The word “high school” can evoke many different emotions. The butterflies a freshman feels when her crush asks her to homecoming. The uncontainable excitement that rushes through the student body during a pep rally. The nervous elation upperclassman experience while playing hooky on “Senior Skip Day.”
For some students, however, the emotions associated with high school are much different. The surprising heartbreak of ending things with your first love. The gut wrenching realization that you and your childhood best friend are growing apart. Or on a much worse scale: the overwhelming horror of being raped by a school teacher, the tormenting fear of its memory, and the unspeakable heartache of realizing you weren’t the only survivor. While the word “high school” can bring about jovial undertones for some students, it is nothing short of a nightmare for others.
For Donna Hedrick, her high school experience was tragic. Two weeks after her 15th birthday, Donna was raped by her choral music teacher. She suffered in silence for many years, and while she has progressed in finding solace in the midst of such abuse, the pain and memory will last a lifetime. Nearly forty years after Donna was raped, other survivors from her high school revealed they had also suffered abuse from the same teacher.
When Donna sought criminal recourse against her abuser, the state of Florida added salt to the wound. Donna quickly learned that Florida’s sexual battery laws prevented prosecutors from taking action against her abuser because too much time had passed since the abuse. In 2017, Donna launched an online petition to shed light on Florida’s arbitrary statute of limitations provision. To date, the petition has garnered over 28,000 signatures.
Donna’s voice inspired legislators to act. Senator Linda Stewart, Senator Keith Perry, Representative Tracie Davis, and Representative Scott Plakon co-sponsored a bill known as “Donna’s Law.” The bill would remove the Florida statute of limitations for criminal sexual battery on minors committed on or after July 1, 2020. The Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate both unanimously passed Donna’s Law on March 11, 2020, and the bill has been sent to the governor’s desk for approval.
While Donna’s Law is undeniably a step in the right direction for survivors of sexual abuse, a plain reading of the statute shows it is more deserving of an “A for effort.” First and foremost, Donna’s Law will only apply to offenses committed after July 1, 2020, but it provides no provision to retroactively apply to offenses that are already time barred. Thus, the primary effect of the legislation is simply to provide recourse for future criminal prosecutions—which is monumental—but it fails to provide a remedy for survivors who currently have time-barred claims. Moreover, the provisions of Donna’s Law are only for criminal prosecutions, not civil claims. What is needed for equitable justification for all survivors is legislation that eliminates the statute of limitations for civil sexual abuse claims as well as a provision that revives barred claims that were not timely filed. Unfortunately, achieving such a feat has been difficult in Florida. Florida Senate Bill 1184 would remove the statute of limitations for civil sexual offenses committed against minors, and it would give survivors a two-year window to bring their claims that have already been barred by the statute of limitations. The bill died in the Committee on Judiciary on March 14, 2020.
Donna’s Law is evidence that Florida is aware and willing to take action on behalf of survivors of sexual abuse. While the legislation is one step in the right direction, there is a lot more walking to be done. The qualified attorneys at Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis, and Overholtz are committed to bringing justice to survivors of sexual assault. Please contact us today if you would like more information.