Fighting for control in reporting sexual assault

From report, to conviction to advocacy: the story of a sexual assault survivor at Queen's

In March of 2015, one Queen’s student found out that the man she was preparing to go to trial against for sexually assaulting her had been elected to the University Senate, one of Queen’s highest governing bodies.

The student, who can’t be identified due to a court publication ban, emailed her advisor in the Human Rights Office.

“This is a powerful position, and as far as I know it means that he gets to vote on sensitive policy which may include the new sexual assault policy...” she wrote to the advisor on March 18, 2015.

“This has made me extremely uncomfortable and I'm wondering what you would suggest in terms of moving forward with this. I don't think that he or anyone who has been charged with assault pending a trial should be allowed to represent large bodies of students at that level in the university.”

The response she received from the Human Rights Office 10 days later said that Senate was likely to turn back the election results anyways, due to the number of senators not meeting the criteria.

One part of the advisor’s answer however referred to Senate’s provisions for such a situation at the time, or lack thereof.

“I have been told that we currently do not have any provisions to exclude the participation in Senate by any student who has been either accused or found to be responsible for either a criminal offence or an offence under the Student Code of Conduct,” the advisor’s email read.

A request to interview the advisor, who also can’t be identified due to the publication ban was denied by Queen’s Communications, citing confidentiality concerns of advisors discussing situations involving former or current students.

'Sexual assault … happening is one thing. What happens afterwards is an entirely different monster.' Credit: Illustration by Vincent Lin

In the Ontario Court of Justice

In the summer of 2016, Ali Erfany was convicted by an Ontario Court of Justice of unlawfully entering a dwelling and sexual assault. A few months later, he was given an eight month conditional sentence to serve in the community under restrictions, probation for two years and was ordered registered into the Ontario Sex Offender Informational Registry, The Kingston Whig-Standard reported October 6, 2016.

Erfany was still enrolled at Queen’s at the time of his conviction. He’d also by that point sat on Senate while his trial was ongoing.

The conviction is currently under appeal. Citing advice from his legal counsel, Erfany declined to comment for this story due to the ongoing nature of his appeal.

By the time a conviction was reached, his accuser had graduated from Queen’s and was preparing to begin law school in the fall. She had spent her last semester in and out of court as the trial extended from that January through to the summer.

She had also spent the last almost two years, since the night of Dec. 11, 2014, retelling her story over and over.

Back to the beginning

In the fall of 2014, she and Erfany were living in the same residence building and both working for Residence Life.

“We were colleagues, and so we saw each other quite often for that reason,” she said in an interview with The Journal.

In December of that year, she finished her exams early but had to stay in residence with her students. During the exam period, residence dons pull 24-hour on-call shifts. Her shift was due to start the next morning at 8 a.m.

The previous night’s on-call don had arranged to drop off the on-call phone when he was done his nightly rounds, around 1 or 2 a.m. When she opened the door to a knock sometime in between those hours, she recalled, it wasn’t the don, but Erfany.

“Basically what ensued over the next 10 minutes or so was a sexual assault,” she said. After he left, she said, she got up and locked the door.

“And then I cried and cried and cried. Eventually, I went to the bathroom and I took a shower because I felt so dirty and I felt unclean, I just needed to take a shower.”

She later found out that the person who was supposed to bring the phone had fallen asleep and never come by her room.

Telling the story over and over and over

The first person she told was a close friend. 

She and her friend then reported it to Residence Life, the protocol they would’ve followed if it had been a student coming to tell the don that they had been sexually assaulted.

“It was different for me than anyone else because I knew what steps I had to take and I knew what the process would likely look like,” she said. “I’m probably in the 1 per cent for that reason.”

She was referred upwards in the management of Residence Life to another representative, who she said was the first to strongly urge reporting it to the police, something she found off-putting.

“It was my understanding that you should never put into somebody’s mind whether or not they should report to the police. You’re supposed to kind of give them those ideas and resources but not say ‘you should go to the police because you have this case.’”

Several attempts to contact the Residence Life representative, who can’t be identified due to the publication ban, for this story were unsuccessful.

She had herself been trained to respond when someone reported an incident to her, never thinking that she might be experiencing the process the other way around.

She had herself been trained to respond when someone reported an incident to her, never thinking that she might be experiencing the process the other way around.

In her case, she said, the initial reporting system presented problems further down the line due to an unclear note-taking process.

“It allows discrepancy, because you’re telling a story of what happened and they’re not taking any notes and they go back and write down what they remember. That can come into question in court and it did in my case, it caused a big problem of credibility because of minor discrepancies between that and the police report,” she said.

After reporting to Residence Life, she saw a residence outreach counselor. It was also suggested that she go to the Human Rights Office.

