Concordia’s Harassment and Sexual Assault Problem

An allegedly progressive university that cannot deal with the victims of campus sexual harassment and assault is not as progressive as it claims. A culture of victim-blaming, administrative delays, and refusal to hold the perpetrators to account is indicative of rape culture that only profits the most sinister patriarchal forces in a school in dire need of change. No local example demonstrates this quite so well as what is going on at Concordia.

Concordia has a sexual harassment and assault problem.

It is a problem that exists despite the university’s policy regarding security which applies to students, employees, and visitors. According to said policy, effective as of September 2002 (and thus unchanged):

“[N]o person shall…engage in violent behavior, threaten violence, or engage in any other illegal behavior on campus.”

In addition to a security policy, Concordia has a stand-alone policy on sexual violence that came into effect at the end of May 2016. Like the security policy, it applies to all members of Concordia.

Its purpose is to provide a safe environment for students, faculty, staff, and visitors in which sexual violence will not be tolerated, while providing support for those impacted by sexual violence. It also provides definitions of such terms as “sexual violence” and “consent”.

Unfortunately, the policy focuses primarily on the victim and fails to state what consequences a perpetrator would face for sexual harassment and assault. If Concordia truly has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and assault, the penalty for such behavior should be stated clearly from the start.

Historically rules that are vague are prone to misinterpretation, abuse, and a lack of enforcement and this is sadly what has happened at Concordia. Their current policy leaves the choice of action almost entirely with the victim, which increases the risk that their abuser will get off easy if they successfully scare their victim(s) into silence.

It is to Concordia’s credit that they have recently allowed student government to participate in the drafting of an official sexual assault policy, but is this too little too late?

In November 2015, after numerous complaints to Concordia about the racial discrimination and sexual harassment she’d endured at the hands of fellow members of the Arts and Science Federation of Associations (ASFA) of Concordia University, “Mei Ling” with the help of The Center for Research Action on Race Relations (CRARR) and the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, reached a settlement with ASFA.

Then there is the case of “Cathy”, who spoke to this reporter anonymously about her ordeal.

Cathy was assaulted by a fellow Concordia student at her home in 2014. The police were called and the man was arrested. She then sought medical attention for her injuries. The courts took action, knowing that victims of domestic abuse are often coerced or bullied into silence and applied laws that indict domestic assaulters regardless of whether or not the victim withdraws the charges.

A month after the assault, having been informed that domestic abusers often re-offend, she told Concordia Security about the restraining order. Her actions had no effect, for the student assaulted her again, this time on campus, in 2015.

Unfortunately for Cathy and in spite of the school’s security policy, the only recourse she could take with them against her assaulter was to seek recourse from the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities. She found that what this amounted to was a formal or informal complaint that she would have to put her real name on, despite the intimate nature of the assaults and the likelihood that he would try and hurt her again.

She presented letters from a social worker and the court explaining the risk of her assaulter reoffending, and Concordia did nothing with them. They offered to have security escort her around campus, but Cathy knew it would just draw attention to her from other students, including her abuser, putting her further at risk.

At this point, Concordia seems to have given up. Despite a policy that bans violence and threats on campus, Concordia gave up on Cathy.

It took the breaking of stories of sexual and racial harassment survivors like Mei Ling and what happened to Cathy and so many others in the media to finally wake the university up.

Unfortunately for Cathy, the consequences of her assault and the university’s actions have been long term. The assaults gave her a severe concussion resulting in difficulties reading and writing and she lost hearing in one of her ears, requiring the intervention of neurologist and an ear, nose, and throat doctor.

The assaults and Concordia’s toothless responses to her ordeal ravaged her psychologically. Cathy now struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), has constant flashbacks, and she is terrified of meeting new people and trusting them.

The health consequences of Cathy’s ordeal hurt her academically and changed her career aspirations. To this day she never feels safe and cannot return to Concordia. She no longer feels university is for her and is afraid that going back to school would result in her being assaulted and dismissed again. She said of her ordeal:

“This is happening at universities all over the country, and I don’t feel like I could risk going through this again for any reason. I’d worked really hard to get to post secondary education and it had always felt like education was what would open doors, as long as I worked hard and put effort into it. Effort isn’t enough when the institutions responsible don’t support victims or make it safe for them to come forward. I’d love to keep studying… but the only way through is university.”

Cathy’s abuser got off light for his crimes.

He pled guilty and was given a conditional discharge, a restraining order to keep him away from her, and thirty hours of community service at Concordia for threatening and violent conduct.

He should have been expelled from the university.

Outrageously and despite his legally documented threat to students, he was not only permitted to stay at Concordia, but he wasn’t even disqualified from an Academic award he won.

In 2015 when the Mei Ling scandal made news, Concordia University president Alan Shephard announced in an open letter that the school considered student safety to be “paramount”. Unfortunately, the words were empty ones as Concordia took its usual tack of doing nothing for the victims.

In 2015 when the Mei Ling scandal made news, Concordia University president Alan Shephard announced in an open letter that the school considered student safety to be “paramount”. Unfortunately, the words were empty ones as Concordia took its usual tack of doing nothing for the victims.

In January 2018 when harassment complaints against a professor at the school’s Creative Writing reached the press, Shephard said that the university would “treat seriously” allegations of sexual misconduct. The Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) called for an independent inquiry while the university announced the establishment of a Task Force on Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Violence.

Their plan to cooperate with students on this is a good one, but it needs to be enforceable and enforced in order to work. Concordia is trying to do better by its students, and they’d better.

FTB was contacted by a representative of Concordia requesting that the article be rewritten. While I added a policy update and some steps taken by Concordia not mentioned in the original version of this article, I stand by the central theme.

The rep also pointed out that there are penalties mentioned in their 2017 document, including expulsion, well, more specifically “a recommendation of Expulsion, subject to confirmation by the Provost and VicePresident, Academic” is listed as a potential consequence. On page 25 of 38. At the end of a long list of possible outcomes that begins with a written reprimand.

Not only is this a far cry from a logical policy, say immediate expulsion for anyone who admits in a court of law to assault, it also, as I mentioned above, comes only at the end of a process that is difficult for those, like Cathy, who fear reprisals, to enter into. It’s basically a second trial.

It’s also not well advertised. It took a PR rep showing us where to dig to find it. We’re media, we have the time. Assault victims generally don’t have that luxury.

An academic institution that doesn’t have an established punishment for admitted perpetrators and makes it difficult for victims to seek justice clearly isn’t doing enough to protect victims of assault.

Here’s hoping the new policy Concordia is drafting has more teeth.

* Featured image by deeelee via WikiMedia Commons

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