Kat Sullivan was 17 when she met Scott Sargent, her soccer coach at Emma Willard School (EWS) in Troy, New York, where she was a boarding student. Sullivan says Sargent raped her at his on-campus apartment—and that when she sought help from school administrators, they instead pressured her to withdraw from the school. Sargent admitted wrongdoing, but was allowed to resign; the school later recommended him for a teaching position at King School in Stamford, Connecticut, where he was terminated in 2005 for similar behavior.
In 2016, Sullivan reported the rape to police in Troy, but learned that her case was outside the statute of limitations. (At the time, New York had one of the country’s most restrictive laws for cases involving child sexual abuse.) The school conducted its own investigation that determined that 105 students had reported sexual abuse and harassment with no reported action by the school to notify police or parents. Sullivan later received a settlement from EWS.
Sullivan vowed to use the settlement money to fight for stronger laws to protect child victims. She joined survivor activists in protesting, lobbying and speaking out about child sex abuse. She marched across the Brooklyn Bridge wearing crime scene tape and chanting: “Protect Children, Not Predators!” Then, in 2018, on a flight from Florida to New York, she saw the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Five minutes into the film, she decided to use her settlement money to buy billboards to warn people about her perpetrator—and to put pressure on New York Assembly members to pass the Child Victims Act, which extends the statute of limitations for civil and criminal cases against perpetrators of child sex abuse and the institutions that cover up for them.
The law, which recently passed, had been stalled in the New York Senate for years—blocked by Republicans, the Catholic Church and others who feared they would be held accountable for their abuse of children. Sullivan, a survivor herself, was determined to change the law and frustrated that legislators were not listening, so she decided to amplify her message.
Sullivan wanted to create a billboard with her perpetrator’s face and name alongside the word “rapist.” Two billboard companies said no. The third, Lamar, agreed, with some conditions: she could not name her rapist on the billboard, but she could refer to her website and post his name there after the billboards came down.
Sullivan purchased three billboards—one in Albany, near EWS; another in Stamford, Connecticut, near King School; and a third near South Hadley, Massachusetts, where Sargent was living at the time. “My constant fear has always been that people won’t know about him,” Sullivan told Ms. “I got as loud as I could get but I didn’t know how far that would reach. But I knew he was in South Hadley.”
The billboard in Massachusetts featured a man’s silhouette, listed Sullivan’s website’s URL and declared that “the truth will be revealed.” After his name was made public, Sargent reportedly resigned from the town historical commission, quit his job at Whole Foods and moved out of state.
The billboards were digital, so Sullivan developed over 30 images that rotated over a month in order to sustain media coverage and keep interest high. “When will NY state value children over their abusers?” one asked. “NY Senate, Hold a Hearing,” another demanded. “Call A Vote. Child Victims Act 2018. Do The Right Thing.” Sullivan also pushed to require schools like Emma Willard to be mandated reporters. “Why aren’t private institutions,” one billboard asked, “mandated reporters in NY?”
Sullivan didn’t just want to warn people about Sargent—she wanted to raise awareness about child sex abuse, New York’s weak laws and the Child Victims Act. “I got a sharpie marker and wrote ‘stop sexual assault’ on my hand and put it in front of my face for a graphic,” she recalled, “and then hot pink. I wanted to do a lot of neon to catch people’s attention.”
After several senators refused to support a provision of the Child Victims Act that allowed survivors a one-year window to file charges no matter what their age, Sullivan put the senators’ names, photos and telephone numbers on billboards. “90% of NY Supports The Child Victims Act,” the massive signs declared. “WHY DON’T YOU?” Sullivan also targeted the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan. After he said that the law would be toxic to the Catholic Church, Sullivan responded with the hashtag #RapeIsToxic.
“The response was overwhelmingly positive,” Sullivan told Ms. Her website had over a million views. Four hundred people reached out to her directly to share their stories of abuse. The NowThisNews report about her billboard campaign had over 800,000 more views. But conservatives in the New York Assembly continued to block the bill.
In the spring of 2018, when the legislative session ended without passing the Child Victims Act, Sullivan flew a banner over the capitol. “Stop Sexual Assault,” it demanded, followed by two hashtags—#NYPASSCVA and #EWSFAIL—and the handle for @TIMESUP. The plane also passed over Emma Willard School, where her class was celebrating its 20-year reunion.
Democrats took back control of the state Senate in 2018, and the New York Assembly finally passed the Child Victims Act. Governor Cuomo signed it into law in February—extending the time survivors have to file civil suits against perpetrators until they turn 55 years old, opening up a one-year “lookback window” allowing survivors to file civil actions against perpetrators no matter how long ago the abuse occurred and expanding the statute of limitation for criminal prosecutions until the survivor is 28. The Assembly also passed a law requiring private schools to report child abuse to law enforcement, the child’s parents and the Department of Education, although Sullivan notes that clergy are exempt from the reporting requirement.
While it’s too late for her own case, Sullivan is satisfied that other survivors will benefit from the new law. “What I hope that it did was to shed the shame,” she explained, and to make survivors realize that they are not the problem. “I’m hoping it is empowering for people.”
Sullivan will continue fighting to empower survivors regardless. She is now working on a flash mob play to be performed at Union Square Park this October “to create positive affirmations for survivors.”