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Young Lawyer Wants to Be the ACLU for Campus Rape Survivors

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 21, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When you've got an environmental lawsuit, you call Earthjustice. Civil rights? The ACLU. And if you've experienced sexual assault in high school or college, you go to SurvJustice.

At least that's how 31-year-old attorney Laura Dunn wants it to be. An activist, lawyer, and survivor of campus sexual assault herself, Dunn founded SurvJustice to represent the rights of campus rape survivors. In just a few years, and on a tiny budget, Dunn and SurvJustice have been "credited with ushering in at least 120 federal investigations of schools around the country," according to a recent profile of the young lawyer by Buzzfeed.

A Sexual Assault Survivor Fighting for Other Survivors

Dunn founded SurvJustice in 2014, the same year she earned her J.D. from the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, but her advocacy for campus rape survivors began well before that. As a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dunn was sexually assaulted by two men from her crew team, she says. When she told her parents about it, they threatened to cut her off if she didn't change schools or become a missionary. When she reported the sexual assault to the school, she received little support and the school eventually dropped the case.

That experience led Dunn to speak out against campus sexual assault, to file a Title IX complaint against the university, and to quickly become involved in shaping campus sexual assault policy over the next decade. Within a few years, she was meeting with Vice President Biden and influencing changes in federal law and policy.

A victim turned victim's advocate, Dunn has now offers assistance to dozens of campus sexual assault survivors through SurvJustice.

Operating a Nonprofit on a Shoestring Budget

Despite SurvJustice's impact, the nonprofit gets by on a shoestring budget -- just $160,000 annually, according to Buzzfeed, for a staff of three. Still, the organization has received over 500 requests for assistance since its founding. How does Dunn handle so many requests for help? According to Buzzfeed's Tyler Kingkade:

She had to lay down some rules to deal with the caseload. Dunn won't take a case with less than a week's notice, because the one time she did, she had to cram overnight to prep for a hearing, drove to Virginia, got a flat tire, and then the hearing ended at midnight without a break for dinner. "A lot of attorneys I know wouldn't do a campus hearing but would see the results and do a lawsuit at the end; I get down in the mud," Dunn says.

"I'm always mad that we're not bigger," Dunn says -- though our guess is they will be soon.

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