Laura Dunn has been a victim’s rights advocate for nearly a decade, and she came to the University of Maryland Carey School of Law wanting to change the world. It’s possible that, halfway through her studies, she’s already ahead of schedule.
Dunn worked on a provision of the new Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that, among other things, requires colleges and universities to investigate reports of violence and provides a framework to do so. The provision, known as the Campus SaVE Act, also requires ongoing programs for sexual assault and domestic violence education. Dunn’s role in pushing for the campus provisions, as well as her own compelling story, brought her an opportunity to work with national political leaders and national media exposure.
At a Washington press conference called by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Dunn said, “Ending sexual assault is not a political issue, stopping domestic violence is not a political issue, and addressing stalking is not a political issue. Ending violence against women is about justice.” Two days later, the House joined the Senate in passing VAWA, and Dunn attended the presidential signing ceremony.
Even after the the bill was passed, Dunn continued her advocacy, being quoted in several major newspapers as well as appearing on NPR's Diane Rehm Show discussing sexual assault on college campuses.
Dunn reported that she was sexually assaulted in 2004, during her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin. She received counseling and treatment after the incident, but was crushed when university officials took nine months to investigate and ultimately declined to bring disciplinary charges against the men she said attacked her. She looked for ways to appeal the university’s decision, but never received the full measure of justice she had sought.
Still, she stayed at the university, focusing on victims’ rights advocacy along with her studies. She considered going to law school immediate after graduating in 2007, but was too busy to take the LSAT. Instead, she went to New Orleans for two years with the Teach for America program. She spent another year teaching in Chicago before applying to law schools. She had spent a summer teaching in Baltimore in Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth, and decided she liked the city, so she applied to UM Carey Law. Initially waitlisted, Dunn interviewed with administrators who – to her surprise – were impressed that she pressed her case in a Title IX Civil Rights complaint against her own university and channeled her emotions into advocacy.
Since enrolling in 2011, Dunn has found professors who have encouraged her ambitions and accommodated her need to travel in order to promote victims’ rights. Prof. Paula Monopoli and the Women, Leadership & Equality Program have deepened her insights into the issues and helped her build networks with alumna. Prof. Robert Percival has supported her job outreach. Visiting Prof. Mickey Edwards, a former Congressman, has shared his contacts in the Department of Justice and elsewhere in Washington. She is currently working for Steven Kelly, a Baltimore-based victim rights attorney, and has internships lined up for this summer and next fall, all while nurturing a non-profit agency she co-founded that would serve the medical and legal needs of sexual assault victims.
“I think the challenge for me will be figuring out how to do it all,” she said.
Meanwhile, she’s honing her litigation skills on the trial team, joined the Moot Court Board, is trying to publish her cert paper on using Title IX to address the harassment of LGBT youth in schools, and is working with sexual assault victims at the University of North Carolina who have filed a discrimination complaint against that institution. “I’m hoping it’s a watershed moment,” she said of the case.
Dunn knows she’s stretched, perhaps too far, but she tempers her ambition with some perspective. “Someday I will change the world,” she said, “but for now I have one federal law.”