ANTIGONISH, N.S. – 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 planned Thursday on how to take more aggressive action against campus sexual assault.
St. F.X. Student Union president Rebecca Mesay says she’s witnessed a range of emotions among the student body from “anger to sadness to fear.”
She says students want to see change and the student union will be taking steps to address sexualized violence on the Antigonish, N.S., campus, including the creation of a working group.
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.
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 victim.
But 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.
“The university may continue without the respondent’s participation but to make any 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.
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,” said Busby, director of the Centre for Human Rights Research.
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.”
But St. F.X. has said it must maintain the accused’s access to education while the appeal is pending.
“The bottom line is 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.