VANCOUVER – Stephanie Hale remembers jumping up and down and crying tears of joy when she received her acceptance letter from the University of British Columbia.
Now, she wishes she had pursued her degree anywhere else.
Hale has filed a complaint with B.C.’s Human Rights Tribunal alleging the university failed to take action after she reported a sexual assault, leading her to struggle in class and take indefinite medical leave. It is the second known complaint the institution is facing.
“I want there to be a better process for when this happens again,” said Hale, 23. “There are going to be others, which is a terrible shame. UBC is a really well-respected university and I feel it should set an example for other institutions for how to handle these kinds of incidents.”
The university has been under fire for its response to sexual assault allegations since 2015, when a group of women came forward to say the school had dragged its heels on complaints about a male PhD student. Glynnis Kirchmeier, who alleged she witnessed misconduct by the man, filed a human-rights complaint the following year.
In response to the criticism, as well as to a new B.C. law requiring universities to have sexual misconduct policies, UBC passed a specialized policy earlier this year. It established centralized offices at both its campuses to receive reports, which are to be handled by investigators with sexual-assault expertise.
When contacted about Hale’s complaint, UBC said privacy legislation does not permit it to discuss individual cases.
Hale alleges the university discriminated against her based on her sex and mental disability, referring to her anxiety and depression. She says in the documents that she was sexually assaulted, choked and hit by a fellow student in January 2013.
The student has denied the allegations. He has previously told The Canadian Press the sex was consensual and she asked him to choke and hit her, which he did although it made him uncomfortable.
The Canadian Press does not typically identify the complainants in sexual assault cases, but Hale wants her name used.
Hale reported the allegation of sexual assault to multiple UBC staff members in 2013, but none suggested she make a complaint or directed her to relevant policies, she says in the documents filed with the tribunal.
The university took no action, she says, and she continued to see her alleged attacker in classes. Her grades started slipping, she suffered from nightmares and began to feel suicidal.
“I felt very lost and alone,” she recalled.
She went on medical leave in December 2015 and has not returned to school.
The following February, she learned of the Non-Academic Misconduct Policy, which previously was one of the school’s two policies that dealt with sexual assault. The process was the same one used for theft or vandalism and involved a panel of students, without any sexual assault expertise, judging whether an attack occurred.
The human-rights complaint says Hale’s lawyer wrote a letter to UBC requesting it appoint a properly trained, arms-length investigator. UBC declined to do so and ultimately the hearing was held without Hale in late 2016. The committee cleared the accused of misconduct.
Hale is seeking an order requiring the university and her alleged attacker to jointly make up for her lost educational time, her past and future wage losses, and costs related to the complaint. She’s also asking the university to facilitate the completion of her degree.
Finally, she’s asking that the university revise its new sexual assault policy. Complainants are still not allowed to file appeals or see the investigator’s report, unlike respondents, she said.
Kirchmeier said she is seeking the same changes to the policy, among others. She provided a letter from the tribunal dated Sept. 12 that states her complaint is moving forward and UBC must file a response by Oct. 17.
She said UBC’s conduct toward Hale was “jaw-dropping.”
“I’m eagerly going to track the progress of the case,” she said. “I hope UBC does everything it can to facilitate her getting redress.”
A number of students across the country have filed similar human-rights complaints against universities in recent years. It’s faster and less expensive than a civil lawsuit and the tribunal can order the institution to make policy changes, said Karen Busby, a law professor at the University of Manitoba who specializes in human rights issues.
She said she wasn’t aware of any research that has been done on the effect on universities, but there has been a “huge change” in the way that employers approach sexual harassment.
“There’s been a sea change in culture, I think, and I would attribute that to the fact that human-rights complaints can be made against employers.”