By Jillian Terry
Feeling safe on campus a team effort
By the time you read this article, a Memorial University student accused of sexually assaulting a young woman in an elevator of the Smallwood Centre late last month may be back on campus and attending classes, using the library, and eating lunch alongside the rest of the student body. After being banned from the St. John’s campus for 10 days, the student, who will be facing charges of sexual assault in provincial court later this fall, may seamlessly integrate back into the university community, despite the disturbing nature of the alleged assault.
As this is just one of several recent reports of sexual assaults in the St. John’s area, it comes as no surprise to the general public that many women myself included are finding themselves worried and anxious about their safety, both on and off-campus. And while I am of the view that the criminal justice system is the appropriate arena to reprimand those committing illegal offences of any kind, including sexual assaults, I believe that the feeling of safety among students at the university should be of utmost importance to administrative officials when deliberating on matters such as these.
According to the Code of Student Conduct, most recently revised in May of this year by the Board of Regents which includes three student members, a student may be suspended temporarily from the university for up to 10 days in an urgent situation if “there is reasonable apprehension that the safety of others is endangered, damage to university property is likely to occur, or the continued presence of the accused student would be disruptive to the operations of the university.” Not specifically mentioned in this list is an interruption of the feeling of safety for students, staff, and faculty at the university a variable which is surely equally as important when considering the needs of the campus community.
In a case such as this one, is 10 days really enough? Does a suspension of less than two weeks of classes send the right message to other possible offenders, and to the university as a whole? Whether or not there is a finding of guilt on the part of the student is largely irrelevant the question that will still remain after the verdict is announced is whether or not the university placed a high enough value on the feeling of safety on campus, especially for women.
Evidently, both Campus Enforcement and Patrol and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary have attempted in recent weeks to assuage the fears of women at Memorial and around St. John’s. But particularly in this latest instance, reminding women to remain vigilant without modifying their daily routines seems ill-suited for the situation. As I see it, there is positively nothing about riding an elevator in a public university building in the middle of the afternoon that is incautious or unmindful. The same thing could happen at a bus stop, in a hallway, or elsewhere.
This is not a case of a young student leaving her door unlocked, or inviting an acquaintance inside, unaware of what may happen. The bold nature of the alleged assault on campus in late September is frightening to many women because there was no error in judgment on the part of the victim, leaving no answers as to why or how an assault like this one could have happened.
It is a main responsibility of any post-secondary institution to ensure that every individual, regardless of gender, feels safe and comfortable while on campus. And although increased patrols by law enforcement officials and women’s groups such as the Women’s Resource Centre here at Memorial certainly help to enhance a sensation of safety, it is ultimately up to the administration to offer a feeling of protection and security through university policy.
The Student Code of Conduct exists in large part to create these feelings for students, and should be interpreted effectively in order to do so in every case.
Unquestionably, the emotional effects of a sexual assault on a victim last for longer than 10 days perhaps, in facilitating a safe environment for women at Memorial, those effects, as well as the anxiety felt by many women on campus, should be given more consideration so as to communicate a zero-tolerance policy on sexual assaults of any kind. As over half of the student population at Memorial University, young women deserve not only equal treatment in the classroom and in the workforce, but the support of the university in creating a feeling of personal safety both on campus and around our province.