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A year after Neurauter, conversations continue on university approaches to sexual violence

By Jason Herring, January 23 2019 —

In January 2018, just over a year ago, the University of Calgary campus community found itself embroiled in a controversy surrounding Connor Neurauter, a U of C student who had his 90-day jail sentence for sexual interference delayed in order to accommodate his university studies.

The story sparked a significant public outcry, including a petition calling for Neurauter’s expulsion that garnered nearly 80,000 signatures. Neurauter ended up serving his sentence intermittently on weekends beginning the weekend of Feb. 9, 2018, which allowed him to continue his “employment and home study while [observing] the punishment imposed by law,” according to Stephen Harrison, the judge presiding over the case. 

“People come here ill-informed and ill-equipped.”

Discussions about Neurauter also brought about conversation about how post-secondary institutions should approach the issue of sexual violence on campuses across the country. One way the U of C has attempted to make the campus a safer space for survivors of sexual violence was by hiring Carla Bertsch as the school’s first sexual violence support advocate in June 2017, a position mandated by the U of C’s sexual violence policy.

Bertsch’s role entails supporting and advocating for campus community members who have experienced sexual violence or who want to talk about reporting options or external resources. She also conducts sexual violence education on campus. Bertsch believes that the most effective way to prevent sexual violence is by starting education initiatives focused on concepts like consent from a young age.

“I feel really strongly that sexual violence prevention work needs to happen a lot sooner than university,” she said. “I don’t think the university setting breeds violence. I think people come here misinformed and ill-equipped. I would love to see more things happen in elementary schools and high schools so that we’re equipping people with proper abilities to correlate to one another well before we get to more problematic ages.”

However, when a story like that of Neurauter’s ignites campus, universities are forced to take a reactive response in order to help students best access the resources they need. Knowing how to react to these situations is part of why the sexual violence policy exists in the first place, according to Bertsch.

“We also have a duty to be reactive, which is why we have a sexual violence policy, which is in place because we recognize that things are still going to happen and we need to address that promptly and fairly,” Bertsch said. “People come to see me because they’ve been impacted by sexual violence, and not often before. We know that victims’ or survivors’ first response to sexual violence greatly impacts their healing from that point forward.”

According to a 2018 Maclean’s investigation, 31 per cent of students at the U of C say that no one has educated them on how to report a sexual assault on campus, while 26 per cent say that no one educated them on how to access university services for those who have been sexually assaulted.

“It made a lot of people very angry.”

It’s quickly becoming the norm for Canadian universities to implement sexual violence policies. Four provinces — Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec — mandate that all post-secondaries must have stand-alone sexual violence policies in place. While Alberta schools aren’t legally required to have such a policy, the province’s Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt encouraged universities to develop policies in 2016. These policies focus on processes for handling disclosures and reports of sexual violence on campus. 

However, these policies are limited to events that occur on campuses and while the involved parties are students. This was especially pertinent when the school decided how to handle outrage over Neurauter. 

“Our policies do not apply to activity that occurred before the person was a member of our campus community,” read a Jan. 11 statement from U of C provost and vice-president academic Dru Marshall. “We have no grounds to expel [Neurauter].”

Dawn Moore is an associate professor at Carleton University’s Department of Law and Legal Studies who has done research on campus sexual violence and consulted with governments and universities on that research. She says that in the case of Neurauter, the school didn’t have jurisdiction to act in response to his charges, as they occurred outside of his involvement at the U of C.

“I’m struggling to understand why the [U of C] should be considering in any shape or form at all what his criminal history may or may not be,” Moore said. “There are all kinds of people on a university campus with a criminal history. We have no right to make judgements about those people vis-a-vis their access to education.

“He’s already been adjudicated in a court of law. He doesn’t need to be adjudicated by the university. In [the Neurauter] case in particular, I struggle to see why the U of C is involved at all because I will bet my first-born that there are many other people on that campus and any other campus who have been convicted of sexual assault that did not occur on campus and they’re going about their lives as any student would,” Moore continued. “As reprehensible as we may find those actions to be — and I certainly find a sexual offence against a child to be deeply reprehensible — I do not think it is grounds upon which to deny somebody access to education.”

However, the statement by Marshall in response to the Neurauter situation upset many students, including Shannon Hawthorne, the president of the Consent Awareness and Sexual Education (CASE) club at the U of C. She says that while she understands the limitations the U of C faced in dealing with the situation, she thinks the university could have released a statement that showed more empathy for those struggling to process the story.