By the time she retold her story to the Human Rights Office, it was the fourth time she had recounted the assault to an official in the two days since it had happened.

“That in itself was exhausting. And it was one after the other after the other.”

By the time she told the Human Rights Office, it was the fourth time she'd recounted the assault in the two days since it'd happened. Credit: Wiki Commons

The immediate result

After she reported the incident, Erfany was moved to Jean Royce Hall on West campus, pending an investigation by Residence Life into his status as an employee. 

According to what she remembers being told by the Residence Life representative, the investigation would be straightforward.

“I’ll never forget him saying this, ‘we don’t have the same burden of proof that the police do’”.

Although the police investigation would trail on for months, she was told that the University would have a far easier time coming to a decision.

'If we truly believe on a balance of probability that this has happened, which we do, we have all the power to remove people.’ That was said to me, and yet nothing happened."

“’If we truly believe on a balance of probability that this has happened, which we do, we have all the power to remove people.’ That was said to me, and yet nothing happened,” she recalled.

Shortly after that, everyone left campus for Christmas break. When they returned in early January, the charges were laid by Kingston Police. 

On Jan. 7, 2015, Erfany’s residence agreement was terminated.

In February, Campus Security issued Erfany a Notice of Prohibition. He was prohibited from entering any residence buildings and being on campus between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. There was also a no contact clause, prohibiting him from having any contact with her, directly or indirectly.  

The Notice of Prohibition, she said, essentially mirrored conditions Kingston Police had put into place earlier in January when they laid charges.

“It’s really tough, this whole thing,” she said. “I tend to be a pretty tough person…there’ve been a lot of things that I’ve overcome. But nothing has ever affected me the way that this did.”

‘An entirely different monster’

“Sexual assault … happening is one thing. What happens afterwards is an entirely different monster,” the survivor said.

In the spring of 2015 began what she describes as a long period of waiting for information, occasionally punctured by the experience of running into Erfany on campus and in Kingston.

“My time at Queen’s, it sucked, to be honest,” she said of that final year.  

“I had this looming over my head. I was trying to get the best grades because those were the grades that would count the most to admission to law school.”

When the trial began in the winter semester of 2016, she was writing the LSAT and attempting to prepare for her future, while spending most of her time in court.

“I hated that I had to tell my profs what had happened,” she said. “They were all understanding, but it was embarrassing. But I didn’t know what else to do.”

The trial itself, she said, was just as traumatizing as all the stories she’d heard.

“It was everything that came after that that’s been the worst. Reporting my experience was pretty bad, testifying to it was worse, cross-examination was as hellish if not more than all the horror stories that you hear about complainants.”

In a cruel twist of fate, her trial was happening at the same time as the Ghomeshi and Mandi Gray trials were flooding the media. 

“I looked at these cases and I almost wasn’t thinking about me. I was thinking ‘wow these things are horrible, I can’t believe the cross-examination’, and then several days later it happened to me. And I was like ‘holy shit, this is actually a reality, this is what happens and its not just this media sensationalized thing, this is a real thing that happens.’”

Even now as a student at a different school, the memory of being in court comes back to her.

“You never get it until you’re sitting in that chair and the defense is asking you ‘why couldn’t you remember whether or not you were wearing a bra, and if you couldn’t remember whether or not you were wearing a bra, then you probably can’t remember that he groped you?'”

She’d also begun seeing a counselor at Queen’s who specialized in sexual violence. However, she said, most appointments would be cancelled or pushed.

“It’s not I think because of her … but nine times out of 10, I think its the fact that she was a sexual assault counselor that did sexual assault counseling, outreach, prevention, everything on campus. She had every role in the book that had to do with sexual assault and no one else. So I didn’t blame her.”

In response to a request regarding counseling available for students affected by sexual violence, Queen’s Communications pointed to the appointment of Barbara Lotan, the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Coordinator in May 2016.

“There are currently several counsellors with considerable experience working with students affected by sexual violence on a one-on-one basis,” the Communications statement read.

“Counselling Services also runs a group program called PEGaSUS (Psychoeducational Group for Survivors of Sexual Assault). Physicians and nurses in Student Health Services also have experience in this area and provide supportive services to students.”

For the survivor, these resources were absent. Although her counselor was supposed to attend court dates with her, she ended up attending each date alone. Finally, she said, in February and mid-trial, the counselor resigned and her position was left vacant for a long period of time.

To me, out of all of the things the university did, that was the worst,” the survivor said. “Because you can’t leave that gap.

In response to a request from The Journal to confirm the counselor’s resignation, Queen’s Communication was unable “to confirm any details regarding an employee’s time at Queen’s.”

