N.S. student starts national campaign to raise awareness about sexual assault

N.S. student starts national campaign to raise awareness about sexual assault

HALIFAX — A Nova Scotia student trying to raise awareness about sexual assault-related issues is hoping university students across Canada will don teal ribbons on Thursday.

Shelby Miller, a psychology student at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, says she was inspired to take action after learning how St. Francis Xavier University mishandled a reported case of sexual assault.

"It's an issue we hear about on university campuses every year," the 21-year-old student from Stewiacke, N.S., said in an interview Wednesday. "People should know about what is happening."

The case at St. F.X. involves a woman who says she was sexually assaulted last November and reported the alleged attack to the Antigonish, N.S., university in January.

Though the school swiftly launched an investigation and suspended the accused for the next academic year, the decision was put on hold after he filed an appeal. However, the administration failed to notify the complainant.

The young woman from the Toronto area, whose identity is protected by a publication ban, abandoned her studies after she learned the accused had returned to study at the campus.

Court documents show the man was charged with sexual assault last spring, and a preliminary inquiry is set for Nov. 29. He withdrew from the school after The Canadian Press reported on the case.

Critics immediately came forward to suggest the university was using its discretion to protect the alleged perpetrator rather than the complainant.

In a recent statement, the accused denied sexually assaulting the young woman, but he said the "outrage" that has enveloped the university has caused too much stress for the St. F.X. community.

Miller said she set up a Facebook page last week to promote the teal ribbon event, and since then almost 2,000 students from schools in Ontario, Quebec, P.E.I., Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador have pledged to support the campaign.

The Facebook site is called "I'm With Her."

Through friends, Miller said she's heard that the complainant knows about the teal ribbon campaign.

"She definitely understands that there's a lot of people offering her support right now," Miller said.

Addy Strickland, a St. F.X. student activist who is part of a team that has organized campus protests to draw attention to what happened, said the growing show of support has been encouraging.

"It's absolutely fantastic," said Strickland, who studies English and development studies.

"Everyone here is so overwhelmed by the response that we've gotten from so many other schools. It's amazing to know that were not in this fight alone."

Strickland said she and her fellow students are working to ensure the university follows through on a commitment to change its policies on sexual violence. Earlier this week, a group of students said they would launch a petition to push for those changes.

"We are putting pressure on the administration to finish what they started," Strickland said.

Nearly 40 demonstrators from the school and community confronted university president Kent MacDonald as he addressed potential students during the university's open house on Saturday.

Those who organized the protest said sexual assault survivors must be informed and protected throughout the entire reporting process. They also called on the university to make its sexual violence policy "survivor-centric."

Last week, MacDonald posted a public apology on the university's website.

"I acknowledge and accept the fact that we can do better," the statement said.

"In this particular case, there were clear gaps in communication and apparent issues relating to our appeal processes that negatively affected our university community and, in some cases, retraumatized victim/survivors."

Nova Scotia's advanced education minister, Labi Kousoulis, has said he was "shocked" by the university's handling of the case.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press