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McGill's dentistry faculty criticized over its handling of sexual assault, harassment allegations

A former McGill student who alleges she was sexually assaulted by a dentistry faculty member last year said the faculty "poorly handled" its investigation of the incident. The faculty is facing criticism over the way it dealt with that complaint, as well as other troubling allegations from dentistry students of bullying and harassment.

Report into harassment complaint finds 'students ... do not feel safe coming forward to signal problems'

The victim told CBC she was disappointed her former dentist, Nareg Apelian, only received a two year suspension. The ODQ had asked for a six year ban from practicing. (Ross O'Callaghan) (submitted by Ross O'Callaghan)

A former McGill University student who alleges she was sexually assaulted by a dentist in the faculty of dentistry last year said the faculty "poorly handled" its investigation of the incident.

The faculty is facing criticism over the way it dealt with that complaint, as well as other troubling allegations from dentistry students of bullying and harassment.

​The sexual assault complainant, who CBC is not naming due to the nature of the allegations, says she was made to feel like she was the accused during the investigation of the incident led by the faculty's dean, Paul Allison.

"It's really hard to understand why these things are so poorly handled," the woman said.

'I thought he was going to rape me'

The student, who was 21 at the time of the alleged incident in November 2016, had been a patient of the dentist for two years. 

Suffering from headaches and jaw pain, she made an appointment to see him to have her mouthguard adjusted.

The dentist told her he could do the work at an off-campus clinic, which she'd visited once before.

This time, she found herself alone with him. 

She says the dentist told her she could leave her bag in the waiting room, and he'd lock the door. 

After making some adjustments to her mouthguard, the woman said the dentist told her he wanted to check the muscle tension in her neck.

He then began to massage pressure points on her neck and shoulders. Then his hands moved under her sweater.

"Then he was completely over my breasts, massaging my breasts up and down, quite vigorously," she said. 

She estimates this occurred off and on for more than half an hour. 

She doesn't believe the touching was accidental. 

"I was petrified," the woman said. "I didn't know what to do."

In an effort to escape, the woman says she made up an excuse about needing to leave so she wouldn't miss a class.

Once she was safely on a bus, she texted her boyfriend.

"I thought he was going to rape me," she told him.

Complaint filed immediately

The following day, the woman went to the Montreal General Hospital, where DNA swabs were taken from her skin. The police were called.

That same day, she notified her doctor, who worked at McGill, and set up an appointment to see her.

Later that week, she made a complaint to the Quebec Order of Dentists, the professional order responsible for disciplining dentists in the province.

"I just tried to go to as many avenues as I could, to really prevent him from practising and prevent other students at McGill or other patients from being a victim," the woman said.

McGill's investigations supervisor arranged a meeting between the woman and Allison for the end of November 2016.

However, that meeting had to be cancelled after the woman had such a serious anxiety attack she ended up in hospital.

McGill Faculty of Dentistry Dean Paul Allison led the investigation into the alleged sexual assault involving one of the faculty's dentists. (McGill University)

"Of course, it was very difficult to study for exams, still be at the same university where he's walking around every day and being scared of walking into him," she said.

With Christmas break around the corner, she postponed the meeting until January 2017.

After the holidays, Allison emailed her to say he had already met with the dentist and now wanted to meet with her.

On Jan. 13, the woman met the dean at his office. Also present was Angela Campbell, an associate provost who helped draft McGill University's sexual assault policy. 

Both the woman and her then-boyfriend, who accompanied her, said she was asked numerous questions about why the dentist had been treating her and what her symptoms were. She says she felt on the defensive throughout their questioning.

"I felt like they were trying to discredit my story by excusing whatever he did and trying to formulate it into some kind of treatment plan,"  she said.

She said both Allison and Campbell seemed surprised and "not at all supportive" when they found out she'd already made a report to the order of dentists.

The university's policies and processes are survivor-focused and include robust and fair disciplinary processes and responses.- statement from McGill University

The woman said the dean told her he'd gather evidence and come to a conclusion, but he wasn't obliged to inform her of his decision.

The dentist in question, Allison and Campbell all declined CBC's requests for interviews. However, in a statement, McGill University said, "The university's policies and processes are survivor-focused and include robust and fair disciplinary processes and responses."

