How to survive sexual misconduct at the Smithsonian: An unofficial guide

In 2011, I was sexually assaulted in the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), which is a part of the Smithsonian Institution (SI). Subsequently, many administrators and some curators from the NMNH/SI mishandled the aftermath of the initial incident. A long investigative report has been published at The Verge; Congresswoman Jackie Speier wrote, “The behavior of Smithsonian officials in this case has ranged from incompetent to actively complicit.

Here, I am sharing the lessons that I learned during the years that I fought the NMNH/SI administration for my right to a safe workplace. It is my hope that, in sharing this advice, I can prevent others from experiencing the stress and hardship that I endured.

1. If at all possible, seek legal advice first. If you can afford to speak to a lawyer, then you should do so immediately; if you cannot afford a lawyer, you can seek legal aid from a nonprofit or possibly from other institutions that you may be affiliated with (such as a university). I was lied to and given the runaround by many NMNH/SI employees, most of whom are not lawyers; it’s possible to make it through without legal counsel, but a lawyer will make things less difficult.

2. Keep detailed records of all interactions with NMNH/SI personnel. I did not make audio recordings of my conversations with the administrators, but I wish that I had. Seek legal advice on whether you are allowed to record your conversations, and if you can, do so. Whenever possible, communicate via e-mail, not phone. If you interact with NMNH/SI personnel in person or on the phone and you do not have an audio recording of your communication with them, then shortly after each interaction, send a brief e-mail to all involved summarizing what was said. (If an NMNH/SI employee records a conversation, you cannot assume that you will ever be provided with a copy of the recording; as noted by Congresswoman Speier, lawyers from the Office of General Counsel and Office of the Inspector General have been dragging their feet for months, refusing to provide me with copies of recorded meetings that I attended. So you must keep your own records.)

3. Explore your options under Title IX. If you are a student at an accredited educational institution that receives funding from the United States government, and if your work at the Smithsonian will advance your progress toward a degree from said institution, then you are protected by Title IX. The policies of Title IX are far more victim-friendly and meaningful than those of the Smithsonian. If going the Title IX route, you can begin by contacting your university’s Title IX office. If you run into any issues, you may also wish to seek advice from the diversity offices of other agencies that fund your research at the Smithsonian (such as the National Science Foundation, Fish & Wildlife Service, United States Geological Survey, NASA, etc.).

4. Decide whether to contact law enforcement. If you have been subjected to criminal misconduct, such as sexual assault, you have the option of contacting law enforcement. Given the recent nation-wide news reports of untested rape kits and sexual misconduct among police officers themselves — combined with the abysmally low conviction rate for sexual violence — you may not consider it worthwhile to contact law enforcement. (I certainly didn’t.) In addition, the Smithsonian’s official policy does not require you to contact law enforcement. However, my decision not to go to the police was used as a justification for denying me reasonable accommodations; this was wrong, but NMNH/SI employees don’t let that stop them. Therefore, victims of sexual misconduct at the NMNH are put in the devastatingly unfair position of having to choose between either reliving their trauma and making a police report that will almost certainly go nowhere, or risking their right to a safe workplace. There is no good option.

5. File a report with the Smithsonian. How can you report sexual misconduct to the Smithsonian? As of this writing, I still do not know. (I have asked two basic questions to Mike McCarthy, and will update this post when I receive a response from him.) The official policy states that the victim must contact OEEMA her- or himself within 45 calendar days of the incident, but does not say how this contact must occur — implying that reports can be made in person, via phone, or via email; however, during the investigation conducted by The Verge, SI employees said that the report must be made in person. The only thing I know for sure is that OEEMA employees will do nothing to inform victims and their allies of the proper way to file a report. So yeah, good luck with this step. Sorry.

6. Never trust any Smithsonian administrators. Again, Jackie Speier — whose office has access to the e-mail trail and to the Office of the Inspector General’s report — has written, “The behavior of Smithsonian officials in this case has ranged from incompetent to actively complicit.” In the same press release, she has also written that the behavior of Smithsonian lawyers “smacks of a cover-up.” It is clear from the investigative report that mishandling of sexual assault complaints at the NMNH/SI stems from broad institutional issues — issues that, as of this writing, have not yet been addressed. So if an NMNH/SI employee says that they will help you, don’t count on it; make sure you’ve collected sufficient evidence to hold them accountable if it turns out that they lied to you.

7. It’s never too early to contact journalists. Before I went public, museum administrators claimed that they could not even keep Miguel Pinto out of our weekly happy hour and away my department. After I went public, the administration ended his affiliation with the entire museum. As I told The Verge: “the Smithsonian will protect women from sexual predators only if publicly shamed into doing so.” Going public is time-consuming and stressful, but so is the constant fear that we experience when our right to a safe workplace is denied. And because going public takes many months, it’s important to begin contacting allies and journalists about this as soon as you suspect that your case is being mishandled. In the end, going public may be the only way to achieve justice.