Aug.
22
2014

Letter to the Editor: Heather Chandler

 

 

The following is a revised version of a letter I wrote to President Robert Campbell outlining the details of my experience of sexual assault at Mount Allison University. I wished to share this with the student body in the hopes of spreading awareness about serious issues both on our campus, and in our University’s policies.

Dear President Campbell,

My name is Heather Chandler and I’m a fourth year biology major at Mount Allison. After considerable reflection, I am writing to you as a final attempt to get some clarity and resolution around a serious incident – my experience of sexual assault - that took place on campus in late November of this past year. Unfortunately, it is now early April and this issue remains unresolved.

For my part, I believe I have taken all the appropriate steps towards achieving some resolution (as noted further in this letter), but my experience of the administrative process around my complaint of sexual assault has left me utterly frustrated, confused, and also feeling re-victimized.  

A lack of student advocacy and transparency within the university process appear to lie at the very heart of this problem. This is clearly evidenced through my encounters with the Office of the Director of Student Life and the Office of the Sexual Harassment Advisor.  For your information, I will briefly outline below how my complaint was handled—demonstrating the vulnerability of students within the current university process (based on my own experience), in relation to the lack of strong student advocacy, as well as deficiency of accessible information and transparency in the administrative process around sexual assault on campus. Here I would further highlight that my letter concerns addressing flaws of the process more-so than the people implementing the process.

In conclusion, I will put forward what I want to see come out of my complaint process, and I would like to suggest some positive general directions which I think Mt. A might take towards reducing student vulnerability on campus.

Sexual assault, as defined by the Canadian government, is: “A term used to refer to all incidents of unwanted sexual activity, including sexual attacks and sexual touching.” 

On Nov. 23, 2012, I was sexually assaulted by a Mt. A student while at the Pond. Immediately following the incident, I approached a security staff member who was standing nearby at the door and pointed out my assailant. He told me that he wasn’t able to help me and directed me to the Event Security Student (ESS) Coordinator who in turn provided me with contact information for the Head of Student Life and Mt. A’s Sexual Harassment Advisor. 

On Nov. 27, I contacted the Head of Student Life (HSL) with my complaint and was told on Nov. 28 that she was waiting on the incident report from the Pond before moving forwards. I expressed my wish to have the incident dealt with before the end of term.

On Nov. 30, I received an email from Mt. A’s Sexual Harassment Advisor (SHA). Due to the busy time of year, we agreed to meet in January.

On Feb. 13, 2013, I sent an email to both the Head of Student Life and the Sexual Harassment Advisor, as I had heard nothing regarding my complaint in the intervening time. I asked to be informed on the proceedings, as well as asking to meet with the SHA, as we’d planned to do so in January. The HSL responded, citing the Event Security report and stating: “To date I also have not received other complaints about this individual.” She informed me that there was not sufficient evidence to move forward with a complaint. I wrote back, stating (for the second time) that the security staff had seen my assailant’s face when I pointed him out, as well as the fact that my boyfriend had been with me at the time of the assault. The Head of Student Life told me that with this “new information” she was willing to continue her investigation. The SHA was CC’d in this email correspondence but still had yet to contact me.

On Feb. 20, I informed the HSL that I had set up a meeting with Pat Joyce (MASU President) to talk through Mt. A’s policies regarding sexual harassment and assault and asked if she knew a better way to contact the SHA.

On Feb. 21, the SHA emailed me to set up a meeting. I also met with Joyce, who talked me through the policies as well as sending me additional pertinent information in a follow-up email. 

On Feb. 22, the HSL emailed me with the following: “I have solicited witness statements from the persons you identified.  There is sufficient information and I am prepared to move forward with the complaint.  As the victim, I wanted to confirm what resolution you are seeking in this case (charges, education, etc.)?” 

It wasn’t until March 6 I had my very first meeting with the Sexual Harassment Advisor, at which time I had to remind her of significant details re: my complaint (eg. the name of the perpetrator). Subsequently, she proposed three recommendations: 1) that the individual should be banned from the Pond; 2) that the individual should receive education on sexual assault from the Sexual Harassment Advisor; and 3) [recommendation withheld].

 On March 20, I was asked into my first meeting with the Head of Student Life to discuss the results of her investigation, when I was told that there was ‘insufficient evidence to move forward with the complaint.’ I asked if the recommendations that the SHA had included were still available for resolution of my complaint and was told that they were.

On March 21, I sent a follow-up email to the HSL and the SHA, to inform them that I was planning on celebrating with my rugby team at the Athletic Banquet After-Party at the Pond. I wanted to confirm that the perpetrator would not be in the vicinity since the recommendations were still in place. To this, the HSL responded: “What I am faced with is inconclusive evidence.  This means that the information that I have isn’t adding up to a cut and dried situation.  There are missing pieces and until these pieces are determined, I am unable to lay charges.  That is not to say that charges will not be laid but at this time, to act is premature.” In reply, I asked for her to explain what had changed between Feb. 22, when charges and education were offered, and this point, when nothing is being offered to me in terms of a resolution. 

