In Search Of Consequences

Sexual Assault Survivor Still Waiting to Have Her Case Heard at Concordia Tribunal

Photo Laura Lalonde

A Concordia student, who filed a complaint in March against her ex-boyfriend for allegedly assaulting her, could likely wait years before her case is heard by the university’s disciplinary body.

Cathy was supposed to have her case heard at a tribunal next week, but learned Monday that the hearing has been postponed on the request of her ex-boyfriend.

She has an ongoing parallel court case against him as well, and until those proceedings are over, her case at Concordia will have to wait, since the tribunal’s decision could incriminate or hurt his defence.

Cathy went through about half a dozen officials at Concordia before her formal complaint against her ex—who she says assaulted her—was even launched.

Cathy isn’t her real name, and unlike her ex, she’s not going back to school this semester—mainly, she explains, because her case against her ex is not resolved.

She wants to continue studying, but not until things are settled, which could take years, now that she has to wait on the court’s decision.

“Being at Concordia sets off flashbacks very easily,” Cathy said. “Many things, many places now do, but my school is one of them.”

Incidents of abuse really started last September, when she says her ex refused to leave and assaulted her at home. Her ex was arrested, and a restraining order was placed on him by a judge. He was released on the condition that he stop drinking and using drugs and cease all communication with her.

That was at the beginning of her academic career, and there were two further encounters at school that ended in her feeling re-victimized.

The last encounter was in early February and ended with her at the police station filing a report that her ex had broken conditions of the restraining order.

Since this happened on campus, Cathy approached Campus Security for help. She was given the option of an escort, which she refused, saying it would make her feel more ostracized.

It was only in late March that her formal complaint against her ex was filed, after hoping the university would take independent action, she said. She’s disappointed the onus was on her to file a formal complaint versus having the university investigate as soon as it was reported. She was also afraid that going through with the complaint would incite more violence and was backed up by a domestic violence counselor at court.

“I thought by bringing the police report to Concordia, by bringing this information, they were going to do something about it,” she said. “They did not.”

A couple of weeks ago she received notice of the hearing and was told to send in her evidence. She had everything prepared, because she is working with an advocate from the Concordia Student Union and because of the ongoing court case, but she said she’s still frustrated with the whole process.

“The [tribunals office] was saying, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s been [accused] of,’” she said. Cathy was supposed to see his evidence a few days before the hearing, before it was postponed.

“While that may make sense in a lot of other kinds of cases, it doesn’t really make sense in this one,” she said. “He’s quite aware.”

And she said the timing is off and kept her in limbo all summer.

“I feel like this could have happened months ago. I could have given my evidence in March,” she said. “There’s a point of absurdity that it’s almost September and I’m still asking, ‘What is the consequence at Concordia when somebody does this sort of thing?’”

Concordia will be implementing a new sexual violence policy after a working group published a report last week on the need for more concerted action. The report described the importance of education, prevention and support for survivors.

“I do think that if Concordia follows through, then they’re taking steps and listening to the issues raised by victims coming forward,” Cathy said, even though the report will probably have no effect on her case.

Concordia’s Office of Rights and Responsibilities will create a new policy to discuss issues of sexual-based violence, including harassment and assault that is physical or psychological. It should come out in the next few months, said Melodie Sullivan, who provides legal counsel for student and administrative affairs.

“It’s almost September and I’m still asking, ‘What is the consequence at Concordia when somebody does this sort of thing?’” — Cathy

The ORR deals with disciplinary procedures for members of Concordia’s community who break the university’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities. A new policy on sexual violence will stand alone, but changes to the Code are also supposed to happen.

“The procedures of the Code will still apply—to the hearing or to the following steps that could happen after a complaint is laid,” Sullivan said.

Lisa White, acting coordinator of the Office of Rights and Responsibilities, said that survivors go through a consultation process when they approach the ORR, where they are given their options.

“We provide appropriate referrals and facilitate getting them looped into the support network available at the university and potentially outside, depending on the circumstances,” White said.

The recommendation of the working group report says the process of responding to a survivor of sexual violence should be streamlined between different departments within the university, so they don’t have to repeat their story many times.

No decisions are made at the consultation level, White said. Complainants can later choose to go through the informal route, usually resulting in some sort of mutual agreement with the accused, or a formal complaint, which goes through the tribunals office—a part of the Office of the General Counsel.

When a formal complaint is finally filed, a tribunal is scheduled, depending on the resources and availabilities of panelists, Sullivan said.

The time of the tribunal needs to accommodate as many people as possible—namely the panelists, chair and complainant—but not so much the respondent, Sullivan added.

Hearings don’t happen during the month of July and August because availabilities are difficult to coordinate, and exam periods are also generally off-limits.

“This can take one to three months to set up,” she said. “We try to work with the availabilities if possible of the people.”

In Cathy’s case, the hearing was originally postponed because her ex was out of town from May to August. But she had expected it to happen within 21 days of her formal complaint, according to article 54 of the Code.

Sullivan called the tribunal process and the code of conduct a “blunt tool” used to deal with the consequences of a sexual assault.

“But a survivor needs help in so many ways. To me that’s more important than what these pages can produce, in terms of a result,” Sullivan said, pointing to a printout of the Code.

“The delay is a function, to some extent, of the circumstances and the limits we have in the Code and in reality,” Sullivan said. “But that should not get in the way of trying to help the survivor cope with the other consequences of what they’ve been through.”

Cathy also sent in a video testimony for when the tribunal happens, because the restraining order prevents her ex from being in the same room as her.

She said she also feels like she’s being asked to outline the punishment or conditions for her own case. That makes her feel at risk if the accused knows that the consequences are her suggestions. Sanctions can range from a reprimand to expulsion.

She’s already receiving backlash from her and her ex’s mutual friends for the decision to report. With her ex back in town, Cathy says she doesn’t feel safe in Montreal, or at Concordia.

“It’s been hard to see Concordia as a safe place.”

In the end the tribunal panel is supposed to make the decision, and in cases of one student filing a complaint against another, tribunal panels are made up of only students. In the case of expulsion, the president of the university, Alan Shepard, has to confirm the decision and can reverse it if he thinks anything in the process was wrong.

But Sullivan can’t say what will happen in a case like this. “It’s so rare that any of this happens,” she said.

Before it was postponed, Cathy had hoped her hearing would help ensure the process was improved for the next time a survivor came forward.

“I wish I had some sort of feel-good message like, ‘If anyone goes through this you know, it gets better,’” she said. “Maybe it does, I don’t know yet.”