National News

Three Billboards Call Out Sexual Abuse

Posted March 23, 2018 2:48 p.m. EDT

Kat Sullivan was on a plane to Orlando, Florida, in February when she watched “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” for the first time, a movie about a woman who puts pressure on local police to find her daughter’s killer by renting out a series of giant advertising signs.

That, Sullivan thought, was a good idea.

“I was like, ‘I’m getting a goddamn billboard,'” she said. “That woman totally epitomizes the feeling of just having to do something.”

Sullivan said that she was sexually abused and then raped by a former teacher when she was a student at the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, in the 1990s. A report commissioned by Emma Willard concluded that a teacher there named Scott Sargent had been fired for sexually abusing a student but was still given letters of recommendations to teach elsewhere; Sullivan was that student.

Because the abuse took place 20 years ago, the statute of limitations has long since run out, leaving Sullivan with no legal recourse. So, using money from a settlement she received from the school, she bought a month’s worth of ad space on three digital billboards, each about 50-feet wide, to call attention to the case.

One billboard is in Albany, New York, not far from Emma Willard. Another is on I-95 in Fairfield, Connecticut, near a school where Sargent later taught. The third is alongside I-90 in Springfield, Massachusetts, near the town where Sargent lives today.

Three images will rotate through each billboard. One points people to Sullivan’s website, and says, across a picture of a man with a question mark over his chest, “the truth will be revealed.” Another is a picture of Sullivan and says: “My rapist is protected by New York state law. I am not. Neither are you. Neither are your children.”

Sullivan said the original design included Sargent’s name and face, but the company that owns the billboards would not allow her to use them, for fear of getting sued. Two billboard companies said they would not work with her at all.

The three billboards will be up for 28 days, Sullivan said, which will cost her $14,000. (She spent about another $2,000 on the website.) Once the billboards come down, Sargent’s name and photograph will appear on her website.

Sargent did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, Emma Willard said, “We commend and support the survivors of sexual abuse who are committed to affecting change on this important issue.”

A third graphic that will rotate through the billboards says “NY Pass The Child Victims Act,” a piece of proposed legislation in Albany that would give victims until age 28 to file criminal charges and allow them to sue until age 50. It would also create a one-year “lookback” window, during which cases from any time could proceed in court. Today, the statutes of limitations in New York that govern the sexual abuse of children are among the most restrictive in the country. Most adult survivors had until they were 23 years old, at the latest, to bring a case.

Activist groups have been pushing the Child Victims Act in Albany for more than 10 years, and have made an especially aggressive effort this year, targeting specific state senators. Sullivan moved to New York City last month from her home in Florida to help lobby for the measure.

Supporters are trying to make the act part of the state budget, which is due April 1 — a tactic that would give Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who supports the bill, more leverage to negotiate with legislators. The Child Victims Act has support from the state Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, but there is resistance to it in the Republican-controlled state Senate, which has blocked the bill for years. John J. Flanagan, the Senate majority leader, did not respond to questions about the legislation.

A central sticking point is the lookback window. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said Tuesday that any legislation that included it should be rejected and called the window “toxic” for the Catholic Church. Representatives of the church have said it supports changing the statute of limitations, but fears a flurry of lawsuits and the financial hit a lookback window might deliver.

But proponents of the legislation have said that hasn’t happened in states that have enacted similar legislation, and they call the window crucial. In addition to providing victims their day in court, they said the window serves a public-safety function by flushing out suspected abusers who are still in the community.

“The lookback window will help identify abusers, many of whom still have contact with kids,” said state Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, who sponsored the bill in the Senate. “New York has among the worst laws in the country on child sexual abuse. We are an outlier, so this fix is a long time coming.” The billboards strategy was used by activists in London pushing for arrests in the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 71 people last year, who last month deployed three roving billboards to ask why there had been no arrests in the tragedy.

Sullivan said she was motivated by the frustration that Sargent has faced no major consequences.

“He is free to teach, free to coach, free to be elected onto boards,” she said. “There are no blemishes on his record.”