Hundreds of people respond to sexual violence on campus
Recently, Global News published an article about a sexual assault case at StFX. The survivor, an 18-year old first-year from Toronto, was assaulted by a man five years older. The perpetrator was suspended, but returned to school this fall – something the survivor was not made aware of. Re-traumatized, the student left StFX for good. Her experiences have sparked outrage among students, faculty, members of the Antigonish community, and even other universities across the country. With outrage comes collective action, which is exactly what has been going on over the past week and a half on our campus. Since the report, a lot has happened. Two email statements from Andrew Beckett, Vice President of Finance and Administration & Head of Student Services, were sent out. The first was a rather vague paragraph which essentially said that the school, “cannot comment about the specifics of this case.” In addition, several bullet points were included, detailing that StFX has a sexual violence policy, a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), a Health and Counselling office, and a Student Life office. The second email references the Global News report. He acknowledges the communication errors that caused the student to leave, and makes a mention of the, “system in place that strives to uphold both the victim’s and the respondent’s right to due process.” He stresses that, “we recognize that there is always room for improvement and we welcome feedback regarding how to make our processes stronger.” He also makes a mention of the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre, an institution that not many small university towns have.
Following these two emails, student response was striking. In fact, the news of the article in question spread like wildfire on Facebook, and it can be wagered that most students were already aware of or had heard of the article, and the details of the survivor’s situation, before any StFX emails were sent.
Last Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon, two collective action meetings were held at St. Ninian’s Place, organized by students and Women’s & Gender Studies professor Rachel Hurst. This week, I sat down to talk with Hurst about the progress StFX has made since she began teaching here in 2009. We talked about what still needs to be done, the collective action of students, social media accounts, and more. One of the greatest concerns of protesting students, who have been using the hash-tag #IStandWithHer to raise awareness, is the school’s lacklustre sexual violence policy. The policy itself is quite concerned with acknowledgement of resources and definitions, and not enough information about putting trust in survivors and being a trauma-sensitive institution. Obviously, the policy should be examined, and change based on the input of students. However, Hurst revealed to me that in 2009, a StFX sexual violence policy did not even exist, “There was no policy, and there wasn’t even information on who to report to in the university and what should happen if someone has been sexually assaulted. So that’s another thing that has really changed is that we do have a policy we do have information online that is a lot easier to find than previously.” It’s shocking, isn’t it? That only nine years ago, information about sexual assault and basic resources were unavailable through the school’s website. However, this in no way means that we should just sit back and be grateful that StFX has made strides on that front.
So much work can be done, and perhaps adopting practices of other universities or colleges could be helpful. According to Hurst, “In the United States by law all publicly funded universities and colleges are required to notify the campus community when a sexual assault has happened...it notifies the student body that sexual assault is not tolerated and that they will act when sexual assault has been reported.” These bulletins are vital in making invisible work visible and could make huge contributions to sexual violence awareness on campus. A transparent sexual assault bulletin could change the face of this campus. When news of sexual assault only reaches the students through outside news media, it sends a bad message. This kind of last-minute notification makes StFX feel like a university that only cares about sexual assault when reports of it hurt its, “premier undergraduate experience” reputation.
Two more important events have happened between Beckett’s first email and today. Firstly, a student-formed X RESIST Facebook page was formed. This closed group with more than 400 members has been the central hub for organization of protests, meetings, slogans, petitions and more. Secondly, the controversial @whispersatX twitter account (initially named @rapistsatX) was created and accused two students of sexual assault before it was condemned by Beckett himself. While this account did not have much time to make a dent in the overall campaign, StFX addressed this account in an extremely definite manner, calling its actions, “not acceptable.” While it is true that name-dropping students with no context is damaging to the overall movement on campus, the tone in which Beckett addressed this account is unsettling. Nowhere in his previous two emails were the words, “not acceptable” used.
Referencing sexual assault is met with caution, but referencing accusations is met with immediate action.
The school is quick to strike down a small twitter account which named two male students, Hurst noted that, “in my gut feeling is that if the person [who created @whispersatX] is found out that they will be punished to the full extent that they can be punished.” If this does happen, could it send a negative message to other students who are trying to fight sexual violence on campus and come forward with their own stories? Either way, the creation of this account adds another level of complexity to this ongoing fight. Something that really sticks out with X RESIST, the open house protest and the overall response is the small amount of male action. Tons of women, many of whom who are survivors themselves, are speaking out against StFX and coming up with possible solutions. The lack of reaction from the male student body is disappointing to say the least. Hurst notes that, “In my opinion both male faculty as well as male students need to step up and organize themselves...I would absolutely encourage male students to get involved and I know that there certainly are some that have been active and vocal and I think that that’s fabulous, I see that as the responsibility of men [to organize themselves].”
While it is unlikely that an X RESIST-type group will be created by male students and faculty, it would certainly add even more to the discussions among campus.
This story is far from over. The Student Union planned an open forum on sexual violence held on Saturday, October 20. It is an avenue for community opinions and ideas to be heard. X RESIST will not be silenced anytime soon.