Meagan Daniels is 19, and though she is little, she is fierce. Like her peers in the New Hanover County School System, she has to complete a senior project to graduate, but she has chosen to use it as a platform to discuss the justice system’s handling of sexual assault and rape cases.
On March 24, 2 p.m. – 4 p.m., she is hosting a #MeToo March at The Loop at Wrightsville Beach. It is the “product” part of her assignment. In addition she is interviewing other survivors who have sought justice to compile her findings.
“I have to write a research paper for sexual assault and rape, and how it is overlooked by the justice system,” Daniels notes.
In so many ways, it is a timely project. With #MeToo and #TimesUp gaining ground in the last year to shed light on the scale of sexual harassment and assault, Daniels has tapped into something larger than herself. But she didn’t realize it. “I was a victim, too,” she explains. She wanted to draw together others to share their experiences. She didn’t realize the movement until she started her project.
The last few months the USA gymnastics sex abuse scandal has dominated headlines, including powerful impact statements read aloud in public by Larry Nassar’s victims in court. The image of the young women facing him and speaking their truths publicly gripped us all, and hopefully empowered others to seek justice against their assailants. But it is one instance among many.
Just last week on March 14, the National School Walkout, to protest gun violence in schools, brought the power and magnitude of a younger generation’s voices to the ears of those who have come before them. As the Boomers questioned the validity and comprehension of America’s youth, I couldn’t help but wonder the hubris that seemed to be coming from a generation that protested the draft and joined the civil rights movement. It put Daniels project in sharp focus.
At the age of 17, Daniels was sexually assaulted in her home by a family friend who was so close she considered him an “uncle.” She pressed charges against her assailant and faced him in court.
“It’s crazy whenever it happens to you,” she tells. “You only see it on movies and then it happens to you—and you never thought it would.”
She shakes her head in disbelief.
But Daniels spoke up, and discovered the road to justice was far more bumpy than it should be. “If we do decide to take it to court, we have to relive it,” Daniels points out. “His lawyer was nerve-wrecking—they try to turn it around on you.” Daniels looks down then back to me. “I got slut shamed.”
The #MeToo movement started gaining ground on social media toward the end of 2017 as a way of drawing attention to the scale of sexual assault and harassment. Daniels points out it is only part of the equation; what happens to victims when they speak up and pursue justice should also get addressed.
“He had a prior case to mine for the same thing,” she tells of her perpetrator, “except it was an older woman and it got dismissed a long time ago.”
Daniels is still surprised at the outcome of the trial. “He just got a slap on the wrist, basically.” He plead guilty and is registered as a sex offender, but he is not in prison. “He still somewhat lives his life in a way he wants to. If you were to see him, you wouldn’t know.”
She is baffled that a drug conviction carries a greater sentence than rape, and asks how it is possible.
In essence, her senior project is part of her overall journey—a very personal one, at that. When she started putting together the walk, she wanted to focus on “bringing people together—citizens, victims, bring them together and become one, as one voice.”
I personally met Daniels in a self defense class. “At the time, I didn’t defend myself when it was happening,” she says. “I tried.” Daniels notes he was much bigger than her. Looking at her tiny frame, it is not hard to believe. “The class taught me moves that really could have helped me when it happened,” she says.
It was an eye-opening experience—one I personally admit challenged me deeply, almost to the core. At 20 years older than Daniels, I marvel at her courage to go through with it, in light of what she survived. But the march is giving her a focus.
“I feel, like, so small—like this is all I really can do,” she admits. I look at her and wish she knew how inspiring it is to see such a young adult do this, what it means to others.
Then she adds, “That I was able to do all this, had the courage to do all this … hopefully, that will encourage other people to make a difference and be somebody’s voice. ‘Cause I’m just a 19-year-old girl, still in high school.”
Watching the young women confront Larry Nassar, the momentum of #MeToo and #TimesUp, and especially the young people speaking up for their safety and protection in a world where adults question their validity, it is nothing short of inspiring.
Along the way Daniels has learned a lot about how the real world works: the mechanics of reserving space at a public park, hosting a public event, and planning and organizing around an issue. For all the hurdles, it has been empowering. She has found her voice and has a clear and specific message.
“I want victims to not feel scared to come forward,” she says.
Any money raised from donations and T-shirt sales at the march will be donated to Coastal Horizons Rape Crisis Center. Daniels will speak at the march, though she expects it might be through tears.
“When the day comes, I am going to get so emotional,” she foretells.
“Seeing people I don’t know there and supporting it, that’s going to be really touching to me.”
In the long term, Daniels wants to see changes in the way victims are treated by the justice system. There is so much work to be done, but the cultural shift that is starting is encouraging.
Still, there is so much work to do.