"I decided to turn that negativity into something compassionate," Daisy Coleman told PEOPLE in 2016 about her work with survivors

By Laura Barcella and Adam Carlson
August 06, 2020 02:32 PM
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Before she died by suicide on Tuesday at the age of 23, Daisy Coleman tried valiantly to turn the most painful experiences of her life into something positive for others.

After speaking out about her alleged sexual assault at the hands of a local teen, Matthew Barnett, when she was just 14, Coleman became the target of a relentless bullying and "slut-shaming" campaign in her small hometown of Maryville, Missouri. (Barnett pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of child endangerment, brought because after the alleged attack, he dumped the intoxicated, unconscious Coleman outside her house, where she lay for three hours wearing nothing but yoga pants and a t-shirt in subfreezing temperatures. Barnett was sentenced to two years probation.)

Coleman struggled openly with her mental health after that and she repeatedly attempted suicide. But things began to shift when she was featured as a primary subject of the 2016 documentary “Audrie and Daisy,” which focused on her case as well as California's Audrie Pott, a 15-year-old sex assault victim with a similar story. (Tragically, Audrie died by suicide just 8 days after her attack.)

Netflix

In a 2016 interview, Coleman told PEOPLE of her work with the documentary, "After [my story] went viral, I felt like I wasn't doing a whole lot until I had this flood of women coming forward … and telling me how they now had the courage to go forward because they saw that I could do it. So it's just really empowering to know that you're inspiring other people to be better for themselves, and to get themselves justice.”

Courtesy SafeBae.org

In 2017, Coleman furthered her advocacy efforts by co-founding the student-led national organization SafeBAE, which works to end sexual assault among among middle and high school students. With the other leaders at SafeBAE, Coleman emphasized the importance of consent, and also encouraged bystander intervention and pushing for federal Title IX protections for students. “With my series of advocacy, I've seen a lot of people reach out ... and it's almost as if we have this whole little army of people just working together,” Coleman said in 2016.

Daisy Coleman (left), courtesy SafeBAE.org

"I feel like the positive outcome of all this is that people don't feel so much alone, and they feel like they can actually go out and get justice, and speak against their perpetrators now, because they see other people doing so,” she told PEOPLE.

Coleman also bemoaned the cruelties of social media, recognizing it as a “double-edged sword” — “after I realized that words on a screen could have so much effect on someone, I decided to turn that negativity into something compassionate, and put positivity out there."

In a statement released after the death of Coleman — who was also a tattoo artist and model — SafeBAE described the young activist as “our sister in this work, and much of the driving force behind it. We were not just a non-profit team, but a family,” noting that Coleman “fought for many years to both heal from her assault and prevent future sexual violence among teens.”

“She had been in EMDR therapy for 2 years, working on her triggers and healing from the many traumas in her life,” the SafeBAE statement continued. “She had many coping demons and had been facing and overcoming them all, but as many of you know, healing is not a straight path or any easy one. She fought longer and harder than we will ever know.”

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The group also highlighted Coleman’s ongoing passion for helping fellow survivors, noting, “We want to be mindful of all the young survivors who looked up to her. Please know that above ALL ELSE, she did this work for you. She would want young survivors to know they are heard, they matter, they are loved, and there are places for them to get the help they need."

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to online.rainn.org.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.