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Admin “must be held accountable” for lack of transparency on sexual assault, says prof

Elise Chenier suggests school missed opportunity to warn students of potential threat

Chenier congratulates students who have advocated for a sexual assault and prevention and support centre.
Chenier congratulates students who have advocated for a sexual assault and prevention and support centre.

It’s been several weeks since the recent sexual assault allegations came to light at Simon Fraser University, and statements from the administration have been few and far between.

While acknowledging that there are legal issues arising that prevent the specifics from being released to the public, many on campus have expressed frustration by the silence maintained by university officials.

Elise Chenier, head of Academic Women at Simon Fraser University, told The Peak that even though the school can’t talk about the specific cases and what’s being discussed in the media, there is still a lot more that administration could be doing.

“I’d say that, legally and ethically, they can’t speak directly to the accusations of sexual assault. Nevertheless, there are a whole host of other issues that this raises that can be spoken about publicly and openly and directly,” she said.   

“For example, what are the procedures currently in place? Did those procedures fail? If they failed, have immediate steps been taken to correct them? And if not, why not?”

Chenier, who is also a professor in the history department, went on to argue that SFU needs to be taken to task for why students were not informed of reports of sexual assault on campus.

“I think there are really complicated legal issues that legitimately do prohibit them from saying certain things that pertain to the case,” she said.

“[But the question is,] why in residence was I not informed that there has been a report of sexual assault? Why was I not informed of that? That is a legitimate question to which I think the SFU admin must be held accountable and must respond to that.”

“There are lots of people who have been aware of these cases for some time. It wasn’t news to Jon Driver, for example.”

She drew a comparison to the 1998 court case of Jane Doe v. Board of Commissioners of Police for the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto. Doe was the fifth survivor of a serial rapist referred to as the “Balcony Rapist,” who committed a string of sexual assaults in the 1980s.

Doe sued the police for not alerting the affected areas of the previous four attacks — which they said they didn’t to avoid raising fear in the community — and won.  

Chenier suggested that this shows the court recognizes that there is a responsibility to inform of a known danger. To her, even if SFU didn’t know all the details, or if it was just an accusation, the administration had an ethical responsibility to announce this, and proceed accordingly.

“Unless you are a potential victim [. . .] I think you lack the awareness of just how important that kind of information is, and how valuable it is, and how having that information helps create a safer environment,” she said.

Chenier identified women, queer people, and people with disabilities as those most likely to be potential victims.  

SFU admin have been quick to point to the work they are currently doing to create a new sexual violence and misconduct policy, when asked for comment about the allegations. However, Chenier said that it is important to remember these are the same school officials who knew about the accusations before having campus-wide town halls to discuss the policy in May.

People who are involved in initiating the policy process have been aware of these cases. This may have come to light to the general public, but there are lots of people who have been aware of these cases for some time. It wasn’t news to Jon Driver, for example.”

As far as what can happen next, Chenier acknowledged that while sexual assault can’t always be prevented, there are all kinds of things that can be done here to make SFU a safer place. The aforementioned policy is one of them.

“The policy is essential. You can say in your academic statements all you want [that] we will not tolerate sexual misconduct, but yes you will, if there’s nothing to provide meaningful consequences,” she said.

“I’m not saying there’s nothing now, but if you look at the rate of conviction in society, it’s pretty safe to go commit a sexual assault. It’s highly unlikely you’re going to get charged for it, or pay any kind of price for it.”

Chenier also identified comprehensive education as key in preventing sexual assault, and pointed out the need for more resources on campus. She singled out the proposed standalone sexual assault prevention and support centre which was discussed earlier this year.

“You have to have robust services. And it can’t be one person here and one person there. And the message that we’re hearing from the administration is, ‘Well, we have health and counselling.’ That in and of itself is not sufficient,” she said.

“This is why one of the things I’m supporting is those people who are advocating for a standalone sexual assault centre. I support that, and I think they’re absolutely right. I agree with them, and I will do everything I can to help that come to fruition. We’ve seen elsewhere, we have irrefutable evidence that this works, that this is effective.”

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