Lakehead University is setting up a task force to review how it supports victims of sexual assault, following a letter published in a local newspaper that describes a student’s experiences after allegedly being raped by a classmate.

The complainant said she went to hospital for medical treatment and was tested for STDs for an entire year, but did not pursue charges. "Very few rapists ever see a day in jail," she wrote, and "I was not prepared to sit in a courtroom...as he denied what he did to me."

In her op-ed, published anonymously in Saturday’s Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal, the student said the university turned her down when she tried to find out if her attacker would be in her class the next semester. It turned out he was, and she said she faced daily harassment from him.

'I do not want anyone else to go through the stressful, disgusting and degrading process that I went through.' - op-ed in the Chronicle-Journal, Oct. 19

She also said that she subsequently asked to write her exam in a different room from her attacker, but that request was also denied.

“Although I do not blame Lakehead for what John [not his actual name] did, as his actions are his own, I blame Lakehead for the aftermath which could have been prevented if faculty was trained in how to deal with these situations,” she wrote.

“I do not want anyone else to go through the stressful, disgusting and degrading process that I went through.”

New task force

On Monday, Lakehead University President Dr. Brian Stevenson responded to the op-ed, announcing a new task force to look into the policies, procedures, training and support the university has in place for sexual assault victims.

“The letter, which I found deeply distressing, speaks to additional pain victims of sexual assault should never experience,” Stevenson said.

Lakehead University’s student union President Ian Kaufman applauded the initiative.

"I feel really grateful to the person who wrote the letter because she had the courage to put her story out there in the public eye, and hopefully some good can come out of that," he said.

He also said he’s pleased that the task force will include students and faculty, as well as staff.  

Addressing sexual assault

One expert on sexual violence education says Canadian universities lag behind the Americans when it comes to the prevention of sexual assault and support of victims.

Noa Ashkenazi

Noa Ashkenazi, sexual harassment prevention advisor at York University, organizes workshops and special events for students and staff in an attempt to change attitudes about sexual violence. (Courtesy of Noa Ashkenazi )

“We are not there yet — none of the universities — and although many of us work hard to get there, we still have a long way to go," said Noa Ashkenazi, sexual harassment prevention advisor at Toronto’s York University. She says schools currently lack adequate sexual assault policies.

Ashkenazi says there is greater attention paid to sexual assault on U.S. campuses, partly because of a federal act that forces universities to address the issue at annual activities. She also says there is more of a movement among students there.

"This is something we still miss in Canada, a greater student movement that will push hard for safer campuses," she said.

Ashkenazi says she would like to see policies that define sexual violence, create clear, confidential routes for reporting, and set out clear methods of responding to it. She says a good policy would also include methods of prevention and education.