“I think it made a lot of people very angry, with what was said and what was addressed,” Hawthorne said. “To an extent I can understand that with the year in which Connor Neurauter perpetrated the act [2015], Connor Neurauter wasn’t a student at the university, plus there wasn’t a sexual violence policy in place and I understand the spot that they were in. It was still very disappointing to see that there wasn’t an emphasis on resources for people who have experienced sexual violence and might be traumatized by this news coming to light.” 

The U of C received a flurry of emails after Marshall’s Jan. 11 statement, which was sent via email to all staff and students, many of which expressed displeasure with the school’s handling of the situation. The Gauntlet obtained copies of these emails through the provincial Freedom of Information Act. 

“[The situation] is actually very simple, and this is clearly lost on an administration that does not actually care about the well-being of it’s [sic] students, especially given you and your staff’s surprise by the widespread outrage at such an insidious decision,” read one student’s email to Marshall.

“While the policies do not apply to activity that have [sic] occurred prior to being a member of our community, don’t you think that the policies should be changed?” asked a student in a separate email. “I believe that these policies that are in place are potentially harmful and do not foster a safe and healthy learning environment.”

Many community members also sent emails to Marshall praising the handling of the situation. These included a message from then-U of C Board of Governors chair Gordon Ritchie, who praised the response by invoking a Martin Luther King Jr. quote about how people are measured best by how they respond to adversity. 

No revisions until 2020

The U of C’s sexual violence policy is scheduled for review every three years, meaning its next review will come in 2020. At a June 2018 U of C Board of Governors meeting, BOG student-at-large Frank Finley asked Marshall if there were any plans to review the policy sooner. Marshall said no such plans exist. 

Hawthorne says that she thinks revisions should happen more frequently and that campus groups like CASE should be given input into what those changes look like.

“I do think there needs to be revisions to the sexual violence policy. I think it needs to continue to be updated at least once a year and have different stakeholders on campus take a look at that,” she said. “I think one of the big changes they can make is having more education surrounding sexual violence, surrounding consent. I think that education about masculinity, about gender, sexuality, consent, can be really good and can go a long way.”

Moore says that, according to her research and experiences talking with survivors of sexual violence on campuses, most stand-alone sexual violence policies at Canadian universities are “out of touch” with survivors’ needs. 

“[Survivors] weren’t interested in having their victims punished. That was not a priority for them. For them, having accommodations on campus, having adequate support on campus in the aftermath of assault […] were all very important to folks we interviewed who were survivors,” she said. “Not a single one of them put reporting or prosecution anywhere close to the top of their list of things they would like.” 

Moore adds that active prevention of sexual violence within pre-existing relationships is one of the other things that survivors flag as a need they would like to see their school address.

How can universities make policies that better serve survivors of sexual assault? According to Moore, one big piece of the puzzle is having an independent oversight body to oversee policies throughout their development and implementation. Another aspect is making sure that survivors’ needs are not only emphasized during consultation processes but are also reflected in finalized policies. 

“I see a great chasm between what I know to have been reported by students in consultation processes and how this manifests in terms of sexual violence policies at many universities,” Moore said.

Students must also have the right to speak out about their experiences with sexual violence and with navigating university resources. According to a 2017 study by the national student-led advocacy group OurTurn, at least nine Canadian universities have policies or practices in place that equate to a “gag order,” restricting survivors of sexual violence on campus from speaking publicly about their experiences.

“People have the right to speak to their own experience,” Moore said. “For universities to step in on the grounds of liability or make gestures to students suggesting that they may find themselves in a defamation suit, for example, just by merely going on social media and saying something like, ‘I survived a rape on campus,’ is also deeply problematic.”

Hawthorne says that she wants students to be aware of Bertsch’s role on campus and the supports she can provide for students. For Bertsch, prevention of sexual violence is about changing what we find accessible as a society.

“Everyone, at some point, can play a role in sexual violence prevention, whether you’re being an ally, being a bystander, checking your language, checking the jokes that you use,” Bertsch said. “A lot of work is done unpacking or trying to address those underlying attitudes and beliefs and violence that perpetuate and uphold ideas around what is acceptable.”

Students can contact Bertsch confidentially through email at svsa@ucalgary.ca. 

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