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Child Sexual Assault In the Air: How Children Are Vulnerable While Traveling

A 16-year-old girl has sued United Airlines for failing to take appropriate action when she was sexually assaulted on a flight from Seattle to Newark.

The girl was flying alone for the first time in July 2017 to attend a young women's leadership conference at Princeton University. She dozed off and woke up when the man seated next to her, a physician named Vijaykumar Krishnappa, 29, started touching her knee in the dark cabin. He was later charged, pled guilty, and was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

The girl thought at first that the touch was unintentional, but the man's hand went up her thigh and onto her groin area, over her leggings. She said, as this was happening, she felt "trapped and afraid" but called for help when the perpetrator slid his hand into the waistband of her pants, according to court documents.

However, according to the girl, United Airlines' flight crew did little to protect her. According to one of the girl's attorneys, the crew members violated federal law by failing to report the assault to law enforcement.

When the victim called for help, one flight attendant who responded simply said to the assailant, "Not cool, dude," and ushered the young girl, who was crying hysterically, to a new seat a few rows ahead, where she was still in the perpetrator's line of vision for the next four hours. The crew, then, offered the girl a bag of peanuts and neglected to investigate the incident further.

When the plane landed, the perpetrator was allowed to walk away freely without being detained.

The teen called her mother to tell her what happened. The girl never made it to the conference, and her mother had to fly out to meet her and escort her to the police to file a report. The FBI conducted the investigation because sexual assault aboard an aircraft is a federal crime.

Investigators were able to identify the passenger who attacked the girl through the flight manifest. The girl later identified the perpetrator in a photo lineup.

The teen alleges in this lawsuit that United Airlines "failed to take reasonable and common-sense steps to protect" her from sexual assault, and that United did nothing to report the matter to law enforcement. Kristine Solomon "Lawsuit claims that United Airlines flight crew failed to report sexual assault of teen passenger" https://finance.yahoo.com (Jan. 23, 2019).

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According to the FBI, in fiscal year 2017, the number of reported cases of in-flight sexual assault was 63, which is a rate of more than one per week.

In-flight sexual assault is a federal crime and is punishable up to 10 years in prison, plus fines and mandatory restitution under Chapter 109A of the Federal Criminal Code, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI.

When a complaint is filed with the Department of Transportation, it directs the airline to respond directly and encourages consumers to contact the FBI for investigation because criminal investigations are not under the purview of the Department of Transportation, a DOT spokesman told MarketWatch.

Agents who handle sexual assault cases that occur on board aircrafts have found similarities in the attacks. They say that attacks generally occur during long-haul flights when the cabin is dark. Typically, the perpetrators are male, and the victims are women and unaccompanied minors, such as the young girl in the article.

Victims are usually in middle or window seats, sleeping, and covered with a blanket or jacket. They report waking up to their seatmate’s hands being inside their clothes or underwear.

The FBI has been trying to raise awareness about this issue, and the agency is warning flyers “to be aware of their surroundings and take a few simple precautions to stay safe.” The FBI also put an emphasis on reporting sexual assault to the cabin crew immediately.

Recognizing the problem for women and children, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines recently added an extra sentence to its usual passenger instructions, beyond what the FAA requires: “Your privacy is important to us. Please report any inappropriate passenger behavior to a flight attendant”.

When minors are sexually assaulted, this is child sexual abuse and should be reported immediately. Unfortunately, airline personnel are not mandatory reporters, however.  

When teens must travel, here are some tips for keeping them safe:

  • Travel with the minors, if at all possible.
  • Make sure they know to stay alert and observant in airports and on the plane. Don't take any sleeping aids.
  • Make sure they know to report to the flight attendant, or all of them, should a passenger touch them inappropriately.
  • Keep the armrests down.
  • Be polite, but do not engage in conversations with adults they do not know.
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