How STU’s sexual violence policy intervened after no one heard

2-year-old sexual violence policy helped first-year cope. Reader discretion advised.
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Reader discretion advised: This article contains some graphic content

It happened on a casual night in. Kale Harris invited one of her friends to hang out in her residence room during the second week of school this year. They had planned to watch a movie together and, later, he would stay the night. He would sleep on one bed in her super single room, while she would sleep on the other. That’s not what happened, Harris said.

Two years ago, St. Thomas University introduced its first stand-alone sexual violence policy.  The objectives of STU’s policy on sexual violence include mitigating safety risks, providing support, having set guidelines for responding to complaints and responding with “appropriate sanction against perpetrators.”

The policy failed to prevent the attack on her, but Harris filed an official complaint with the university. Since the alleged perpetrator was not a STU student, the complaint process laid out in the sexual violence policy wasn’t fully tested. Still, it succeeded at providing a support system that, according to Harris, was done “pretty much perfectly.”

“I don’t know if I’d really still be living now if [the support] wasn’t there,” Harris said.

“I was yelling and no one heard me.”

Harris recalls the circumstances of the night all too clearly.

“He was kind of drunk … but not that drunk,” said the first-year STU student.

She said he wasn’t drunk enough to use the excuse that he didn’t realize what he was doing.

During the movie, his mood changed.

“He started acting super weird,” Harris said.

His tone of voice changed and he started to get “touchy-feely.” After turning off the movie, Harris decided they should both go to bed and sleep off the weird mood that had fallen on the room.

In Harris’ bedroom, lit only by her desk light, the perpetrator started undressing. Harris barely had time to process the situation before he started undressing her. She immediately protested.

“I was yelling and no one heard me.”

She said she pushed him away, she screamed, she cried, she did everything one is “supposed” to do to prevent a rape from happening. But it didn’t stop him. And no one heard her. While he pinned her down and had sex with her, she accused him of rape, hoping it would make him realize the criminal act he was committing.

“What he said next absolutely destroyed me,” said Harris. “What he said was, ‘I don’t fucking care’ … I was scared I was going to die.”

STU’s response

Afterwards, Harris was in shock.

“I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t go out, didn’t go to any of my classes … I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep.”

She was at first reluctant to tell anyone.

“I wouldn’t go to the [residence advisors] because I was super scared,” she said. “I like dealing with my problems by myself,” which she admits “isn’t always good.”

Fortunately, her friend ended up acting on her benefit and telling the residence advisors.

“That’s what helped me.”

The RAs messaged her through Facebook asking permission to talk and although she was at first resistant, one visited her and managed to convince her to address the situation.

Following the new policy, the RA gave her a piece of paper with phone numbers that could help, offering Harris the help she desperately needed. The RA then proceeded to tell Kale the steps she could follow and got her set up with the campus sexual assault support advocate Maggie Forsythe.

“I never thought it would happen to me,” Harris said. “I moved down to Rigby Hall. It was a smooth move. They ended up bringing a counsellor down there … They even offered for someone to walk me to class every day.”

She also commends the professors for being understanding and accessibility services being available to help her back on her feet. Even now, she feels “like I always have support.”

The support and help Harris received from St. Thomas University helped her to get back to why she was at St. Thomas in the first place.

“I wanted to move on and focus on school because that’s what I’m here for.”

Why not file a complaint with the police?

Harris decided she didn’t want to formally submit a complaint with the police against her alleged attacker.

“I don’t want to have to bring it up again.”

The St. Thomas University policy allows the student full control of the situation, including the decision on whether or not to prosecute the perpetrator.

She said the main reasons she chose to refrain from the court system was a combination of wanting to move on, avoiding revisiting the painful and emotionally fraught topic – and a fear that no one would believe her.

She also feared her indigenous roots would also play a part.

Harris said people in her community have experienced difficulties with policing discriminating against them and she was scared she would become yet another indigenous person to experience that firsthand.

“Personally I couldn’t have someone be like … ‘that didn’t happen.’”

Instead of pursuing the lengthy and emotionally strenuous court process, she chose to focus on school work. She is satisfied enough with the fact that the alleged attacker is now banned from the St. Thomas campus and she can feel safer on campus knowing she won’t see him on a regular basis.

“I didn’t want to see his face over and over.”

According to a recently released Globe and Mail report, 19 per cent of sexual assault claims in Canada are listed as “unfounded” to police, meaning the claims brought forward are not believed by the investigating officers. New Brunswick ranked highest among the provinces for percentage of sexual assault claims not believed by authorities at 32 per cent.

“That just proves that I did have a reason to worry about not being believed,” Harris said.

She is absolutely heartbroken that New Brunswick sets a low standard when it comes to the support of sexual assault victims. Concerned that she may not be believed, Harris felt she had to bundle up her shock, embarrassment and fear until her friend took the initiative.

“I knew I couldn’t handle someone telling me I was lying.”

What about prevention?

The prevention side of the policy includes education, raising awareness and training student leaders.

Brock Richardson, director of student services, admits there is still work to be done.

“There’s a cultural problem,” said Richardson.

He believes STU can use the opportunity it has to shape the minds of young adults by educating them in consent, sexual violence awareness and the boundaries that should not be passed. In addition, to holding events during Welcome Week that discuss the problem, student leaders such as RAs are trained in bystander intervention and crisis managing.

“A lot of it is education and trying to shift that culture,” said Richardson.

Next year, the policy will be revisited again and the STU staff are, according to Forsythe, “hoping to do a lot more strategic prevention, awareness, and … cultural shift perception.”

With Maggie Forsythe and the stand-alone sexual violence policy at St. Thomas University working for the students, Richardson believes the policy is the first step to reacting to sexual assault and trying to establish a campus culture that does not tolerate or perpetuate sexual violence.

“I think we’re moving in a good direction.”

Despite the fact that the campus couldn’t protect her against rape, Harris is grateful St. Thomas University was so accommodating to her. The support allowed her to continue her studies and focus on why she had attended St. Thomas University: to get an education.

“I am doing OK [STU] made sure that I was OK.”

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