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Sexual assault drives one UND student to help others

UND grad student Brittany Burton with the T-shirt she designed for the North Dakota Clothesline Project now on display at the memorial Union Ballroom on campus. Herald photo by John Stennes

After UND student Brittany Burton was sexually assaulted, she instilled a policy for her closest friends: They shouldn't use the word rape loosely.

"I don't allow it around me, and I would expect that they would have that kind of respect around me," she said.

Voted by Urban Dictionary users as "the most misused word in the English language," the word is everywhere -- music, movies, comedy. Whenever she hears it used inappropriately and remembers what happened, she reminds herself people don't understand what it's like.

They don't intend to be harmful when they say it, she said.

"Even my rapist, I don't think he's a bad person," she said. "I think he made a stupid decision."

Two years later, Burton, 23, channeled that experience into a T-shirt for the North Dakota Clothesline Project, an annual display of shirts representing stories told by survivors, family members and friends of victims who died because of violence.

The project, hosted by the Women's Center, can still be viewed until noon today. To recognize victims of violence, UND also hosted Thursday a Take Back the Night rally and speech from a domestic violence survivor.

Positive attitude

Silence filled the Memorial Union Ballroom on Wednesday as several students milled around 300 colored T-shirts, all anonymous.

Some screamed with anger, others expressed betrayal and hurt.

Written on one shirt was a series of statements including, "You made us lie, you made us cry," and another stated, "It's like a wall caving down on me."

Burton's yellow T-shirt, signifying a battered or assaulted person, had an inspirational spin. She chose a yellow shirt because the pink ones, signifying rape or sexual assault, were taken, she said.

A quote by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, known for her work on death and dying, appears on front: "The most beautiful people we know have known deceit, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths.... Beautiful people do not just happen."

The date of Burton's assault follows, along with a statement thanking the man for making her "more beautiful."

Burton said Kubler-Ross' quote reflects her own positive attitude about the influence the experience had on her.

"For a long time, I was really angry and upset about what happened, and occasionally I still am," she said. "But I just kind of wanted to inspire others more so than make them feel sad."

No punishment

Burton was assaulted by a mutual friend at her dorm at Appalachian State University in North Carolina two years ago. He had been drinking, the assault happened in her room late at night, and he claimed it was an accident, all factors that led to the dismissal of the case.

While there was plenty of physical evidence available -- she was examined and had tests taken at the hospital after the incident -- there were no witnesses late at night, she said.

"We had a student conduct hearing at my undergrad, and they found him not guilty. All it took was one person on the board," Burton said, adding city prosecutors wouldn't touch the case.

Seeing her assailant on campus was too hard, and factored into her decision to move to North Dakota for graduate school.

"It was a big move, but definitely necessary to kind of clear my head and start over," she said.

Driven to help

Burton, who is getting her graduate degree in education leadership at UND, has since been involved in several violence prevention efforts.

Courage fueled her current involvement with the campus Women's Center, where she finally felt secure enough about what happened to go public with her story.

"I was hoping that by sharing what happened to me, more people would feel good about coming about what happened to them," she said.

Burton's a residence assistant now and hopes to work at a women's center in the future, "anywhere I can make a difference," she said.

Call Johnson at (701) 787-6736; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1736; or send e-mail to