Sexual assault and bullying are age-old problems, but in recent years they have taken on new urgency. This is due in large part to a lack of education surrounding social media, which has injected a potent tool into the lives of teenagers—one that is all too easy to use in impulsive and injurious ways.
The story of Audrie Pott, a 15 year-old student in California, inspired Silicon Valley Intellectual Property partner Carrie LeRoy to put her legal acumen in the service of the community, taking action on the issue of sexual assault, and on the way this problem can be compounded by destructive social media use. After Pott was sexually assaulted at a party, her three assailants—peers at Saratoga High School—used social media to share images of the incident with classmates. A week later, Pott committed suicide.
Convinced that too little was being done to inform teens about responsible behavior in the age of social media—and about the potential personal and legal ramifications of certain kinds of social media use—Carrie created a pro bono program that is now called "Dignity in the Digital Age" (Carrie first implemented a precursor to the program at a prior Firm). It has now reached 8,500 students and counting, preparing lawyers from the Firm and individual attorneys—many from client companies—to conduct training sessions for students at local schools. The sessions cover issues ranging from sexual consent to the increasing practice of sexting, in which people share sexual images of themselves that can then be easily disseminated to unintended recipients. "Carrie's trailblazing program is the first of its kind, and aims to educate our youth about the dangers and consequences of improper behavior on social media" says Silicon Valley partner Bijal Vakil. "Our team appreciates the opportunity to help our next generation of leaders be as successful as they can be while partnering with our clients to deliver these programs."
Teachers in the program encounter many basic misconceptions about issues of sexual consent, Carrie says, which point to the continuing need for the Dignity in the Digital Age program. "We emphasize in our teaching that what the victim is wearing is never an invitation, much less a defense, for sexual misconduct," Carrie says. "Among other things, we are working to combat a victim-blaming culture that can be worryingly prevalent in schools. Addressing legal concerns is also important. We remind students that, as a result of prosecutorial discretion, which is typically exercised in a manner that empowers victims of serious crimes to step forward, it is unlikely that they would be charged for something like underage drinking if they went to the police to report an assault."
"We stress at the outset that social media can be, and often is, a tremendous force for good," Carrie says. "At the same time, social media has in many ways magnified the complexity of the issues teens face as well as the potential for harm. Our goal is to empower youth to make healthy decisions by giving them a clearer understanding of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to the digital realm. Thanks to the enthusiastic participation of my colleagues at White & Case as well as individual volunteers from the clients we serve, we are creating an army of lawyers who are able to provide up-to-date training to students, transforming the curriculum at many schools whose sexual education and anti-bullying programs had not previously factored in social media."
Mahlet Getachew, Senior Managing Counsel at GoPro, is one of the program's many committed participants. "It's essential that teens today understand their rights and all the new risks they face in today's mobile world," Mahlet says. "While the idea of teaching teens about our laws at the intersection of technology and intimacy may seem daunting, Carrie and her team have put together fantastic teaching materials that make the experience incredibly rewarding, easy and fun. The students are always engaged and ask insightful questions about their rights and responsibilities online, which is testament to the difference this program is making in the community. I highly recommend this program for any in-house attorney looking for an engaging and high-impact pro bono opportunity that can easily fit into a busy work schedule." Esther Fan, Senior Managing Counsel for Oracle, agrees: "The Digital Age class fills an important gap in current curricula," she says. "I feel privileged to be involved in teaching this class and glad that I can volunteer my time in a way that makes a difference in our teens' lives."
In designing the training, Carrie was careful not to structure the sessions as lectures from on-high, aiming instead to engage the students fully in conversation, discussing hypothetical scenarios and inviting questions throughout. The classes encourage teens not to turn a blind eye to hurtful and potentially illegal social media they come across, but to take a range of concrete actions to stop social media misconduct before it spreads. Such proactive behavior on the part of students is especially important, Carrie points out, in light of the fact that social media settings often allow parents and school administrators to be blocked. "We tell students that they have this very particular superpower," Carrie says. "They can see things we can't. And acting on that—choosing not to be an idle bystander—can mean the difference between life and death. No adult was aware of what had happened to Audrie Pott, but many of her classmates were talking about it in the days following the assault."
In written feedback, many students have expressed gratitude for a program they consider not only enlightening but empowering. One such student is the daughter of volunteer Esther Fan. Abby Twoy says she and her peers have benefited tremendously from the program. "The Dignity in the Digital Age course is a great way for teens like me to learn about social media and the law," she says. "This course teaches us the facts and popular myths about the law. It's super helpful to be educated about navigating social media, and it's great to have highly qualified and trained lawyers answering all of our questions. From consent to cyber-bullying, the course touches on relevant issues that we teens face in our everyday lives."