Why Campus Sex Assault Victims Launch Human Rights Complaints
U of T student Tamsyn Riddle is not alone in a cross-country fight seeking justice for mishandled investigations.
Tamsyn Riddle | Photo via The Canadian Press
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
On April 5, 2015, Tamsyn Riddle was late for a party. She remembers that she already had a lot on her mind that day. She'd spent most of the past 24 hours supporting a friend who was self-harming and trying to reschedule an exam, which didn't leave much time to arrange a pre-game booze pick-up.
She was rushing to meet her friends, other students were already pre-drinking for their annual courtyard party celebrating the last day of classes at University of Toronto's Trinity College. She was 18 years old, in a province with a 19-plus drinking age, but she knew getting hands on some alcohol would be worth the effort. "It's the kind of party where you don't want to be sober," she said.
She had heard of the school-sanctioned kegger a year prior to the day when the University of Toronto had been courting her at a dinner for prospective students at the college. Staff had described how the party was a great tradition as students began filling the courtyard just outside the dining hall.
On the night in question, Riddle arrived at the Quad Party where a security officer saw her with an underage wristband and a bright-green mug of beer in her hand. The officer confiscated her drink.
Soon after, an acquaintance of hers, a first-year known as a popular athlete, suggested they get a drink in his room. Riddle had been in his room before, and the night was young, so she went upstairs with him. "Even then I knew he was a weird guy, kind of off," said Riddle. "But he was sort of popular and good-looking—he was weird 1 percent of the time and normal 99 percent. I thought it would just be a drink."
She explained how he kissed her, and then tried to go further, and she said no. She claimed he offered her more vodka and again tried to go further. When she protested, he suggested another drink. After serving her multiple shots, she said he began to ignore what she was saying. "It's hard to verbalize. At a certain point, it was clear this was happening, that it didn't matter that I had said no."
Riddle says he raped her, and after he was done, he ignored her, and she went back to the party alone. In total, according to Riddle, she was in his room for no more than 30 minutes. "It felt like five."
"It didn't feel right. The more time passed I realized it didn't feel right. I felt sick," she said. "Hooking up is normal at the Quad Party—if we had just made out, it would have been fine if it had been different. If I had consented to it, he's not someone I would have regretted hooking up with, but I didn't."
The next morning, she reached out to a friend. Her friend was with another student, who realized a similar thing happened to her with the same man. "After she had heard my story, she realized he was continuing or escalating his behavior," explained Riddle. Together, both students decided to go to the administration to report what had happened to them.
"I wanted to make sure that we did something. I thought I was making a responsible decision, and that my school would protect me."
According to Riddle, the assistant dean of her college also told her that while she could go to the police, he wouldn't encourage it, because she would find the process "disappointing." "I had also heard about people being victim blamed by the police, and I originally found it encouraging that he knew that, too," said Riddle. "They told us that it was a good thing that we came to them and that [they take] sexual assault seriously."
Despite this early promise, Riddle now describes the process with U of T as frustrating, unproductive, and traumatizing. During and after the 17-month investigation, there were few options for counseling or academic accommodations for her. There were few serious sanctions against her alleged rapist, and the ones that were put in place were haphazardly enforced and easily broken without repercussions, according to Riddle's application.
In the weeks following her assault, she spoke with eight separate staff members, claiming she received contradictory and damaging information. In one example, Riddle said she received a call from the investigator hours before the time they'd arranged, while she was out with her family. The focus of the call was a graphic one, asking her about the angle of penetration.
Due to the way her case was handled, and her belief that U of T is unprepared and unwilling to help survivors like her, Riddle decided to go public with what happened. With help from her lawyer, Emily Shepard of the of the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, Riddle has launched an Ontario Human Rights Complaint against the school for the mishandling of her investigation.
The application describes U of T's investigation of the assault as "flawed… delayed, and disorganized." Chief among its complaints, that the sanctions placed against the alleged perpetrator were "haphazard and insufficient."
On the two-year anniversary of her assault, Riddle read a prepared statement at a press conference announcing the complaint. "I've often thought about the decisions I made that night. The decision to go to the Quad Party, the decision to drink as much as I did, and the decision to take him up on his invitation," said Riddle. "But the reality is, I could never have predicted how thoughtlessly—how easily—he would sexually assault me. Just as I could never have predicted how systematically my university and my college would disappoint and re-traumatize me."
This year, more than 15,000 new students will enroll at the University of Toronto. By the end of their studies, based on statistics from RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), about 2,000 students—roughly one in seven—will experience some form of sexual assault by graduation. As more and more students are looking for justice in sexual assault cases outside of the Canadian legal system, many universities are facing pressure that they appear to be unprepared for. Along with U of T, both Concordia and UBC now face similar human rights complaints.
On January 1, 2017, the University of Toronto introduced a new sexual assault policy in response to legislation that, in part, required every Ontario university to have a stand-alone policy to address sexual assault. The policy includes inclusive language, transparency in regards to process, and created three on-campus sexual assault centers designed to streamline the reporting and counseling process.
