Students are speaking. Listen.

Ignorance towards sexual assault cases is closer to home than we think

A few weeks ago I was scrolling through Facebook and came across something rather disturbing. The Globe and Mail had posted a video regarding a young woman named Ava who tried to disclose her sexual assault to an investigator, Mr. Paul Gambriel. After walking in with every intention of reporting her attacker, she left without pressing any charges. Why? The investigator clearly didn’t believe her story.

The Globe and Mail has a piece on their site titled, “Why police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless,” which discusses Ava’s story in detail. The article states, “Ava remembers being outside with her friends, then leaving to find the washroom inside. […] Somewhere along the line, she isn’t sure when, she found herself talking to a guy from the party. He looked to be a few years older than her, with dark, messy hair and a slim build. She remembers they were outside and kissing. And then she blacked out.”

The article went on to say that “when things came back into focus,” Ava was on the ground naked. The man was inside of her. She told him repeatedly to get off only for him to persist. The article continues, “Suddenly, there was a flash. Ava looked over and saw four or five men pointing cellphone cameras in her direction. She became frantic. The man on top of her ran away. He left his wallet behind, police later told Ava. […] Two women who heard her sobbing found Ava shortly after.”

In the article, The Globe and Mail included a video of Ava’s interview with the investigator, as well as her interview with them. Before delving into her story, she admitted that she had no reason not to trust the process and the men she was speaking with. Though, as she went on to recount her experience, Gambriel became more curious about her story.

Ava admitted that she was “pretty drunk” before she made it outside with “some guy” and engaged in a consensual make-out session. She then recollected how she blacked out. “I don’t remember much, but I remember being on the ground. He was over top of me. My clothes were off. I kept saying, ‘You’re hurting me.’ The next thing I know, there’s a bunch of people with camera phones taking pictures. I don’t know what they’re doing and they’re saying things. He leaves. I’m in the fetal position.” She then told The Globe and Mail how she told the girls who found her that she needed to leave.

“So, you black out and you don’t remember anything. But then you suddenly come to and you’re able to tell him to stop?” Gambriel asked. He then went on to say, “I’ve been doing this, Ava, for 22 years. Sometimes in sexual assaults things happen, they need to get reported. They need to be investigated. But sometimes what actually occurs and what gets reported sometimes gets blurred a little bit. And even when you’re telling me this, you’re able to tell me despite going through quite a night keeping your composure. But it’s at the point where you realize everybody’s taking the pictures and standing around that you become very, very upset. Which leads me to wonder, was it consensual up until that point?”

The Globe revealed that the interview with Gambriel took place 12 hours after the incident. Ava was hungover, hadn’t eaten or slept. The Globe then turned to a trauma expert, Dr. Lori Haskell, to comment on the interview.

Haskell said, “People should not be interviewed in any kind of depth to give a statement following a traumatic event. Before asking someone detailed questions, they really need to sleep.” She suggested at least two nights’ sleep.

Gambriel was quoted in the interview as saying that if a person is intoxicated, “it’s not a sudden loss of memory and then a sudden regaining of the memory.” Haskell retaliated with, “But, he’s wrong. That’s exactly what happens. Once they recognize through one of their senses that they’re in danger or under threat then the brain releases a cascade of all these neurochemicals into the brain or the body to help them with that fight or flight response. But those neurochemicals change the brain. So, parts of the brain are deactivated and part of the deactivation means the brain focusses on very central details, the details that were most important for survival. And so those memories become encoded as intense fragments.”

Yesterday evening one of my best friends shared a link on Facebook from a group at U of T called Silence is Violence. There were over 30 photos of posters plastered on poles near the St. George campus, telling the chilling stories of how survivors of sexual assault are treated at this university.

