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University of Toronto investigating handling of sexual assault report

02/16/2015 05:02 EST | Updated 04/18/2015 05:59 EDT
The University of Toronto is investigating the way it handled a report of sexual assault after a student says the school failed to help her avoid her attacker in classes she shared with him, CBC News has learned.

The student had a meeting with a representative from the university’s counselling services during the last school year but instead of getting help, she says, she left "blaming" herself.

"[The staff member] made comments like, 'Oh who's paying for your university? You’re wasting your parents' money if you don't go to class,'" the student, whom CBC News agreed not to identify, said in an interview.

"She literally said, if you don't show up to class, then he wins. They made it sound like there was nothing I could do but shut up, deal with it and go to class."

The revelation follows a CBC News survey of 87 university and colleges across Canada requesting the number of sexual assaults reported on each campus over five years. The results showed a patchwork approach to the way institutions handle reports of sexual assault.

The meeting with the student at the University of Toronto followed an incident the previous month, she says. After sharing a drink with a classmate, the student says she was sexually assaulted. She believes the drink may have been spiked with a drug.

"I went in and out of consciousness, where I remember him having sex with me. And also him forcing me to give him oral sex. I do remember that," she says. "I didn’t know what was happening in the moment and I was just passing out."

It was "only really the next day when I woke up and I was in shock thinking about the night before [that] I could put together the pattern of what happened."

She says the incident led to her feeling depressed and unable to attend classes.

She did not want to press charges because she doesn’t want her family to find out, but, she says, she wanted help avoiding her attacker in her classes.

"He was in two of my classes so I didn't want to go to those classes because seeing him would cause a panic attack," she says. "I didn’t want to be reminded about what happened and so I just stopped going to the classes."

Academic options

A resource guide for universities and colleges published by the province of Ontario spells out how a case like hers should be handled.

"When students do choose to disclose, the first person they tell will likely be someone they trust such as a friend, family member, roommate, classmate, coach, staff or faculty member. The nature of that response can have a significant effect on the victim’s well-being and decisions about next steps," it says.  

"A campus environment in which individuals feel comfortable coming forward helps ensure they receive the assistance they need and supports the institution in its efforts to identify and deal with perpetrators."

Key to that response, the guide says, is offering students "academic considerations" such as continuing a class from home.

But the student says the only option she was presented was delaying her exams. Nothing was offered to help her avoid her attacker, she says.

University investigating

With the student’s permission, CBC News took her concerns to the University of Toronto. The university says it is now investigating.

"The University of Toronto takes the safety and well-being of our students very seriously," Lucy Fromowitz, U of T’s assistant vice-president of student life, wrote to CBC News in a statement.

While the university won’t discuss the student’s particular case, Fromowitz acknowledges students in crisis should be offered academic options to help them finish their studies.

"We thank you for bringing these concerns to our attention and will be investigating to determine appropriate next steps."

Holly Johnson, a University of Ottawa criminology professor who studies violence against women at Canadian universities, says universities need to be better prepared to deal with situations like this.

"What should happen in that situation is [the student] should be provided accommodation for learning and not having to sit beside him in class because to suggest that that is OK and she's letting him win by letting it affect her in that way is dismissing the way she feels," she says.

"It's putting the responsibility on her to just get over it and it’s exonerating him."

Familiar story

The U of T student’s story is a familiar one for Lee Lakeman, who works with the Vancouver Rape Relief centre, which also helps students who have been assaulted on campus.

"I do think that’s one thing women are going to do, they are going to start suing [universities] for failure to do due diligence in taking care of these situations," says Lakemans.

"That’s a slow route. If they would just be more responsive now and just get on with it."

In the end, the student from the University of Toronto managed to finish her classes and has since changed colleges within the U of T to avoid meeting her attacker. All of that, she says, happened in spite of the university's initial response to her situation.

And, she adds, that first meeting with the university continues to be a barrier to her recovery.

"At that point, like I said, I was totally blaming myself for what happened," she says.

"I just thought maybe what happened to me wasn't a big deal, maybe it wasn't assault. Which I know now it was, but at that moment I was totally isolated, alone. And they just totally let me down and set me far, far back from where I feel like I could be today."

We want to hear your stories. If you have any information to share on this topic, please contact timothy.sawa@cbc.ca.

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