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Sexual assault allegation raises concern over redress procedures at McGill

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Allegations of sexual assault towards a McGill student following an incident in Winter 2015 have prompted student leaders and the McGill University administration to evaluate existing procedures of redress at McGill for sexual assault. The McGill administration was not able to conduct a disciplinary investigation into the incident because the alleged assault did not occur within a McGill context, as outlined within Article 8 of the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures (CSC).

The survivor, a McGill graduate,  was allegedly sexually assaulted after the NeuroAnatomy Grad Ball, which was held off-campus in late March 2015. The survivor spoke to the Tribune (on the condition of anonymity) about the experience of reaching out to various support structures available at McGill for people who have experienced sexual assault.

“It was incredibly hard to know what to do,” the survivor explained. “There was no streamlined, obvious path to take. I was told by most people to contact [Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS)] , and when I called [them], they gave me the SACOMSS email [….] They couldn’t even direct me to a hospital that could get me STI tested or a rape kit. So about a week after it happened, I ended up going to the [Montreal General Hospital] and I talked to a social worker there. She was probably the most helpful person in the process.”

Additionally, the survivor approached Dean of Students Andre Costopoulos in early April. 

“We decided to contact [Costopoulos], who directed us to Nicole Allard, [director of Science Advising Services], and they handled things internally from there,” the survivor said, adding that the experience of speaking with administration was a generally positive one. “The [people] that I talked to [from the] McGill administration were very thoughtful and obviously pro-survivor. It’s not that I wasn’t received well, it’s that there’s a problem with McGill policy.”

 

The scope of McGill policies and the McGill context

McGill Currently uses the Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Prohibited by Law and the CSC to guide its response to allegations of sexual assault. Sanctions, which include admonishment, reprimand, suspension, dismissal, and expulsion, can be enacted if a student is found responsible for violating the CSC within a McGill context. Costopoulos described Article 8 as containing an implied definition of what constitutes a university, or McGill, context.

“‘A McGill context’ is defined loosely in the Code of Student Conduct,” Costopoulos said. “[It’s] usually interpreted to mean that if the event is not on property owned or occupied by the university, it has to be in the context of a McGill activity. For example […] we have a field course in Panama [….] Two students who would get in a fight—there might be an assault, there might be a sexual assault—in one of the field studies programs; that would be within a McGill context. But two McGill students who get into the same kind of fight, but off-campus, in a non-McGill activity, then it’s not a McGill context.”

Interim orders, which are provisions that restrict a student from contacting certain people or accessing certain areas of campus, can be imposed on a student for actions that did not occur within a McGill context. They can be enacted based purely on allegations, before any finding of responsibility.

As a result of McGill’s preliminary investigation into the survivor’s allegations, the alleged perpetrator, hereby referred to as the individual, received an interim order of exclusion on April 8, restricting this individual from going to McLennan Library and the Burnside basement during Winter exam season. The administration, however, could not impose any sanctions against the individual because the incident did not occur within a McGill context.

Costopoulos also clarified that student and faculty associations are separate legal entities from McGill. Consequently, McGill does not have jurisdiction over the off-campus components of events run by student organizations such as the NeuroAnatomy Grad Ball, which was organized by student departmental associations, or Frosh.

“There’s a perception issue here, because for many students, they go into Frosh, and the expectation is that it’s a McGill activity—it isn’t in legal terms, ” Costopoulous said.

McGill does, however, have jurisdiction over the on-campus components of events hosted by student organizations. “On campus, we can definitely have much more leverage and influence,” he said. “We have regular discussions with student organizations about events like [Open Air Pub] and Carnival. If they want to have an event on campus, we need to be happy with the way it’s run. That’s why we have a permitting process, alcohol permits, [and] requirements for service training.”

The survivor stated that the CSC’s implied definition of a McGill context limited their ability to seek recourse, as McGill could not impose sanctions on the individual.

“The problem with sexual assault cases at McGill has nothing to do with [people] in the administration, but rather, it is due to the lack of a clear policy for sexual assault,” the survivor stated. “An assault would have to happen in a McGill context for McGill to have some sort of […] jurisdiction over it. That’s not really defined—it’s basically up to [the] administration what constitutes a McGill context [….] Unfortunately, as it stands, there is very little that can be done if the assault did not take place on campus and you do not want to go to the police.”

In all situations of sexual assault, the complainant has the option to pursue criminal charges against the accused through the police; however, the survivor remarked that pursuing criminal charges can be a lengthy and challenging process. “I really wanted some sort of justice, but […] it’s a very difficult process,” the survivor said. “It’s a process that takes at least two to three years, and after something like this you just want to be able to move away from it. [It] really seems like you get dragged through the mud for three years, [and the individual] may or may not be punished.”

The survivor ultimately chose not to press criminal charges, although they did register this incident with the Montreal Police on May 6.

 

Faculty Associations and McGill: Separate legal entities

Every student, faculty member, and staff member at McGill is beholden to McGill’s Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment, and Discrimination; however, the only available avenues of recourse for incidents that occur outside of a McGill context—such as faculty events held outside of campus—are interim orders, or the complainant pursuing criminal charges.

