‘It’s an access to education issue’: Why more needs to be done about sexual assaults at schools

WarningThis article may be triggering for some readers. Please read at your own discretion.

“CJ” was 18 when she moved from her home in Saskatchewan to attend school at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.   It was her first time living away from home. The city was larger and her surroundings were unfamiliar but for a while as the fall semester of 2018 progressed, she says everything seemed to be going well.

“I had found a group of friends through ‘Nerd’ club and they seemed to be very nice, forthright people. It was a lot of fun,” she says. “I was learning a lot, I had friends and then it took a turn.”

CJ had been watching a movie one night in her dorm room with two of her new friends. She says after one of them had to leave, she was sexually assaulted by the other.

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READ MORE: 11{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of female post-secondary students have been sexually assaulted at school: study

“First I called my Mom who immediately got into contact with my aunt who took me to the hospital and while I was there I discussed what had happened with the police.”

CJ filed a police report. Following an investigation, the accused was charged with sexual assault. The case has not yet gone to trial. CJ also reported the incident to officials at Mount Royal University. The school conducted its own investigation but after a formal hearing, the complaint was dismissed.

“It was devastating, absolutely devastating. I remember crying in my counsellor’s office for God knows how long.”

CJ’s story is not unique.  Data released earlier this year by Statistics Canada shows 11 per cent of students who identify as women were sexually assaulted in a college or university setting in the year before the survey, compared with four per cent of those who identify as men.

READ MORE: Ottawa eyeing new expert committee to combat sexual violence

“Sam,” a York University student says like CJ, they were sexually assaulted while in campus residence by someone they considered a friend.

“We were friends, we were good friends and the context of the situation is I broke up with a partner and I was very distraught and I went to him for comfort because I thought that I could.”

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Sam reported the incident to an advisor at her residence but when her complaint wasn’t taken seriously, she decided not to report the incident to police or school officials.

“The first step that I took, I was shut down right away so I didn’t think it would be worth it to take another step and also, telling the story at that time was incredibly traumatizing, so to dish it out to these strangers who would just tell me they don’t believe me anyway, it’s not something that I wanted to put myself through.”

Experts discuss impact of COVID-19 court delays on sexual assault victims

Experts discuss impact of COVID-19 court delays on sexual assault victims

Andrea Gunraj is the vice-president of public engagement at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.  She says in the three years since the #metoo movement was launched, many of Canada’s post-secondary schools have taken steps to update their sexual assault policies and procedures. Still, she says the recent statistics from StatCan are concerning.

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READ MORE: Advocates create online support list for racialized sexual assault survivors in Canada

“A lot of people talk about sexual violence as an access-to-education issue, not only are people dropping out of school whey they experience sexual violence, they also reduce their participation in lots of ways,” Gunraj said.

“It’s really important to get a post-secondary education, it opens up a world of opportunities for people, that’s why it’s so life-or-death, why it’s so important that we make sure campus spaces are safe.”

Gunraj says all schools need to make sure they are taking steps to both prevent sexual violence on campus while also ensuring that they are responding to sexual assault complaints appropriately.

“Making sure that there’s a good response, a survivor-centered response.  We’re hearing a lot of continued concerns from a lot of campuses in Canada that people are not necessarily believed when they come forward — they don’t feel safe enough to come forward and they don’t believe that the right policies are in place so whey they do come forward, they’re treated with care and concern.”

Click to play video 'Calgary sex assault survivor runs blindfolded to raise awareness'

Calgary sex assault survivor runs blindfolded to raise awareness

Calgary sex assault survivor runs blindfolded to raise awareness

In an emailed statement to Global News, Yanni Dagonis, the deputy spokesperson for York University in Toronto said the school is always working to create an environment where all people feel welcome, valued, and safe.

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“Our guiding principle is survivors need to be comfortable accessing supports and must be empowered to determine when to report incidents of sexual violence in their own time and in a safe setting,” the statement reads.

“At all times, survivors who come forward and all community members affected by sexual violence will be provided with compassionate services, dignity, privacy, and respect.”

Mount Royal University President Tim Rahilly says he’s made changes to the school’s sexual assault policy since taking over the post in early 2019.  He says the procedures have become more trauma-informed and formal hearings are no longer held after sexual assault complaints are made.

“Upon my arrival, one of the things we shifted away from was formal tribunals with the case of sexualized violence, our preference is to do a finding of fact and an independent investigation and then because we have to have some kind of judicial process when it involves students, a single individual hears this.”

Read more:
USask students wary to report sexual violence amid high rates nationally

Rahilly says because CJ’s case predates his arrival, he can’t discuss how the school handled the case or why the complaint was dismissed but he says the school continues to work towards improving its policies and procedures so that all students are made to feel safe.

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“I think it’s very important for us to take a compassionate view towards incidents of sexual violence and so my heart goes out to those people who have experienced those things,” he said.

“I think the expectations of us are high and we hate to disappoint and we are going to continue doing what we can to minimize these kinds of incidents.”

But for CJ, the damage has already been done. She withdrew from Mount Royal University soon after her sexual assault complaint was dismissed.

“I’ve lost all faith in that system. It is broken and ineffective towards protecting the students that need protection.”

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, support is available:

Alberta’s One Line for Sexual Violence is  1-866-403-8000.

Ontario’s Assaulted Women’s Hotline is 1-800-863-0511, and additional support is available online.

Elsewhere, call the national crisis line run by WAVAW in B.C. 1-877-392-7583, or find help online.

If someone you know has been abused, here is some information on how to support them.

Click to play video 'Two Queen’s University students start Instagram account for student sexual assault survivors'

Two Queen’s University students start Instagram account for student sexual assault survivors

Two Queen’s University students start Instagram account for student sexual assault survivors

Editor’s Note: The names of the individuals interviewed for this story have been changed for their safety. 

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© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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