In a separate statement, McGill Provost Christopher Manfredi said: "At McGill, reports of harassment or violence involving a member of our community are taken seriously. We investigate them; we take appropriate actions; and we provide support to the complainants."

However, the woman said she doesn't feel the way her case was handled was "survivor-focused" at all.

She heard nothing from Allison until a month after the Jan. 13 meeting.

In a letter, he told her the investigation was complete, and he'd decided to allow the dentist to return to work subject to certain "important conditions and limitations." 

There was no mention of what those conditions and limitations were, except to say the dentist was not allowed to contact the woman.

"I was very upset," said the woman. She also said she was surprised the dentist had been allowed to return to work, as she had no idea that he had been away from his job.
A month after the faculty of dentistry's decision regarding a sexual assault allegation, seven faculty dentists were the subject of a harassment complaint. (CBC)

Harassment, bullying, intimidation

A month after the dean of dentistry sent the woman his decision regarding the sexual assault allegation, seven faculty dentists were the subject of a harassment complaint.

Filed in March 2017 by a dentistry student who has since graduated, the complaint alleged persistent psychological harassment and bullying.

CBC has agreed not to name the student due to his fear of reprisals from the university and harm to his career.

The man said the harassment made him question whether he even wants to be a dentist anymore.

"Just thinking of dentistry makes me feel sick to my stomach,'' he said.

I am troubled by the fact that students in the Faculty do not feel safe coming forward to signal problems or express concerns.- McGill-appointed harassment assessor Adrienne Piggott

A university-appointed harassment assessor, Adrienne Piggott, investigated the complaint. 

In her June 2017 report, Piggott found the allegations against one of the dentists to be founded and strongly suggested he be disciplined.

Piggott also pointed to the existence of systemic problems, including "management and governance issues," which she concluded have harmed the whole faculty of dentistry.

"I am troubled by the fact that students in the Faculty do not feel safe coming forward to signal problems or express concerns," Piggott wrote in her report.

She said it was not conducive to a healthy learning environment, and she continued "it also creates a space that has the potential for serious abuse."

In a letter obtained by CBC, McGill Provost Christopher Manfredi responded to Piggott's report. He said he'd work with the dean to ensure he has the support necessary to deal with these systemic problems.

This is not the first time the faculty has faced allegations about how it has handled issues with students.

McGill dentistry student Gregory Gareau says he faced hostility and bullying for speaking up about issues in the faculty. (CBC)

Gregory Gareau, a third-year dentistry student, says he made several complaints about teaching methods and what he saw as unfair marking.

Both Gareau and the former student who made the harassment complaint say they faced hostility and bullying for speaking up. Both felt their complaints threatened their academic success.

"Our degrees are being waved in front of us: if we don't fall into line, we don't get the degree," Gareau said. 

Gareau says his relationship with the faculty became so strained he also met with Piggott.  She encouraged him to consider transferring to a different school to complete his dentistry degree.

"It's going to be very painful for you, because you're going to be isolated," Piggott said to Gareau last July, in a taped conversation obtained by CBC. "They're going to stack the deck against you in so many ways."

When asked to discuss their response to this series of allegations, both the university and the faculty again declined an interview.

But in its statement, McGill told CBC: "McGill's primary, steadfast commitment is to ensuring the safety, well-being and success of its students, faculty and staff.''

Complaint goes nowhere

As for the woman who filed a sexual assault complaint against the faculty dentist, police told her in April the Crown prosecutor had authorized charges against her alleged assailant and said the dentist's arrest would be imminent.

She shared the news with her doctor, who seemed pleased.

"You have been treated so unfairly by the university," her doctor wrote in an email. "I am so relieved and reassured to know that an academic status can not put a person above the Law."

McGill University declined CBC's requests for an interview but said in a statement, 'Tthe university's policies and processes are survivor-focused and include robust and fair disciplinary processes and responses.' (CBC)

But nearly a month passed before the woman heard from police again, this time to tell her they'd missed the deadline to get the case underway.

The police also told her the dentist denied touching her inappropriately, which would have raised reasonable doubt in court.

A year after her complaint, the Quebec Order of Dentists' investigation is still underway.

The woman is extremely disappointed — but most disappointed with how her complaint was handled by McGill.

Although she was extended offers of psychological help, the woman does not feel the university or the dentistry faculty did enough.

"In my opinion, it just shows me there is no real reason to come forward when there's so little support in place once survivors come forward with something."

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