The limits of the existing policies coupled with the legal separation of McGill university and student associations, has resulted in the lack of a procedure for student faculty associations to address allegations of harassment, and physical and sexual assault. The equity policies of major faculty associations, such as the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS), the Management Undergraduate Society (MUS), and the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS), either do not explicitly address sexual assault or do not outline a procedure for redress in cases of sexual assault.

Furthermore, McGill has extensive policies outlining the academic and personal rights of students with respect to faculty and staff members. No parallel distinction between students and student leaders is made in faculty policies. Consequently, there is no documented system outlining what standards and responsibilities student leaders are held to.

SUS President Jeremy Goh, who was made aware of the alleged incident, elaborated on the role of executive members in cases where sexual assault is alleged to have occurred at a faculty or department-level event. “As a student government, our job is not to decide on the verdict,” Goh said. “We can’t comment on anybody’s [status….] Something that was important for us was to do an audit of our operations and see what the cause for concern from the situation was, and see whether that concern affected the operation […] of our student government.”

 

Going Forward: Addressing policy gaps at the faculty and university level

Goh expressed that the SUS will examine existing policies and procedures in order to create a policy that establishes guidelines for how it can deal with situations like this moving forward.

“We are hoping to have a student code of conduct [policy] in the future or some sort of procedural guideline for situations like this so that executives in the future have a guideline to follow,” he explained. “Obviously we’re continuing to monitor the situation. Our job at the end of the day is to represent Science students. We’re listening to the student population, and if there is cause for concern, we will address it as it comes up.”

Additionally, a new sexual assault policy draft is in the process of being reviewed by various groups on campus. This policy, which aims to unify and formalize similar existing policies, was spurred by McGill administration’s response to an earlier case of alleged sexual assault involving former Redmen football players. Costopoulos underscored that the proposed sexual assault policy would supplement existing McGill policies rather than replace them.

SSMU Vice-President (University Affairs) Chloe Rourke stated that one of the strengths of the proposed policy is the widespread consultation that went into its creation.

“A lot of stakeholders […] have given feedback and consultation and been consulted in the process of writing the Sexual Assault Policy, from all over the McGill community, whether that be faculty, various student groups, general units and offices within the administrations, [and] unions,” she said. “The policy is meant to apply to the entire McGill community.”

According to Rourke, the policy is significant for multiple reasons. It’s the first cohesive sexual assault policy at McGill, formalizing protocols across departments and offices, and it broadens the scope of those who can access support resources.

“Support measures are available to any person who experienced sexual assault […] regardless of when or where the sexual assault occurred, and with who.” Rourke said. “If you’re a member of the McGill community and you experienced sexual assault five years ago, you’re eligible for all the same support measures that are granted to any other person that was sexually assaulted while at McGill.”

Rourke explained that the Policy will commit the university to taking a proactive and pro-survivor approach to addressing sexual assault on campus. Furthermore, the policy will take into consideration sexual assault within the university and societal contexts.

“[It will] provide support to the survivor in whatever form that they need, and not engage in victim blaming,” Rourke said.”[It] importantly acknowledges and recognizes that [sexual assault] is a problem in our community and in our society, and is especially relevant to university campuses.”

Both the survivor and a close friend, who contacted the individual in early April, expressed frustration at the lack of a pro-survivor attitude they faced.

“A lot of people were angry at me because I spoke about it,” the survivor’s friend said, asking to remain anonymous. “I guess [people] don’t believe it happened, or that it’s not a sufficient reason for [the individual] to face consequences.”

The survivor expressed disappointment at the fact that members of the 2014-2015 SUS executive did not reach out to her after they were informed of the allegations.

“Whatever their reasons, the truth is that none of [the SUS] stepped forward and offered me any help,” she said. “[They] made the [situation] exponentially more difficult to deal with, by ostracizing me and my friends and by labelling me as a liar within the McGill community.”

Currently, the sexual assault policy draft distinguishes between support measures and recourse measures.

“Support Measures [are] resources and actions requested by the [person who experienced sexual assault] which do not act as disciplinary measures against, nor implicate the rights of, the Respondent(s),” Section 2.7 of the policy draft reads. “Such measures include, but are not limited to, counselling services, information provision, academic or employment-related accommodation, and other safety measures.” Recourse measures, on the other hand, are dependent on a variety of other factors.

“Recourse Measures [are] actions taken against the Respondent(s) upon the outcome of a formal Complaint Procedure, or actions mutually consented upon by all parties upon the outcome of an informal Complaint Procedure,” Section 2.9 reads.

Since the new sexual assault policy was first proposed, McGill and various student groups have implemented programs that aim to address sexual assault on campus, such as the Forum on Consent, #ConsentMcGill week, Sexual Assault Awareness week, and the Bystander Intervention Program.

The individual declined to comment for this story and instead referred the Tribune to their lawyer, Me Jean-Philippe Caron.

“Nothing has been proven that my client has acted in an inappropriate manner," Caron said.

Additional reporting by Mayaz Alam

 

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