But Riddle argues that the new policy addressed very little. "Nothing in the new policy would have protected me or stopped me from being retraumatized, or lays out bigger sanctions for rapists," she said.
Her human rights complaint is asking for $40,000 for general damages for "the stress, anxiety, and academic setbacks" caused by the investigation process and failure to provide a safe learning environment. She is also asking for more than 20 "public interest" remedies from the school, to ensure other students do not have the same experience.
"I'm looking for the university to start seriously addressing sexual violence, in a way that shows that it sees itself as being accountable to survivors at this institution."
Riddle was required to see the school's sexual assault counselor in order to receive academic accommodations. According to Riddle, the mandatory counselor implied she would be sexually assaulted again if she didn't take simple precautions, in addition to suggesting a meditation app when Riddle complained of panic attacks and nightmares.
"A cardboard cutout would have been 100 times better than what I experienced," Riddle said.
It took over two months for even interim sanctions to be placed against her alleged rapist, meaning he remained in their shared residence. "I wasn't able to go to the dining hall because I knew he might be there."
When interim sanctions were put in place, they were minor. Riddle had requested expulsion, or, if that was not possible, the most serious penalty after expulsion. Instead, he was to change residences, not take part in freshman week, and no longer participate at Trinity College events. He was allowed to participate in intramural soccer, because, Riddle claims, the school felt the activity "calmed him."
With no security in place at the college, Riddle says it fell on her to document the many times he flouted the sanctions—of him eating in her college's dining hall, or his participation in on-campus clubs, activities, and parties. When she contacted administration with these instances, nothing was done. "They told me that they didn't care what he did, and they didn't view my rape as serious," she said. Riddle continued to push for stronger sanctions and pressed for a hearing that could, potentially, result in expulsion. She was told that a hearing was all but certain.
In August 2016, right before the beginning of her third year and nearly 17 months after reporting her assault, Riddle was called in to meet with the provost. "What I thought was going to happen was that they had set a time for the hearing, instead, I found out that they had come to a resolution."
Lawyers representing the accused and the school had determined what the punishment would be. Riddle was not allowed to see the resolutions, but the provost offered to summarize them. According to Riddle's notes, they were a continuation of the interim sanctions, that he would live off campus and avoid contact with Riddle. There would be no hearing.
When reached for comment, representatives of U of T declined to comment on Riddle's case. In emails, director of media relations Althea Blackburn Evans wrote: "The university can't discuss individual cases—and in this particular case, the university's response will be made through Ontario's human rights tribunal."
According to Blackburn-Evans, supporting people who have experienced sexual assault is a priority for the university. "While we can't talk about the case specifically, I can tell you that we've been working closely with our community to get to where we are today with a new streamlined policy and process. We spent two years consulting to ensure we get this right, and we're open to more feedback."
On January 1, 2017, Ontario's Bill 132 came into effect. The legislation, passed in 2015, in part, requires that all post-secondary institutions that receive government funding must have a stand-alone sexual assault policy, one that will be updated every three years and created with and responding to ongoing student consultation.
"I want to make sure no one needs to go through what I went through."
According to Dr. Terry McQuaid, the executive director of personal safety, high-risk, sexual violence prevention, and support, U of T had begun updating the nearly 20-year-old policy before Bill 132 passed. McQuaid said that, in 2014, "[U of T] began to look at what we need to do to create a climate of safety across the campus and understand what students, staff, and faculty need for that to happen."
The new policy includes updated language, and several changes to ensure more equitable treatment. One marked improvement is that students do not need to make a formal complaint to access support services. Another is that each of U of T's campuses will have a sexual assault center. "One of the things that came out of our consultations that people wanted a place to go to talk about their experience and know what their options are," said McQuaid.
Yet, some feel that while the policy is an improvement, there is nothing in it that would explicitly prevent the school from mishandling an investigation the way Riddle alleges happened with her case. Ellie Ade Kur, an organizer with campus advocacy group Silence is Violence, said, "The language is improved, but there are some concrete things missing."
The biggest gap in the current policy is that it's still up to the vice provost whether or not a hearing will take place. The complainant can appeal if they determine not to do an investigation, and either the accuser or the accused can appeal a hearing decision, but it's not clear if there is a process in place if after an investigation determines a complaint is valid but the university determines a hearing is unnecessary.
This means one could go through a months-long investigation, and be told the matter is settled, without a public hearing or transparency in regards to sanctions.
Alison McEwen, a human rights lawyer with the Nelligan O'Brien Payne law firm, says many universities are unprepared to deal with sexual assault on campuses or have insufficient policies. "As sexual assault has come to the forefront more and more, it's a public issue now, which is, quite frankly, why I'm surprised universities don't get out in front of it," said McEwan. "Good and clear policy can be a deterrent."
Concerns that the university won't listen or change is one of the reasons Riddle says she filed her complaint. An Ontario Human Rights Complaint option for public interest remedies means Riddle could suggest over twenty ways the University could improve, from ways to support survivors to removing compensation or stipends for accused attackers forced to live off campus.
It's her hope that the complaint forces the University to listen to survivors.
"I want to make sure no one needs to go through what I went through."