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Canada St. Francis Xavier University student accused of sexual assault withdraws, president apologizes

The Antigonish, N.S., school’s president apologized Friday for how the case was handled.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

A St. Francis Xavier University student accused of sexual assault has withdrawn from the school, capping a week of controversy after it was revealed he was allowed to remain on campus pending a criminal prosecution.

The Antigonish, N.S., school’s president apologized Friday for how the case was handled, and said after “much reflection and advice” he concluded that the student should leave the university.

The Toronto-area woman who reported the allegations said Friday she has “mixed emotions” about the outcome, while the accused said in a statement that it’s with a “heavy heart” that he voluntarily withdrew.

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It’s a situation that underscores the challenge of addressing sexual-assault claims on campus amid the continuing cultural reckoning of the #MeToo era.

In a two-page letter to the campus community, president Kent MacDonald said, “I acknowledge and accept the fact that we can do better.”

“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,” he said.

“For this, I am sorry.”

Mr. MacDonald’s comments come after The Canadian Press revealed an Ontario woman’s experience reporting an alleged sexual assault to the university.

Although the school launched an investigation after the woman came forward and found the accused responsible, it set aside its decision to suspend him the next academic year – without notifying her – when he appealed.

The woman, whose name is under a publication ban, was devastated to discover him on campus last month and has since left the university.

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In an interview from her Toronto-area home, the woman said she’s “happy the school is taking steps toward positive change.”

“I’m really proud of how the St. F.X. community, the student body, has rallied behind this and I’m thankful for all the support that’s been shown to me,” she said.

Still, the 19-year-old said the apology was “a little late” for her, and she won’t be returning to the Nova Scotia school.

“It seems like the school only reacted after there was a negative backlash on social media,” she said. “It’s a little disappointing it took that for them to respond … but it’s still nice to finally get some recognition.”

Meanwhile, she said she’s struggling to get her academics back on track and seeking counselling for symptoms including panic attacks from “triggers” that remind her of the alleged sexual assault.

Court documents show her alleged assailant was charged with sexual assault and released on conditions. A preliminary inquiry is set for Nov. 29.

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In a statement to The Canadian Press, the accused acknowledged that “allegations of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously.”

“I also believe that the right to a fair hearing during any quasi-judicial process, as well as a right to be presumed innocent in a court of law, are vital pillars of our democracy,” said the accused.

“I do not believe that the process I went through at St. F.X. last spring was fair and balanced.”

He denied sexually assaulting the young woman, but said the “outrage” that has enveloped the university has caused too much stress for the St. F.X. community, and that he never intended to bring harm to the school.

“It was disheartening to hear friendly acquaintances on campus talking about the rapist among them, accepting the media stories without question,” the accused said. “They didn’t know that I was the person referred to in the articles and the subject of all the talk.”

He added: “The articles do not tell the whole story.”

The case has drawn attention to how postsecondary institutions handle sexual-assault allegations, and whether policies aimed at tackling sexual violence go far enough.

Mr. MacDonald, also vice-chancellor at the school, alluded to the broader social climate, saying the university appreciates the continued community engagement as it navigates “this very complex, and long-standing societal issue.”

In order to improve the university’s policies, Mr. MacDonald said there will be a review of the school’s disciplinary code as it relates to appeals.

He said he’s also asked for an update on the connection between St. F.X.’s new sexual violence policy and the university’s code of conduct to ensure continuity between the work of the school’s sexualized violence prevention committee and the university’s judicial process.

“We can, and will, do better to support victim/survivors of sexual violence,” Mr. MacDonald said.

Students at St. F.X. called for a review of the school’s sexual violence policy this week to ensure a “survivor-centric” approach.

Student Union president Rebecca Mesay said she witnessed a range of emotions among students from “anger to sadness to fear.”

She published a letter outlining the student union’s recommendations to address sexual violence on campus – a response Mr. MacDonald called inspiring.

Nova Scotia Advanced Education Minister Labi Kousoulis said this week he was “shocked” by the university’s handling of the case, and said he asked his department to explore options to remove students accused of sexual violence from campus while criminal proceedings are ongoing.

A spokeswoman for the Advanced Education Department said the provincial sexual violence prevention committee will review the stand-alone sexual violence policies of all Nova Scotia universities.

“The minister has also asked this committee to look at the reporting and communications processes related to sexual violence within universities to ensure they’re survivor-centric,” Shannon Kerr said in an e-mail.

“The priority is to ensure all sexual violence policies and procedures in Nova Scotia postsecondary institutions are survivor-centric.”

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