Law students at the University of Ottawa are demanding the school rescind its acceptance offer to a man who was convicted of assault after breaking into his ex-girlfriend's house.
Charles Barrons, 24, a former Dalhousie University student, was originally charged with assault, sexual assault, breaking and entering, and uttering threats stemming from an incident in September 2014. But halfway through the trial, which took place in early 2017, Barrons pleaded guilty to lesser charges of assault and breaking and entering and was given a three-year suspended sentence. He is slated to start law school at the University of Ottawa this week.
According to the agreed statement of facts, Barrons saw his ex with a man named Matthew Shackell at Cheers bar in Halifax. At around 1 AM on September 12, 2014, after his ex and Shackell had left the bar, Barrons went back to his ex's apartment. When he realized she was there with Shackell, he became angry, broke the door, and broke into the bedroom, calling his ex girlfriend a "fucking whore" and asking "Did you fuck him?" The two man grabbed each other and got into a fight in which Shackell's back hit the closet door with enough force to crack it. Court documents say the woman's "arm and face were accidentally struck" during this altercation.
Barrons' assault conviction pertains to the attack on Shackell. With respect to the sex assault and assault charges that were withdrawn in the plea deal, Barrons was alleged to have hit his ex-girlfriend and penetrated her with his fingers after shoving his hands in her underwear.
During sentencing, Barrons' lawyer argued against prison time in part because it would prevent him from going to law school. His sentencing decision notes that he is a "model citizen" and that law school will be an "ideal forum for requiring Mr. Barrons, as a condition of his probation, to provide educational sessions for the community about his offence, his experience with the criminal justice system, and the principles and goals of sentencing."
But a number of campus groups including Law Needs Feminism Because, the International Law Students' Association, the Muslim Law Students' Association, and the UOttawa Women's Legal Mentorship Program have come out against the prospect of having Barrons' attend the school.
"We ask the administration to rescind its offer of acceptance to Mr. Barrons," they wrote in an open letter to François Larocque, interim dean of the law faculty.
"We are concerned for the mental health of our colleagues who have experienced abuse or sexual violence. Sharing our spaces with a known predator would add an unacceptable source of stress to the many others that come with being a law student."
Paula Ethans, a third year law student at the university, told VICE she's heard from a number of sexual violence survivors who have shared their fears over having someone like Barrons as a classmate.
She said the school needs to fulfill its commitment to a "survivor-centred approach" to dealing with sexual violence. If the school cannot or will not prevent Barrons from attending, Ethans said administration needs to be "transparent" on how it is going to address students' concerns and provide a written statement explaining why it chose to accept Barrons into the school.
"We want to hear from them directly. We want the university to share our concerns and share with us what they're going to do to support women and survivors," she said.
University spokeswoman Néomie Duval told VICE the school can't comment publicly on Barrons.
"Processes are in place for considering the admissibility of students and for ensuring the safety and security of members of the University community," she said. The school suspended its 2014-2015 hockey program after some players were charged with sexual assault.
Michael Lacy, vice president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association, told VICE he finds aspects of the students' reaction troubling. For one thing, he said Barrons did not admit to or acknowledge he sexually assaulted the complainant.
"I don't agree that allowing him to (attend school) sends a message that rapists will be welcome at the school. Mr. Barrons is not a convicted rapist," Lacy said, adding that while Barrons' crimes were serious, a judge found a probation order was appropriate and that decision wasn't contested by the Crown.
"I believe that offenders should have the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and demonstrate that they can be law abiding productive members of the community. A criminal record is not a bar to seeking a graduate education nor, in my opinion, should it be," he said.
Lacy said that barring Barrons' from entering law school could be a slippery slope.
"Should mandatory criminal record checks be undertaken with respect to each applicant? Where should the line be drawn? Who will be the arbiter of who should and should not be entitled to pursue a post-secondary education?"
However, Ethans said not everyone has the right to be in a professional program like law or medicine because those professions come with a lot of privilege and responsibility.
She pointed out that just because Barrons wasn't convicted of sexual assault, it doesn't mean the attack wasn't gendered and she said she takes issue with the fact that Barrons' sentence was mitigated by the fact that he was attending law school.
"It's why he's not behind bars," she said. As part of his sentence, Barrons is required to do 200 hours of community service and give two public speeches per year on legal solutions for ending violence against women. If he graduates from law school and applies to join the Law Society of Upper Canada, he will have to disclose his conviction.
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