In light of the #MeToo movement, a new initiative in western Pennsylvania will offer free and confidential services for students and low-wage workers facing sexual harassment and assault.
While there has been a lot of attention given to high-profile cases, sexual harassment is pervasive in workplaces, K-12 schools and colleges, according to the Women’s Law Project, which launched #MeTooPA to help individuals who are traditionally underserved by the legal system.
These individuals may have trouble accessing services because of the expense, or they may face lawyers who do not want to take on their case because it may result in a low settlement amount.
Holding back tears, a Pittsburgh CAPA senior said she’s experienced and witnessed a lot of harassment firsthand.
“But when I see women and girls coming out of their shells and speaking out on what they’ve been through I am inspired,” she said.
The student said she has heard the phrase “boys will be boys” used many times to dismiss behavior, but that she’s happy to see that some men are now being held accountable for their actions.
“Many of our young people know what is happening is wrong, but don’t know what to do or where to turn,” said Kathy Elliot, executive director of partner program Gwen’s Girls.
Susan Frietsche, senior staff attorney with the Women’s Law Project, said the initiative welcomes calls from anyone, and that she has represented men and boys dealing with sexual harassment, too.
“I feel like the big challenge for us is getting the word out and establishing trust, because adults have not done that so well, and we hear that message from kids all the time,” she said.
Frietsche said she's anxious to serve the LGBTQ community, citing the disproportionate amount of harassment experienced by that community.
The organization does not know how large the response will be, but they are rolling out a targeted social media campaign. Frietsche said although the organization is small, they are ready to take on the demand.
"When [the response] exceeds our capacity, we will expand our capacity,” she said.
A one year $150,000 grant by the Heinz Endowments will allow the Women’s Law Project to launch the #MeTooPA hotline and website. It will connect individuals with an attorney who will evaluate their experience and provide information about their rights. In some cases, free legal representation will be provided.
Although the initiative is being launched in Pittsburgh, Frietsche said she hopes it will expand statewide.