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Manitoba university admits mistake asking alleged sex victim to sign contract

The university says a large number of students 'compromised' a final nursing exam.
The university says a large number of students 'compromised' a final nursing exam. Global News

BRANDON, Man. – The president of a Manitoba university admits it was a mistake to ask an alleged sex assault victim to sign a “behavioural” contract and the school will no longer use them in sex-related cases.

Gervan Fearon, president of Brandon University, told a news conference Tuesday that the female student signed the contract in September 2015.

The document required the woman not to contact her alleged attacker or talk about the incident with anyone but a campus counsellor. A breach would result in disciplinary action, including suspension or expulsion.

Fearon said such contracts are used at some Canadian universities to ensure opposing parties don’t interact or engage in shaming on social media.

But he said the university also encouraged the woman to go to police, and the contract was not meant to silence her.

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“Categorically, we acknowledge it was not appropriate,” he told reporters. “And we acknowledge that it was not helpful to the survivor.”

The contract was made public this week through a campus group called We Believe Survivors.

Organizer Stefon Irvine said the woman who signed the document, a 17 year old in her first year of studies, was allegedly assaulted in her dorm room by a male student. She reported the incident to school officials the next day.

She later went to police but no charges were laid, Irvine said.

He questioned the university’s initial decision to have the woman to move into a different dorm building instead of making the suspect move out. The school has said the man is no longer living on campus but won’t reveal if he’s still a student.

A month after the woman reported the alleged assault, the university created a task force to look into victim supports, said Fearon. It recommended the school stop using the contracts.

The university’s academic vice-president, Steve Robinson, said a behavioural contract has been used in one other case, and it did not involve alleged sexual violence.

A committee is also working to create a formal policy about sexual violence and harassment that could be in place by the end of the year, Fearon added.

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Irvine said he hopes the policy comes quickly and explicitly states “that survivors should be free to speak in whatever way they feel is their healing process.”

Other Canadian universities are working on similar policies, said Vanessa Doriman of the Canadian Federation of Students. She agrees the policies need to make clear that alleged victims should not be signing contracts.

“As much as we don’t want to spell it out, I think we kind of have to because of everything we’re seeing,” she said.

The University of Victoria and Brock University in Ontario have been accused of warning women not to talk about their sex assault allegations.

Toronto lawyer Kristen Pennington said schools may have a misguided desire to protect student and staff information.

“What is more likely the justification is that universities want to maintain harmony on campus and protect their reputations by trying to ensure that details of sexual violence do not become public knowledge,” Pennington said in an e-mail.

“It is shameful that individual survivors are bearing the heavy consequences of schools looking to protect their reputations.”