Students stalked with scripted harassment around campus

In the past few weeks, McGill students have taken to social media to bring attention to recent incidents of harassment around campus. The issue has garnered attention from numerous media outlets, including CBC News, as well as prompted a university-wide email alert on Apr. 1.

Viveca Lee, U1 Science, was exiting the Eaton Centre when a man approached her and attempted to start a conversation with a barrage of personal questions. He asked about her home, her studies, and if he could buy her coffee. After she declined, he asked for her number so that they could meet another time.

“I left and just shrugged off what happened,” Lee said. “He made himself sound super sweet the whole time, so I thought maybe he was just desperate to get women, or maybe he was being genuine.”

However, a similar incident happened a few days later, when a different man approached her on the corner of Sherbrooke and University with the exact same set of questions.

“I gave [the second man] short, dry responses so that he would get the message and leave,” Lee said. “Eventually, I just stopped responding, and he kept silently walking beside me until I went inside Trottier.”

As more students disclosed their experiences over social media, it became clear that the two encounters were not isolated incidents, but part of a deliberate, targeted strategy. On March 29, Concordia University student Lisa Komlos posted a video on her Instagram account describing two incidents of harassment around Concordia’s campus. Her video reports two different men who approached her with the same scripted set of questions and aggressively pursued her. Afterwards, Komlos felt obligated to share her experience.

“I understand feeling nervous about sharing any kind of experience online, let alone an experience with harassment,” Komlos said. “However, it is important to acknowledge that, by sharing your stories with others, [you] could help make others feel comfortable enough to share their experiences as well.”

Komlos’ video quickly gained over 156,000 views and was widely shared. Hundreds of women commented, describing similar experiences around Concordia’s campus and the Eaton Centre. Lee herself recognized the extent of the problem after seeing Komlos’ post.

“As I was watching the video, I [thought], ‘This sounds exactly like what happened to me,’” Lee said. “Then, I read the replies she reposted from hundreds of women giving the same testimonies, and it was absolutely horrifying.”

The incidents originally seemed isolated to nearby Concordia’s downtown campus, but women are now reporting similar experiences in the McGill campus area. Alex, who wished to remain anonymous, was approached by a man with an Eastern-European accent in his mid-to-late 20s who was wearing a leather coat. After avoiding his attempts to start a conversation, she made sure to keep him in eyesight.

“He left, walking up University street,” Alex said. “But then I watched him turn left [onto] the path going to Otto Maass.”

A man fitting the same description was reported by a student near the McConnell Engineering building. After seeing a Facebook post about a suspicious man near Otto Maass, Lee reported the incident to Campus Security, who sent out patrollers to watch for the man and directed Lee toward the police.  

“The police told me there was nothing I could do,” Lee said. “They were not aware of how this has been happening to hundreds of women all over downtown.”

In addition to the notably high number of harassment complaints, students have reported that the nature of these harassments differentiates them from usual pick-up attempts. According to a student who chose to remain anonymous, the man who approached her while she walked through campus was very confrontational.

“It felt like a staged and generally strange encounter right away,” Sam said. “It didn’t feel like the typical scenario of a guy trying to pick up a girl. He was definitely not anywhere near my age. He could also tell by my body language that I was in a rush, but he kept being pushy about ‘getting to know me’ [….] When I learned the next day that this [had] been happening to many others, I realized my random encounter with this man wasn’t coincidental, and I realized why my gut feeling about this man was uneasy.”

The scripted dialogues, aggressive nature of the assailants, and similarities between the incidents have caused concerns that they could be tied to sex trafficking. According to the Service de Police de la Ville de Montreal (SPVM), traffickers often begin with non-violent, manipulative routines to establish a connection with potential victims.

According to McGill’s Interim Director of Internal Communications James Martin, the recent incidents are tied to the same person harassing women, likely while using a script.

“We have heard people speculate online about human trafficking,” Martin said. “But we have spoken to Montreal police and they report no issues of human trafficking, kidnapping, or missing persons related to this kind of activity on the island of Montreal.”

Campus Security started receiving reports of similar cases of harassment on March 30. Since then, they have received direct reports from five individuals who have experienced harassment and two reports of second-hand accounts.

Eighteen individuals who responded to a survey conducted by The McGill Tribune reported having experienced harassment on campus. Three distinct perpetrators were described in the survey responses, though the dialogue the respondents described have similarities across all accounts. Nine respondents from the survey suggested that McGill should place more security personnel around campus both during the day and at night.

Martin explained that Campus Security is increasing its presence in response to reports and encouraged students to stay vigilant.

“We have reassigned patrols to increase our visibility in high-traffic areas,” Martin said. “We keep patrolling and being visible, and we encourage people to call Security Services if they are concerned about their safety on campus or if they observe something suspicious [….] Our agents will coordinate with Montreal police as necessary, but, if it’s an emergency situation, don’t hesitate to call 911 directly.”

Encounters typically begin with a man approaching a woman and initiating a conversation by either asking a general question or directly mentioning the woman’s physical appearance. No matter how the woman responds, the man begins asking personal questions about their name, studies, where they live, or what they are doing. Then, the man asks to go somewhere off-campus, typically a cafe or their apartment. If the woman refuses, the man asks for their cell number. Most women have said the men follow them after their conversation.

The harassers may be changing tactics, however. According to an anonymous source, who posted in a university Facebook group, a man who matched reported descriptions approached her on St. Laurent on Apr. 7 with an altered script.

“He acted surprised and said he knew us,” they wrote . “He said he was on his way to get some groceries but liked to ‘socialize on the street and meet new people’ [….] He asked us if we’d go with him to get some drinks, and again, when we said no, he persisted.”

Immediately after the incident, a different man approached the source asking if they noticed a similarity between their experience and reports of scripted harassment.

“He insisted about five times asking ‘if we had to say, did it sound similar to the scripts,’” they wrote . “It all seemed super off to us. It seems as if they’re now trying to figure out how to change the script enough so that girls don’t recognize it.”

Students who feel unsafe have a variety of resources available to them: The urgent care walk-in clinic opens at 8:30 a.m. on weekdays in the Brown Building, Suite 3100. The Sexual Assault Center of the McGill Student’s Society (SACOMSS) hotline is 514-398-8500. Walksafe can be reached at 514-398-2498, and Drivesafe can be reached at 514-398-8040.  Any student in need of assistance is encouraged to call Security Services, available 24/7 (Downtown: 514-398-3000. Mac campus: 514-398-7777).

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