Students speak out about university’s handling of reported sexual assault case

St. F.X. Student Union president Rebecca Mesay said she’s witnessed a range of emotions among students from ‘anger to sadness to fear.’

Students at St. Francis Xavier University are speaking out in response to the school’s handling of a reported case of campus rape, calling for a review of its sexual violence policy to ensure a “survivor-centric” approach.

Nearly 100 people attended an organizing meeting Wednesday night, with more discussions Thursday about how to take more aggressive action against campus sexual assault.

St. F.X. Student Union president Rebecca Mesay said she’s witnessed a range of emotions among students from “anger to sadness to fear.”

She said students want change and the student union will be taking steps to address sexual violence on the Antigonish, N.S., campus, including the creation of a working group.

“We’ll do our best to hold the university accountable,” Mesay said in an interview, adding that students are pushing for a “broader cultural shift in order to see true change on our campuses.”

The response comes after The Canadian Press revealed a Toronto-area woman’s experience reporting an alleged sexual assault to the university.

Although the school swiftly launched an investigation after the woman came forward and found the accused responsible, it quietly set aside its decision to suspend him for the next academic year – without notifying her – when he appealed.

The woman, whose name is under a publication ban, was devastated to discover him on campus last month and has since left the university.

The situation has drawn attention to how post-secondary institutions handle sexual assault allegations, and whether policies aimed at tackling sexual violence go far enough. It also highlights a growing impatience on some university campuses amidst the ongoing cultural reckoning of the #MeToo era.

Mandi Gray, a PhD candidate at York University who emerged as a vocal advocate against sexual violence after she accused a fellow student of sexual assault, said the accused should not have been allowed on the St. F.X. campus until the conclusion of the criminal trial.

“I would hope they would value her education as much as his, and if they can’t be on campus together it should be him that leaves,” she said.

Court documents show the man was charged with sexual assault last spring and released on conditions — including not to contact the complainant and to stay away from her residence or place of work.

St. F.X. professor Nancy Forestell said there is a palpable frustration with how the university administration has handled a series of “deeply troubling” incidents over the past year.

“People are upset the university community wasn’t informed when he was criminally charged,” said Forestell, who teaches women’s and gender studies and history.

“Students are angry that the woman who reported the allegations had to leave, and that they’re on campus with someone charged with sexual assault.”

She said the respondent shouldn’t be on campus until the criminal matter is resolved, noting that it’s “virtually impossible” to avoid contact with someone on the tight-knit campus.

Forestell described the university, a small-town school with red brick buildings and a lively school spirit, as a “contradiction.”

While there is a strong undercurrent of social justice, as evidenced in its progressive inter-disciplinary programs and student activism, she said there’s also a strong party culture and an emphasis on varsity athletics that has in the past condoned “toxic masculinity” and overlooked sexual misconduct.

“What the university has done in this instance is seemingly bend over backwards to protect the interests of the respondent and not that of the complainant,” she said. “Students have been rallying together to express support for the victim and get the administration to acknowledge the depths of the problem that this revealed.”

In an email to the campus community this week, St. F.X.’s head of student services acknowledged there was a “communication gap” between the student life office and the complainant.

Andrew Beckett said the university has a system that “strives to uphold both the victim’s and the respondent’s rights to due process.”

In a statement Thursday, he added that typically a respondent — someone accused of misconduct — is advised not to give any statements to the university for the discipline process when criminal proceedings are ongoing.

He said to make a determination without their participation would be “a violation of the respondent’s right to a fair process,” said Beckett, the school’s vice-president of finance and administration.

However, he said as the case is beginning with a preliminary hearing and could proceed to full trial — which can take up to two years — the university could determine that it would be an undue hardship to continue with interim measures and the stay of suspension.

“Following the preliminary hearing the university will determine next steps in this case,” said Beckett, adding that St. F.X. is continually working to improve its policy and processes for formal complaints.

Karen Busby, a law professor at the University of Manitoba, said despite claims to the contrary, many university sexual violence policies tend to emphasize the respondent’s rights and are neither complainant-centred nor trauma-informed.

“The way many policies are written, complainants have no procedural fairness rights,” she said.

For example, by putting its senate appeal process on hold and lifting the accused’s suspension, she said St. F.X. officials have taken the position they can’t do much while an appeal is pending.

In contrast, Busby pointed to Dalhousie University’s sexualized violence policy, which says interim measures may include “prohibiting the respondent from being on some or all of the university premises.”

Rather than take a narrow view of community safety, she said this prioritizes health and safety concerns that “don’t change just because there is an appeal.”

St. F.X. has said it must maintain the accused’s access to education while the appeal is pending.

“The bottom line is in some — perhaps many — cases either he’s going or she’s going,” Busby said. ”If he’s the student that has been found to have done wrong it seems to me that he should be the one that is leaving.”

Nova Scotia’s advanced education minister, Labi Kousoulis, has said he was “shocked” by the university’s handling of the case, saying he’s asked his department to explore options to suspend students accused of sexual violence pending a legal outcome.

The Canadian Press

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