As of March 22, after I had sent two requests for clarification around the complaint process, I was invited to set up a meeting with the Head of Student Life on March 25. Due to the time of year and the amount of time this process had already taken, I declined the offer to meet. 

President Campbell, in order to draw your attention to the overall issues of an absence of student advocacy and transparency in process around sexual assault at Mt. A, I am highlighting (below) some specific problems I faced personally, as I fought to have my complaint acknowledged, validated and acted upon. 

1) As in the case of physical assault, the security staff that I initially approached on the date of the incident, Nov. 23, should have immediately followed up on my complaint. 

2) In an email on Feb. 18, the Head of Student Life informed me that she had interviewed the individual who assaulted me. I do not understand why I wasn’t offered the same courtesy, or kept informed of my complaint.  On the basis of Mt. A’s Policy - #1003: Policies and Procedures with Respect to Sexual Harassment: “A complainant has the right… d. to be kept informed of the status of any proceedings under this policy, and e. to receive the results of the investigation in writing.”

3) On several occasions, resolutions to the incident were offered, and subsequently rescinded. The HSL initially offered to press charges in the email dated Feb. 22; but this offer was later withdrawn without clear reason as to why. In our meeting on March 20, when I asked if the recommendations that the SHA provided would still be in effect, the HSL said that they were. When I tried to confirm this, so that I could feel safe while attending a university event on the university campus, I received an email from the HSL on March 21 saying that ‘nothing would be done,’ and apologizing for ‘any misunderstanding.’

This process has now taken up four months of my final year here at Mt. A. Not only was it not dealt with in a timely manner, but I’ve consistently felt that there is a lack of respect and professionalism, as well as a lack of transparency, in the process. My statements were not properly reviewed at times nor were they taken very seriously. I waited months for the university’s Sexual Harassment Advisor to schedule a meeting – which I was forced to initiate.  Finally, the university processes around the Sexual Harassment and Assault Policy emerged as inefficient and unclear.

Since this whole ordeal has left me feeling isolated and in need of advice I have, in the meantime, approached one of my professors for support and to act as a sounding board. 

In conclusion, I would like to urge the university to bring about a satisfactory resolution to my own complaint process, and based on my experience, I would propose some positive actions that Mt. A might take to rectify the overall problems faced by students on these issues. 

I propose the following positive actions the university might take to improve the experience of Mt. A students - particularly as complainants trying to get some resolution through the university process. 

There needs to be a student advocate made available specifically to assist complainants through the complaint process for sexual harassment and assault at Mt. A.

This process also needs to be made much more transparent to students – and properly implemented - on the basis of the policy that is already in place.

Frequent effective training programs - for staff who could be front-line responders in the event of sexual harassment or assault of students. For example, the security staff at The Pond would need this kind of mandatory education on sexual violence for the safety of students at Mt. A’s campus. As long as incidents like the one I experienced are allowed to occur without repercussions from the university, sexual assault on our campus will continue to be a serious problem.  In addition, I know of many other students who have had such negative experiences, or worse, at Mt. A.

More generally Mt. A needs to focus on changing cultural climate and attitudes towards sexual assault through educational programs and public speakers. This should be a significant component of sexual harassment and assault prevention on campus. They could be brought in to campus on an annual basis to educate students and staff about the terminology and the issues relevant to this serious problem on university campuses. For example, when Leadership Mount Allison organized the visit of retired NFL player Don McPherson to Mt. A in 2007, he gave an excellent public lecture on Gender Violence, the Construction of Masculinity in the Culture of Sports, and ran effective workshops with the Mt. A Mounties. I am told that MacPherson’s positive impact and influence was widely felt at the time. 

President Campbell, I am writing to you because I believe that you have the student’s interests at heart. And I don’t think students are currently being served well by the university process around such serious issues as assault.

I hope I can finally get some satisfactory answers and outcomes by writing you directly. 

Sincerely,

Heather Chandler

Since sending this letter, I have received a response reiterating the statement that there is insufficient evidence to move forward with my complaint. Sexual assaults frequently occur without witnesses—a fact that the policies of our university are ill equipped to deal with. As such, I am hopeful that the many organizations and individuals on campus dedicated to positive action will continue to support those in need, and work towards making Mt. A a safer environment for all. 


This letter was originally published in print on May 9, 2013, with the following preface:

 

Editor’s note: the following letter chronicles one student’s experience with sexual assault at this university, and her frustration with a system that is not, in her view, designed to accomodate victims’ needs. The Argosy recognizes that sexual assault is a difficult and sensitive issue for victims, witnesses, first responders, and university administrators, and our publication of this letter is not meant to imply wrong-doing on the part administration­­ or any employee of the university, nor to trivialize the legal structures that administrators must navigate in making our campus safe. Nor do we suggest that sexual harassment and assault are problems exclusive to Mount Allison University, or affect it disproportionately—they are not, and do not. Rather, we hope that through discussion, Mt. A will be able to position itself as a leader in sexual harassment education and response. We cordially invite President Campbell and  Mt. A’s administration to publish their response to this letter in The Argosy, online and in print in our next edition.

- Richard Kent, Editor-in-Chief