The posters showed anonymous messages stating various experiences of survivors at U of T. A few of the posters read, “My rapist was fired from his Student Life position following the attack. He was rehired to a different division of Student Life shortly after,” “U of T paid my rapist to live at a hotel across from my residence throughout the investigation,” “The sexual harassment office said they couldn’t take my report seriously because I’m a sex worker,” “Sexual assault is common in the union office and at strike parties, but my executive says talking about sexual assault ‘ruins our solidarity,’” and “When I asked the university why they rehired my rapist to work with undergraduate students after finding him responsible they said, ‘As far as we’re concerned the case is closed.’” These are just a few examples out of the dozens that were displayed.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Silence is Violence, the group describes themselves as “An experientially led collective addressing sexual assault on college and university campuses through peer support, social and political advocacy and direct action at the University of Toronto.”

Now, if you hop over to the Silence is Violence Twitter page, you’ll see a tweet that reads: “Using boxcutters & screwdrivers UofT paid to scrape the words of survivors of #sexualviolence from the campus. Telling.” The photo accompanying the tweet is of two workers using said tools to scrape away the posters.

Though I didn’t doubt it for a second, I wanted to get in touch with SIV to ask how they obtained the information that U of T did indeed hire people to remove their posters. I spoke with Ellie, one of the co-founders of SIV, who told me, “I happened to run into the crew you see in the photos there. They were incredibly forthcoming with who they were. Myself and another student stopped them and asked very pointed questions about why they were only removing the posters about sexual assault and not other posters on the same poles (I was taking pictures of the signs, but did not disclose my role in disseminating them). When I said, “You’re only going for these ones—the posters about sexual assault? They said, ‘U of T hired us to remove only these ones.’”

Like I said, I don’t deny for a second that this is true. As I wrote in my editorial about mental health, professors have dismissed my mental health struggles. Let’s also not forget the story about student Josh Grondin being told that he “doesn’t look sick” during exam time. He disclosed a mental health issue to his professor, Sean Uppal, who forced him to write the exam anyway. Grondin stated, “[Uppal] told me, since it wasn’t a physical illness, I could physically be present in the room.” A 2016 article from City News stated, “[Grondin] said he was told he could either take a zero in the exam, or write it. Grondin chose to write it, scored 23 percent, and ultimately, withdrew from the course.” When questioned about it, U of T spokesperson Althea Blackburn-Evans stated, “I can confirm that there has been no case in this course where a student presented a note prior to an exam and was made to write it.” Additionally, the article stated that “When asked if the student would have been given the option of taking a zero or writing the exam, Blackburn-Evans said the school could not discuss details about specific students or cases.” She also stated that Uppal wouldn’t be available for an interview. Convenient.

So, here we are. Presented with another case of the university trying to disguise the fact that there are plenty of people in this institution who either don’t care or aren’t trained enough on how to deal with very real problems that students face. My big question now is, are we actually going to hear what these specific colleges have to say? Are we actually going to get a quote from one of the counsellors being accused? How about any counsellor? Or are we just going to get another university representative to provide another blanket statement?

I understand that I shouldn’t say anything definitively before I hear from the university. But, here’s the thing. We have heard from them in situations like this. And, if we are to believe what the contractors who were removing the posters said, U of T doesn’t want to be asked any questions. U of T doesn’t want to be held responsible. U of T doesn’t want people to hear about a discrepancy on their end unless they have first dibs on telling the story. Students deserve an answer. They deserve respect. They deserve to be heard.

I hope that Silence is Violence continues to call out U of T for their blatant unwillingness to handle these issues with respect and understanding. I hope that the university addresses these concerns with something more than a statement from someone who has been preparing blanket statements for years. I hope they comment on having the posters torn down and would love to know why they thought that was appropriate. Maybe they didn’t want any students to see just how ill-equipped the staff of one of the “most prestigious” universities actually is. As long as they keep pushing students to the brink and ignoring the consequences, all is good to the outside world, right?

I’m about to leave this place. But, it would be nice to know that all the bright-eyed students who were here today touring our campus can have some kind of comfort in knowing that U of T actually wants to protect its students, as opposed to protecting its interests.


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