New Year’s Eve assault triggers reform: almost a decade after notorious assaults, U of S lacks clear response protocols

Update 02/03/2012: A U of S student has been arrested in connection to the assault.
[hr]
A six-week delay in notifying the campus community about a reported sexual assault has stirred up questions over the university’s policy when responding to violent attacks.

The incident, which is said to have happened in the McEown Park high-rise residences during the early morning hours of Jan. 1, was announced in a mass email sent out to students, faculty and staff at the University of Saskatchewan on Feb. 17. The message said university officials were notified of the assault in early January, that drugs were likely involved and that the investigation was being conducted by the Saskatoon Police Service.

[toggle title_open=”Hide” title_closed=”Click here to read the email sent to students on Feb. 17.” hide=”yes” border=”no” style=”white” excerpt_length=”0″ read_more_text=”Read More” read_less_text=”Read Less” include_excerpt_html=”no”]

[box type=”tick” icon=”none” border=”full”]

University of Saskatchewan students, faculty and staff:

In early January 2012, the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Campus Safety received a report of a sexual assault against a female occurring in McEown Park student residence on the university’s Saskatoon campus. It was reported that alcohol and other drugs may have been involved in the assault. This incident was first reported to, and is being investigated by, the Saskatoon Police Service. The university is fully co-operating in this investigation.

I urge anyone who feels they may have information related to this incident to contact the Saskatoon Police Service at 975-8300.

I also encourage you to take personal safety precautions, as outlined by Campus Saftey and to always take precautionary measures with alcohol and other drugs.

Sincerely,

David Hannah, Associate Vice-President Student Affairs

For more information, contact:
Saskatoon Police Service at 975-8300[/box][/toggle]

Saskatoon police spokesperson Alyson Edwards said police were sent to hospital on Jan. 1 to interview the victim, where she was being treated for sexual assault-related injuries. A suspect has not been named. However, Edwards said the perpetrator was not a stranger to the victim.

The StarPhoenix reported Feb. 28 that the victim is not a current U of S student.

Scott Hitchings, president of the U of S students’ union, said the delayed timing of the announcement was an oversight by administration and feels the university has not treated the incident with “the weight it deserves.” Students need to know when a violent act occurs on campus, he said.

Victim of recent attack said she was taken to the residences at McEown Park after being drugged at a nightclub.

“The university needs to carve out a policy and make it strict, where if there is a very serious incident — such as a sexual assault — the university community is made aware of it as soon as possible,” Hitchings said.

In an email to the Sheaf, David Hannah, associate vice-president of student affairs, said the incident did not set-off an immediate campus-wide alert because based on the initial details, the university did not think there was a continuing threat to the community.

“After meeting with the victim’s family, and reviewing the changing standard for such warnings at other institutions, we had second thoughts about this, and decided to send a notice out even if we weren’t sure there was an imminent risk to the campus community, in the interest of erring on the side of safety,” he wrote.

Following two high-profile sexual assaults on campus in 2003 and 2004, the university called for an external review of safety policies on campus. The ensuing report offered dozens of recommendations, including increased foot patrols by Campus Safety, more cameras in central locations and a 24-hour SafeWalk program. Additionally, the report recommended posting “alerts electronically via email within 24 hours of the incident being reported to security.”

“The university’s response after the two reported incidents of assault was considered slow and somewhat disorganized,” the report summary said. “The campus community was not made aware of the assaults. The university has a duty to inform its community of incidents on campus that may have an impact on public safety.”

The victim of the 2003 attack, which happened inside the Little Stone School House, says she is upset with the university’s decision to wait several weeks to announce details of the recent sexual assault.

[box type=”info”]Related: Giving victims a voice: university’s handling of New Year’s Eve assault too little, too late[/box]

“Now, nine years later, the university has forgotten these [recommendations]. In neglecting to inform the students and employees of this recent assault in a timely manner, the [administration] put the campus community at risk,” the former student wrote in an email to the Sheaf. She wished to remain anonymous.

Following the 2004 safety review, Hannah said, the university chose to instead send email notifications only when there was an ongoing or continuing threat to the public. But “this incident has caused us to go back and review that policy,” he said in a subsequent interview.

“We didn’t want to desensitize the campus community with notices coming out all the time; then people stop paying attention,” said Hannah. “But after further thought, maybe that is the better risk to take. We send the notifications out and let the public make the call on what actions to take.”

Hannah said a new formal policy will clearly outline what events will result in a campus-wide notice and how quickly those notifications will go out. The university has also recently purchased an emergency text messaging system that students voluntarily subscribe to their mobile numbers and then receive a text message if an emergency situation arises on campus. The system is expected to launch by the end of the semester.

Meanwhile, the victim of the McEown Park attack has recently come forward, frustrated with the pace of the police investigation. She told the StarPhoenix she has provided the police with the names of witnesses, the dorm number where the attack took place and the phone number of the suspect, but still no progress has been made.

The police said two investigators have been assigned to the case and they are working on interviewing witnesses and building a strong case before making an arrest.

According to the StarPhoenix report, the victim, only referred to as Sara, said she met a group of people through a friend at a Saskatoon nightclub on New Year’s Eve. Sometime before closing, one of the men in the group bought Sara a shot of alcohol, which she believes was laced with some sort of drug.

Surveillance footage shows the group entering the McEown residences at approximately 4 a.m., where Sara was “violently sexually assaulted for hours.” During those hours, she would periodically wake up paralyzed and see a man sexually assault her before losing consciousness again. At 10 a.m., as the assault continued, she escaped and attempted to find a ride home.

Sara said she feels no shame and has nothing to hide. She went public with her story, she said, to inform the community that sexual assaults such as this are happening in Saskatoon and victims are not receiving justice.

“It should be up to the public to decide what is a threat,” Sara told the StarPhoenix. “I met him once and he did this? People meet every day.”


Photo: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf