What evil lurks: sexual assault is a serious problem at universities, and our schools are overlooking the solution

What evil lurks: sexual assault is a serious problem at universities, and our schools are overlooking the solution

(Illustration by Clare Mallison) 

York University’s Vanier College welcome brochures contain helpful information for frosh week. They list clubs to join and an orientation lunch for parents. They also tell you what to do in the event of a sexual assault. What they don’t mention is the statistical likelihood of a sexual assault or the violence that has occurred at York in the past.

During frosh week of 2007, two young men, Daniel Katsnelson and Justin Connort, entered Vanier under the guise of helping a drunk resident and began wandering the halls, trying the dorm room doors to see if they were unlocked. At roughly 2:45 a.m., they entered a room on the seventh floor and woke the 17‑year-old student inside. “Do you want to get lucky with a couple of Jewish guys?” one of them asked. She said no, but the men took turns with her anyway. Katsnelson raped her and then snapped photos on his cell of Connort assaulting her. Afterward, they entered a second room. The occupant, also a first-year student, woke up to one of them rubbing up against her and told him to leave. They entered a third room, sat on the bed of a sleepy young woman, and spoke briefly with her before moving on to the room of an exchange student, where one of the attackers announced, “I’ve never made out with a black girl.” When the student resisted, the men walked out and entered their fifth and final room. Katsnelson raped the 18-year-old inside. The first rape victim bled for a week. The second has since left York. Both are still in counselling.

These men roamed that dorm unimpeded for two hours, from the seventh floor down to the fourth, the third, and then back up to the 13th. All five of the women whose rooms were invaded were first-year students. None had locked their doors.

York, which is facing a $3.5-million civil lawsuit from the first rape victim, has, not surprisingly, beefed up security measures. It has enhanced its walk-home services, added Go-Safe shuttle buses, increased self-defence classes and handed out thousands of whistles. York has blanketed the campus with panic buttons and closed-circuit television cameras. Most significantly, as a direct consequence of the 2007 assaults, every residence, including Vanier, now has a security officer on duty from 8:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m., and visitors are required to sign in.

These are important measures, to be sure, but they’re not enough. Here’s an idea that doesn’t cost anything: be brutally honest with students and parents about what really happens on campus and disclose statistics on sexual assault. Without a fact-based reality check, students might not bother waiting an extra 10 minutes for a shuttle bus or an escort to the parking lot. Maybe if York had listed its sexual assault numbers in its welcome brochure three years ago, no one would have gone to sleep that night with doors unlocked.

York doesn’t hide campus sexual assault information, but it doesn’t make it easy to find, either. I spent hours searching for statistics on-line, tallying up daily alert bulletins, weekly and annual reports, and information from the campus security Web site. I found 27 reported sexual assaults in the past decade and four attempted ones. (Canada eliminated “rape” from the Criminal Code in 1983. The legal term “sexual assault” encompasses everything from unwanted touching to forced intercourse.) Many attackers struck during the day, ambushing women in dorms, library stacks, walkways and parking lots. Sometimes they dragged them into bushes or fields.

When I asked Alex Bilyk, York’s chief spokesperson, to double-check my numbers, he said that I hadn’t found them all—that in fact York had 66 reported incidents of sexual assault from 2000 to 2009. There were 14 in 2009 alone. Thirteen were characterized as unwanted touching, including by strangers at the library and at campus bus stops. The 14th was a date rape. And those incidents likely represent a tiny fraction of the total; according to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, more than 90 per cent of sexual assaults are never reported to police.

Of course, the exact number that go unreported is impossible to determine, but I don’t doubt it’s high. Here’s my personal contribution to the stats. The summer I turned 16, I needed inoculations for a trip to Asia. The doctor asked me to lie down on his examination table. And then he put his hand in my underpants. “How does that feel?” he asked, massaging my clitoris. Until that moment, I didn’t know I had one. But I never reported the assault. I was too confused and humiliated to say anything, even to my mother, who was sitting outside in the waiting room.

I don’t mean to single out York. The Univer­sity of Toronto doesn’t make its sexual assault record easily accessi­ble to the public, either. Laurie Stephens, a U of T spokesperson, told me, “There has not been one [sexual assault] in the two years I’ve been here.” She referred me to the Toronto Police Service for numbers for the past decade. The police said they were too busy and told me to file a Freedom of Information request.

So I did my own research. On-line, I found references to numerous sexual assaults at U of T, including a particularly brutal one in 2008. I called Stephens back to tell her that she was wrong. When she bothered to check, she found that the campus police had recorded 41 incidents since 2000 at all three campuses: downtown, Mississauga and Scarborough.

Why should anyone have to work so hard to gather information that serves the public? In the U.S., all universities that participate in federal financial-aid programs are required by law to disclose their crime statistics for the previous three years. The law, which came into effect in 1990, is called the Clery Act, named after Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old freshman who was raped and murdered in 1986 in her dorm at Lehigh University in Pennsyl­vania. Her grieving parents later learned that 38 violent crimes had been committed on campus in the three years leading up to their daughter’s death, but no one had told the students.

As a result, Columbia University, for example, posts easy-to-find charts on its Web site. So does Harvard. With three clicks of my mouse, I learned that from 2006 to 2008 Harvard had 82 reported rapes. (American law still uses the term “rape.”) The U.S. Department of Education monitors Clery Act compliance and can impose penalties of $27,500 per violation.

I believe we need our own Clery Act. Without it, universities in Canada will continue to provide a false sense of security. Even with all the self-defence classes and security cameras and free whistles floating around, campuses are perceived to be safe environments, where 17-year-old kids, away from their parents often for the first time, can drop their guards and experiment with adulthood. Let’s acknowledge that university campuses are porous, no matter what measures are in place.

In the past few decades, several large psychological studies in Canada and in the U.S. have shown that a significant number—between 30 and 60 per cent, depending on the study—of college-aged males say they would commit sexual assault if they were certain they would not get caught.

In an attempt to determine if Katsnelson understood the consequences of his actions, a corrections official asked what he thought the victims would take away from these crimes. “They might now know to keep their doors locked,” Katsnelson said. In a terrible sense, the rapist was right.