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People walk along University Avenue with Grant Hall in the background, at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., Aug. 12, 2018.

Lars Hagberg/Globe and Mail

As students resume their studies at Queen’s University for the fall semester, the school in Kingston is caught up in a legal battle initiated by a recent graduate over its responsibility in sexual assault cases.

The plaintiff, whose identity is protected by a publication ban, is seeking $950,000 in damages from the university and two other defendants over a “series of physical and sexual abuse” that she alleges she was subjected to over the span of four months in 2014.

In a statement of claim filed last April in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the plaintiff alleges that the university failed to have adequate policies or procedures for victims of sexual violence on campus, and failed to provide sufficient aid when the assaults were reported.

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In a statement of defence, Queen’s University denies the allegations.

This is not the first time a student has tried to sue a Canadian university over its handling of sexual assault. In 2017, a student at the University of Toronto initiated legal action against the university over a sexual assault complaint that she alleged the school failed to sufficiently investigate. In 2015, York University student Mandi Gray filed a human-rights complaint against her school, alleging she was discriminated against and wasn’t provided adequate support after reporting a sexual assault.

The legal actions bring into question the responsibilities of universities when handling students’ sexual assault complaints – part of a broader state of unrest that’s developed among postsecondary students concerned about sexual violence on campus.

The three assaults at Queen’s are alleged to have occurred in a student residence building on campus between September and December, 2014. The two alleged perpetrators were employed by the Residence Society of Queen’s at the time of the assaults, as was the plaintiff.

One of the assaults was proven in criminal court, leading to a conviction and an order for the defendant to register in the Ontario Sex Offender Informational Registry. The two other assaults that the plaintiff alleges to have occurred have not been tried in court.

Neither defendant responded to The Globe and Mail’s request for comment, however both defendants filed statements of defence denying all allegations listed in the plaintiff’s statement. Both statements say that all intercourse with the plaintiff was consensual.

The man who was eventually convicted was elected by students to the Queen’s University senate, one of the university’s highest governing bodies, shortly after the third sexual assault and despite having been charged by Kingston Police.

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As first reported by the Queen’s Journal, at the time of his election, he was banned by police from making contact with the plaintiff and from entering the residence she inhabited during certain times of day.

Queen’s University declined to comment on the civil suit, citing privacy considerations.

The plaintiff hopes the civil lawsuit against the university will set a precedent for universities to take responsibility for their students and for what happens in their learning and living environments, she said in an interview with The Globe.

In March, 2016, the Ontario government launched Bill 132, requiring colleges and universities to develop policies dedicated to sexual assault specifying how the institutions would handle complaints and investigations.

At the time of the alleged assaults, Queen’s lacked a sexual assault policy.

After the alleged assaults, the plaintiff says she was assigned a sexual assault counsellor from the university to function as a therapist. When the counsellor left her job, however, the plaintiff says the position wasn’t replaced for months, leaving her without further help from the university. By the time the position was filled, the plaintiff had graduated. Queen’s University declined to comment on the sexual assault counsellor.

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The plaintiff said that, as a survivor of sexual assault, she had very little support and the school didn’t make it a priority to provide more.

As for the university’s responsibility for its students' behaviour, media relations officer Mark Erdman said the student code of conduct now allows the university to impose “interim measures,” such as suspensions from positions of authority. However, these measures were not in place at the time of the assault. (By the time the student was convicted, he had already completed his term on the senate.)

Dawn Moore, a professor of legal studies at Carleton University who studies on-campus sexual violence, says universities’ responsibility to provide unfettered access to education – as outlined in the Ontario Human Rights Code – makes it difficult for the institutions to handle complaints.

“The university is in this impossible situation of adjudicating sexual assault when they’re not adjudicatory bodies, and deciding whose rights to education need to be protected,” she said.

A date for the trial has yet to be established, but the plaintiff says it will likely unfold while she completes law school. “Still to this day, that experience has a lot of control over me in some ways, and I don’t know if it’s ever going to be something that goes away,” she told The Globe.

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