ANTIGONISH, N.S. – A St. Francis Xavier University student accused of sexual assault has withdrawn from the school, capping a week of controversy after it was revealed he was allowed to remain on campus pending a criminal prosecution.
The school’s president apologized Friday for how the case was handled, and said after “much reflection and advice” he concluded that the student should leave the university.
“The student has withdrawn, effective immediately,” Kent MacDonald said in two-page letter to the campus community. “I acknowledge and accept the fact that we can do better,” he said. “In this particular case, there were clear gaps in communication and apparent issues relating to our appeal processes that negatively affected our university community and, in some cases, retraumatized victim/survivors.”
MacDonald added: “For this, I am sorry.”
His comments come after The Canadian Press revealed a Toronto-area woman’s experience reporting an alleged sexual assault to the university.
Although the school launched an investigation after the woman came forward and found the accused responsible, it set aside its decision to suspend him 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.
Court documents show the man was charged with sexual assault and released on conditions, including not to contact the complainant and to stay away from her residence or place of work. A preliminary inquiry is set for Nov. 29.
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 desire for change on university campuses amidst the ongoing cultural reckoning of the #MeToo era.
MacDonald, also vice-chancellor of St. F.X., alluded to the broader social situation, saying the university appreciates the continued community engagement as it navigates “this very complex, and long-standing societal issue.”
In order to improve the university’s policies, MacDonald said there will be a review of the school’s disciplinary code as it relates to appeals.
He said he’s also asked for an update on the connection between St. F.X.’s new sexual violence policy and the university’s code of conduct to ensure continuity between the work of the school’s sexualized violence prevention committee and the university’s judicial process.
“We can, and will, do better to support victim/survivors of sexual violence,” MacDonald said.
Students at St. F.X. have called for a review of the school’s sexual violence policy to ensure a “survivor-centric” approach.
Student Union president Rebecca Mesay has said she’s witnessed a range of emotions among students from “anger to sadness to fear.”
She published a letter outlining the student union’s recommendations to address sexualized violence on campus – a response MacDonald called inspiring.
Nova Scotia Advanced Education Minister Labi Kousoulis said this week he was “shocked” by the university’s handling of the case.
He told the legislature he asked his department to explore options to remove students accused of sexual violence from campus while criminal proceedings are ongoing.
A spokeswoman for the department said the provincial sexual violence prevention committee will review the stand-alone sexual violence policies of all Nova Scotia universities.
“The minister has also asked this committee to look at the reporting and communications processes related to sexual violence within universities to ensure they’re survivor-centric,” Shannon Kerr said in an email. “The priority is to ensure all sexual violence policies and procedures in Nova Scotia post-secondary institutions are survivor-centric.”
Karen Busby, a law professor at the University of Manitoba, said Dalhousie University’s sexualized violence policy offers a good guideline for how post-secondary institutions can handle sexual assault disclosures.
In particular, she highlighted the Halifax university’s accommodations and interim measures. The policy requires an adviser to meet with the complaint to discuss available options, including “prohibiting the respondent from being on some or all of the university premises”
Busby said the interim measures are not for punitive ends, as a suspension would be, for example. but instead prioritize health and safety.