“To me, out of all of the things the university did, that was the worst,” the survivor said. “Because you can’t leave that gap.”

Sitting on Senate provisions

During the trial, the question of Erfany’s role on Senate was once again raised to the survivor.

Almost a year earlier, she’d emailed her Human Rights advisor and received the aforementioned reply regarding Senate’s provisions for a student member who had been charged with a criminal offence.

A few months later, at the May 2015 meeting, Senate voted to amend their provisions for the obligatory leave of senators, citing that “In the Winter term of 2015, it was brought to the attention of the University Secretariat that the Senate’s Rules of Procedure contain no provision for the obligatory leave or removal of a senator for cases in which the dignity and reputation of Senate, and the Queen’s University community’s trust and confidence in Senate, should be protected.”

On Jun. 22, 2015, she received another email from the Human Rights advisor, forwarded from Lon Knox, the University Secretary, with an update.

Erfany’s ability to take his seat in June was dependent on Senate amending its rules to allow for a reduced term, Knox wrote, given that he was elected for only one academic term as opposed to the typical two-semester term. The vote on that amendment was scheduled for September. 

“Provided that it passes, which would place this individual on the Senate, our office will immediately send a letter to the individual notifying him that he is on an involuntary leave and prohibited from attending the meetings of the Senate,” Knox wrote.

The amendment did pass, but on Feb. 12, 2016, she received another forwarded email from the advisor, this one signed by Rebecca Coupland, associate secretary of the University.

The email confirmed that Erfany would after all be allowed to assume his seat on Feb. 23.

According to the Senate Rules of Procedure, section 37, item b.III.i, — which had last been amended in May 2015— the chair of the Senate may order an obligatory leave of absence for a senator or member if that member has “been charged with an offence under the Criminal Code of Canada or the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that can be prosecuted by way of indictment.”

However, in her email Coupland cited another clause under section 37, which states that the obligatory leave will remain in force unless “in respect of a charge under the Criminal Code of Canada or the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Crown elects to proceed summarily.”  

Due to the University’s information that the Crown had decided to proceed with Erfany’s case summarily, as opposed to an indictment, he wouldn’t be prohibited from representing students at Senate.

She had been unaware up until this point of the Crown’s decision to proceed with her case summarily, telling the Human Rights advisor in a return email: “I've really been kept out of the loop with much of this.”

On Feb. 26, 2016, another email from the Human Rights advisor contained more promising news.

“I wanted to let you know that in conversation with the University Secretary, Lon Knox, he has committed to have the regulations altered around incidents of sexual misconduct. He agrees that other sorts of court findings should allow the University to restrict access to leadership positions like the Senate,” the advisor wrote.

Despite some apparent disagreement, Senate minutes show that Erfany was present at the meeting on Feb. 23.

 

Queen's Board of Trustees approved the University sexual violence policy on March 4, 2016.

‘Nothing has ever affected me the way that this did’

“With a sexual assault … the biggest thing in that is a loss of autonomy and a loss of feeling like you’re in control especially,” she said.

“So I think a big piece of what universities are missing altogether on every front is that actually reaching out to somebody who’s been involved in it directly.”

...what universities are missing altogether on every front is that actually reaching out to somebody who’s been involved in it directly.”

Despite her efforts to advocate on her own behalf, she said she’s found herself feeling like she’s constantly prodding an administration that won’t stand up for her.

“I just sit here and I wait and I wait and I follow up and I wait and I get nothing,” she said. 

“I can’t beat around the bush anymore. I have to be my own advocate, no one else is doing it for me. Literally no one.”

For her, the assault has changed the trajectory of her life. Now a student in law school and writing exams on criminal law, she’s often taken back to that night in December and everything that followed.

“I thought I had been resilient and I have been in some ways, but I have PTSD and it affects my sleep. Every night, every single night since that’s happened I’ve had a nightmare.”

While her assailant has faced some consequences as a result of his actions, for her, it’s not enough.

“In my mind he’ll never feel the same gravity of what happened that I have to,” she said.

In her final year at Queen’s, she decided to apply to work in residence again, despite the trauma still associated with the residence environment.

On the first day of her second year working in residence and almost a year after herself being sexually assaulted, she recalls a first-year female student coming to her in tears, with a startlingly similar story of being sexually assaulted by another student at a party on the night she moved in.

“That to me just solidified what I’d done for the past year,” she said.

Coming face to face with the reminder that sexual assault continues to happen for so many university students, made what she had been through to report her own experience make sense to her.

“It’s been a weird two years, and yeah, some good things have come out of it. I’ll have a little extra empathy and understanding of the law,” she concluded.

“But I would do anything to take it back. I would do anything to have that not happen.”

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.