October 17th, 2018

ST. F.X. student accused of sexual assault withdraws, president apologizes

By The Canadian Press on October 12, 2018.

A sign marks one of the entrances to the St. Francis Xavier University campus in Antigonish, N.S. on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

ANTIGONISH, N.S. – A St. Francis Xavier University student accused of sexual assault has withdrawn from the school, capping a week of controversy after it was revealed he was allowed to remain on campus pending a criminal trial.

The school’s president has apologized for the school’s handling of the case and says after “much reflection and advice” he concluded that the student in question should withdraw from the university.

In a letter to the campus community, Kent MacDonald says he’s also asked for the existing wording within the school’s disciplinary code as it relates to appeals be reviewed.

In addition, he says he’s 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.

MacDonald says the Antigonish university must continue to improve its policies to achieve the goal of a “victim/survivor-focused approach.”

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.

“I acknowledge and accept the fact that we can do better,” MacDonald said in his letter Friday. “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.”

He added: “For this, I am sorry.”

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.

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.”

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.

– By Brett Bundale in Halifax

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