrongful death lawsuit.
Not on My Campus, a student organization devoted to sexual assault awareness and prevention, will be donating $1,685 to the facility, according to President Madeline Anscombe. The organization began raising money through a GoFundMe one day after the publication of the BuzzFeed News article. The have the support of Anne McKibbin, a former state-wide forensic nurse examiner and coordinator who was a founding member of the forensic nurse examiner program in Tuscaloosa and has offered her assistance to the city’s new program.
A change.org petition, started soon after the BuzzFeed News article, garnered nearly 7,000 signatures in support of these nurses in Tuscaloosa.
Megan’s parents Michael and Cynthia Rondini have since brought a wrongful death lawsuit, which now includes several defendants: The University of Alabama and its president, Stuart Bell; Megan’s alleged perpetrator; as well as personnel from the Sheriff's Department. The University of Alabama told Teen Vogue in a statement that the University’s Title IX office and Women and Gender Resource Center handled Megan's case with care.
"We will vigorously defend the new claims against the University and the president. Despite Megan’s reported assault occurring off-campus and not involving allegations against a University employee or student, the University’s Title IX office and our Women and Gender Resource Center handled their responsibilities with care at all times, keeping Megan’s wellbeing as their absolute highest priority from the moment they became aware of the alleged assault. Megan’s death is a tragedy. Our hearts go out to her loved ones who grieve her loss alongside our University family," the statement reads.
Megan’s alleged perpetrator was not indicted by a grand jury, and his lawyers sent along the following statement:
“If you have reviewed the criminal investigation file obtained by the Rondinis back in April you should realize that the very thorough investigation conducted by the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Department shows that the encounter between Megan Rondini and [our client] was clearly consensual. Any other portrayal of the evening in question is a false narrative and not worthy of comment.”
We have reached out to the Tuscaloosa Sheriff’s Department, and will update the story once we get a response.
The wrongful suit is in progress; most of the defendants have filed motions to dismiss or strike the claims against them. Nonetheless, Megan’s story has sparked change and discussion on local, state, and national levels.
In addition to the bipartisan Megan Rondini Act, Congressman Poe introduced a 2017 reauthorization of the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) Act of 2013, which aims to expedite the backlog of rape kits nationwide. He also sponsored a House Resolutionstating that “the House of Representatives urges all colleges and universities to designate and maintain a full time sexual assault coordinator on staff.”
Yet, as these changes are set into motion, Annie E. Clark, executive director and co-founder of End Rape on Campus, noted there were systems in place that should have helped Megan.
“[Megan] did everything she thought she was supposed to,” says Clark. Michael, Megan's father, reached out to the organization after Megan’s death, and Clark worked with the Rondinis to file Title IX, Title II, and Clery Act complaints against the University of Alabama. Clark says that, to her knowledge, the federal government is not currently investigating the complaints at this time, but that could be subject to change.
Title IX aims to ensure all students are not discriminated against or denied education based on their sex, which, according to the Office for Civil Rights’ 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, means that schools must take “immediate and effective steps to respond to sexual violence" and remedy any hostile environments resulting from sexual harassment or sexual violence, or be subject to losing federal funding. The Dear Colleague Letter was an Obama-era directive interpreting Title IX protections, but Betsy DeVos, Trump's Secretary of Education, has recently announced that those directives are currently being rewritten. Interim guidelines were released last week.
The Obama-era letter also states that 1 in 5 women will be victims of attempted or actual sexual assault while in college, as well as 6% of men. The letter's factsheet notes that victims are more likely to “suffer academically and from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, to abuse alcohol and drugs, and to contemplate suicide.” Megan saw a therapist once she returned home to Texas and was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD as a result of her reported assault, according to the lawsuit.
For homecoming last fall, Megan’s sorority dedicated the pomp to her memory. A suicide awareness ribbon made of tiny balls of teal and purple tissue paper was to the right of a board where others were encouraged to write the name of a loved one lost to suicide; collected donations raised several thousand dollars for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Because of the increased likelihood for sexual assault to occur at the beginning of the year, Greek organizations are positioned perfectly to step up as leaders against it, a point reinforced by one of the Rondinis' lawyers, Patricia Davis to Teen Vogue earlier this summer. “I’m not saying that people shouldn’t go to colleges like The University of Alabama, because I think there are a lot of wonderful aspects to college life on big campuses…but you can’t turn a blind eye,” Davis says. “You can’t go there thinking it’s Disneyland, and that you’ll be protected and that charming things are going to happen. It’s life. It’s real life.”
UA’s Counseling Center will employs 18 licensed clinicians and will add a fourth psychologist as fiscal year 2018, per a statement to Teen Vogue. The Women and Gender Resource Center has six employees working directly with students; three of these are staff therapists, and a fourth is expected to be added this fall. The Title IX office includes a coordinator, deputy coordinator, and four trained investigators—hiring will soon be complete for two vacant positions, the statement says. These three centers receive a total of nearly $2.85 million in university funding this year, and will serve more than 38,000 students.
But with these systems in place, and evolving after Megan's death, it's Davis's point that some students have taken away from the slew of legal moves.
“The whole experience kind of took my rose-colored glasses off [for] Alabama,” Moira Quinn, a sorority sister and friend of Megan’s told Teen Vogue earlier this summer. “From the outside looking in, and even from the inside when you’re kind of just going through your daily life, it can seem really charmed, I guess. In the fall it’s a beautiful fall day, and you have a football game, and you haven’t lost a football game all year, and you’re probably going to the national championship, and you’re with all your friends, and everyone dresses really cute for football games, and you live in this ... sorority house. I literally lived in the biggest house I've ever seen. It was just beautiful, cool. Definitely there were hard things along the way, before junior year and before we lost Megan. But it was never quite as obvious, this dark, kind of underside to Tuscaloosa and the university and just like, it definitely jaded my experience."
Read the article in its original format here: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/megan-rondini