It’s been five years since Daisy Coleman was found on her family’s front lawn in Missouri, wearing only a T-shirt and yoga pants, her hair turned brittle by the cold.
It’s been five years since Coleman, then 14, alleged she had been sexually assaulted by Matthew Barnett, a teenage boy in their small town. Coleman said Barnett plied her with alcohol at a party the night before she was found outside, and then raped her.
And it’s been five years since that accusation led to a felony sexual assault charge against Barnett that was later dropped, before he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. (He said their sex was consensual.)
The case triggered a period of national scrutiny for Coleman’s family and an intense backlash around their town. Coleman became a pariah, a target on social media and in wide-open view: At a dance competition, someone brought a T-shirt declaring “Matt 1, Daisy 0.”
“There were just so many people telling me what they thought I was,” Coleman, now a determined 19-year-old college sophomore, tells PEOPLE.
“They thought I was a slut and a liar,” she says, “and after listening to that for so long and not having many people stand up for me, I started to believe what these people were saying was true: This was all my fault.”
She doesn’t think so any more.
Today Coleman, who is studying art at Missouri Valley College, is aligned with teen sex assault victims behind the national campaign SafeBAE — Safe Before Anyone Else — to help prevent others from enduring sexual violence. She also appeared in Netflix’s documentary Audrie & Daisy, which premiered in September.
“I definitely feel like people have certain views and perceptions about me and about cases like this because they’re uneducated,” Coleman explains. “That’s exactly why I’m going out and trying to educate people on what’s going on in our society.”
Speaking to high school and college student and alumni groups, Coleman, Ella Fairon and Jada Smith talk about their experiences, the backlash and bullying, the reaction of their schools and communities and their fight to change a culture of dating violence and assault.
Shael Norris, a longtime victims’ rights advocate on college campuses, partnered with the trio to launch SafeBAE last year. “They each have similar, but unique perspectives on what they’ve been through and how it reshaped their entire lives,” she says, “and they have incredible vision on how to reach students in a way that no one else can.”
Research on sexual violence shows it is pervasive, and affects men and women, even at young ages: According to a 2012 report from the federal Centers for Disease Control, 42.2 percent of female victims surveyed said they were raped before turning 18, and 27.8 percent of male victims said they were raped when they were 10 or younger.
Overall, 13 percent of women surveyed said they had experienced sexual coercion at some point, and 6 percent of men said the same.
According to Norris, a “paradigm shift” is required “in order to protect both young men and women from sexual assault.” It “has to come from the students themselves,” she says.
Accordingly, Coleman’s message with the others at SafeBAE focuses on consent and discusses federal Title IX protections for students in school. The group also advocates for bystander intervention.
“We like to give people an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, this is how you can make an impact with what is going on, what are you going to do with it?’ ” Coleman says.
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From ‘Self-Loathing’ to Forgiveness
Coleman says she has made peace with her own case: Barnett, who she accused of assault, pleaded guilty in 2014 to child endangerment and was sentenced to two years’ probation.
His plea “was really kind of a double-edged sword for me,” Coleman tells PEOPLE. “It felt like something of my case was being validated and someone was actually listening.”
“But at the same time,” she says, “I felt like he wasn’t really sincere in his endeavors. I feel like he should have received more than just probation.” (The Barnett family has reportedly avoided recent inquiries, out of respect for Coleman’s family.)
She says she has since forgiven Barnett.
“I honestly don’t have any vindictive feelings toward him,” Coleman says. “I feel like all of that negativity that he put onto me was passed down to him at one point, so I felt the need to stop that kind of transaction of negativity and hate.”
“I went through a lot of years of self-loathing and asking myself, Why me? So much ‘woe is me,’ ” she says. “I just decided one day that I was done being negative about it. I needed to forgive myself for what happened.”
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Based on her high profile, Coleman was asked to sign on with a grassroots nonprofit’s victim advocacy work. She left that role to co-found SafeBAE last summer; the new organization is partially funded by a grant obtained by Norris, who also serves as director of college and community campaigns for V-Day, which works to stop violence against women and girls using ticket sale proceeds from performances of the The Vagina Monologues.
SafeBAE has taken its presentation to about 10 schools so far and has created an educational video series that is used by campuses across the country, Norris says.
A new social media campaign is in the works to “spread awareness about the harmful aftermath of bullying and the shaming that happens to victims when their communities don’t believe them,” she says. Such harassment “almost always drives the survivors to suicide attempts.”
It’s a dynamic with which Coleman is familiar: The pressure and bullying she faced pushed her to several suicide attempts and recuperation in a psychiatric hospital.
“It’s not easy,” she says. “It’s really hard on a lot of victims and survivors. I do encourage people to speak out, if that’s what they’re comfortable with. That’s a lot of baggage to carry.”
But they don’t have to do it by themselves.
“A lot of times when somebody’s telling me their story, it’s really the first time they’re telling anybody at all,” Coleman says. “I feel it’s really important to just kind of be there, and just kind of be this support system to them and listen to what they’re saying. They shouldn’t feel like they have to go through this alone.”
Speaking out — speaking together — helps.
“I feel like my healing process, although I’m never really done, it’s not about my healing process,” Coleman says. “It’s about healing others.”