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Universities under pressure to combat sexual misconduct on campus

09/29/2014 09:00 EDT | Updated 11/29/2014 05:59 EST
The movement to combat sexual misconduct on North American campuses is persistent and growing, with one Canadian university trying to strengthen support for alleged victims.

“Whether there is a ‘rape culture’ or not, I can’t say, but we are trying to set up a system that first of all educates our students about sexual assault, secondly puts in place preventative measures and thirdly supports the victim," says Lakehead University President Dr. Brian Stevenson.

The changes at Lakehead come, coincidentally, as two hockey players from another Ontario campus – University of Ottawa – head to court in Thunder Bay this week, charged with sexual assault.

The U of O benched its hockey team last winter after allegations of sexual assault on a road trip in Thunder Bay. The coach was removed and in August, two players — David Foucher and Guillaume Donovan — were charged.  The university then stuck to its decision to cancel hockey this year.

Lakehead University was also forced to reexamine the ways it dealt with sexual misconduct, after a student complained the university failed to help her.

Alexandra (not her real name) was in third year at Lakehead in 2013 when she says a classmate assaulted her.

“He threw me on the bed and threatened that if I left, he would tell everyone at school that I was a slut or start all of these rumors, take pictures, and I didn't know what to do. I just froze.”

She says she told him to stop, but he didn’t.

“I'll never forget what he said. He said, ‘No, it's too nice and warm inside of you,’ and that line haunts me,” she says.

'Now there are guidelines'

Alexandra didn’t want to press charges – she just wanted to get out of the same class as him and write her exams in a different room. But she was blocked at every turn.

The only way to change the situation, she was told, was to have a campus doctor write on her record that she had a learning disability.

When Alexandra took her story public last fall in a letter to the local newspaper, Lakehead urgently set out to reengineer its policy, which takes effect this school year.

“I think we have to believe a student that comes and tells us that they were sexually assaulted," says Lakehead's Stevenson.

He says “now there are guidelines," which state that when someone reports a sexual assault, “first, you believe them, you demonstrate and show empathy for their situation and accommodate them."

In the absence of a formal complaint or charge, Stevenson is confident universities can maintain that tricky balancing act of supporting students who complain while at the same time honouring the presumption of innocence of those they accuse.

Growing responsibility

A rising tide of activism around sexual misconduct on campuses across North America prompted California to adopt a new bill on Sunday — known as the "yes means yes" rule — that redefines consent.

“'Yes means yes' is an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity," says California senator Kevin de Leon.

In Canada, the U of O’s experience is rippling through university sport. Coaches say they are more aware than ever of their growing responsibility to monitor athletes’ conduct.

Bill "Macker" MacDonald, Lakehead’s hockey coach, says “you’re always worried because you don’t know what’s going to happen."

“The point is they are wearing the Thunder Wolves logo. I'm responsible when they leave the rink and if they are with whoever, we are still responsible.”

Easy targets?

The case has provoked accusations that sports culture and particularly locker room talk can lead to incidents of sexualized violence.

Lawrence Greenspon, an Ottawa lawyer and U of O alumnus, rejects that assumption.

“Are we going to reprogram all males between the ages of 18 and 22 that go to Ottawa University who want to talk about women in the locker room?  Really? I mean there is political correctness and then it's going too far. I think that's going too far.”

Highlighting varsity hockey is unfair, says Lakehead player Mike Quesnele.

“When it comes down to it, there [are] probably a hundred people that go out every weekend and they make a mistake, but these guys play university sports and they are in the spotlight."

Still, athletic administrators are writing tougher codes of conduct for university athletes, sending a stronger message that sexual misconduct won’t hide in the shadows any longer.

University of Ottawa is deep in a review of its policy. Neither President Allan Rock nor any member of his administration would agree to an interview until after their task force report is made public sometime this winter.

Lakehead was involved in a similar task force review last winter, and Brian Stevenson applauds Rock's resolve.

“I feel that he sent a very strong message to his community and to communities across the country about the tolerance of sexual assault that universities have — which should be zero."

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