How SFU’s mishandling of sexual assault excaberated my trauma

Sexual assault damaged my mental health, SFU’s negligence worsened it further

Illustration courtesy of Julien Posture.

Written by: Sarah Russo

Content Warning: heavy discussion of sexual assault, mentions of suicide

Three days into my time at SFU, I was sexually assaulted. I’ve heard people compare going to university to beginning a brand new chapter of your life. In high school, I always looked forward to setting off on my own and having a fresh start. But my brand new chapter was tainted and miserable, shifting my life’s genre from a coming-of-age to a tragedy — and SFU’s lack of action ensured that it stayed that way for over eight months.

I was assaulted on Labour Day weekend. SFU’s Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office (SVSPO) was closed for the holiday, and I didn’t know where to turn. I had told my best friend about it but, halfway across the country settling into her own new chapter, she wasn’t equipped to deal with something so awful. I don’t remember how I found MySSP, but I downloaded the app and was connected to someone to talk to. 

I sat in my concrete dorm room, bawling my eyes out, summoning the courage to type out: “I think I was sexually assaulted.” I expected  comfort. Instead, I was asked about my phrasing: why “I think”? I explained that I was still trying to grasp what had happened, and that I felt like it was my fault. The person on the other end asked me where that stemmed from. I made a crack about Catholic guilt. They asked me more questions about religious trauma until I thanked them and deleted the app. I needed validation, support, confirmation — even just to be told “it’s not your fault” — but all I received was interrogation. 

In the grand scheme of things, this was absolutely miniscule. In the coming months, I would be put through hell. I would be strung along by the people investigating my case for eight months. I would have to drop out so I didn’t kill myself. I would be told by an RCMP officer that I was “young and beautiful” and that “not all men are like this” during a conversation in which he told me that there was no evidence to support my report to the police. 

The failure of the MySSP app was the first time that SFU failed me as a survivor, but it certainly wasn’t the last. 

When classes started, I was able to get in contact with the SVSPO and get the validation I needed and deserved. Yes, what happened was sexual assault, and no, it was not at all my fault. From there, I sought to move forward. I was asked about whether or not I might want to report what happened to me, and my answer was an adamant no. 

I knew that with adapting to my cross-country move, living on my own for the first time, starting university, and processing my trauma, I didn’t have the emotional strength to go through the reporting process, and that was fine by me. 

Then, at the end of September, I found out about the other girls. In over just a month of being on campus, the student who assaulted me had attempted to assault and harass three other women. I was the first. I knew then that the assault wasn’t my fault, but I still couldn’t help but blame myself for not saying anything about it. After about a month of research and breakdowns, I decided to report my sexual assault to both SFU and the RCMP. 

The beginning of the reporting process made me feel more fragile than ever. Accompanied by my case manager at the SVSPO, I went to the Maggie Benston Centre to describe what happened to me that night in explicit detail to a total stranger. They would talk to him after and go from there. I was told — or rather warned — that the person conducting the investigation was new to this and as such, I was supposed to communicate if something was or wasn’t working. In essence, I was a lab rat. 

As the investigation began, interim measures were implemented. He was moved out of my building and forbidden access to it. He wasn’t allowed to contact me or be within 50 feet of me. Finally, I was allowed to choose three separate hours a day during which he would not be allowed in the dining hall. At first, this was ideal. The main place I had seen him was at the dining hall and it had become my main source of anxiety

It was nice to know that there were pockets of time that he wasn’t allowed in there. I’ll never know if he didn’t check the time or if he did it out of spite, but he violated this rule several times. I started being unable to go to the dining hall without my friends scoping it out first, even during the hours he wasn’t supposed to be there. When classes ended, I was unable to get breakfast before my exams. When the second semester started, before new hours were implemented for my new schedule, I sustained myself on granola bars and burgers my friends procured for me from the dining hall. 

I reported the assault in early November. When I asked about the timeline of the investigation, I was given vague answers. Eventually, I was told that the investigative report would be submitted to the university between the last week of January and the first week of February. After that, it would take four weeks to make a decision. By this time, it had been four months, and while that wasn’t ideal, with an end date in sight, I thought it would be bearable.. 

Over the course of those months, however, my mental health took a sharp decline. I spent my mornings sobbing, unable to get out of bed. I barely went to class for fear of seeing him on campus, and when I did go to class, I would cry my way through it. Despite having those designated dining hall hours, I couldn’t bring myself to go. He’d violated the interim measures before. Why wouldn’t he again? I continued to rely on my friends to get me food, supplementing it with Pocky from the vending machine. I had reached a horribly low point, but I had faith that the report would be filed with the university at the end of January, and all would be well. 

On February 6, I received an email from the investigator telling me that the report would take longer than anticipated. When I pressed for a timeline, I was told that the report itself would take another week, which meant another five weeks before I would get an answer. 

On February 9, I went to the hospital because I was afraid I would hurt myself. I felt out of control. 

On February 11, I flew home for reading week early, despite having classes for the rest of the week. I knew if I stayed and was triggered by something, I wouldn’t make it home. On the way to the airport, I had a scheduled call with the person in charge of the investigation. It would be delayed further, and they were not able to give me a timeline. 

I withdrew from classes that semester, and flew back to campus after reading week to collect my belongings and move back home. It killed me to be leaving my friends, and I felt like a failure. But ultimately, I knew what was best for me. 

On March 9, I received an update: the entire process was to be completed in April. It wasn’t just the report being submitted and having to wait four more weeks — I was supposed to receive an answer. On March 31, I received another one: despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the process would not be delayed. That had marked nearly five months since I had reported it. 

On April 27, I received word that the report had been submitted and that the process would be completed as a whole by the end of May. The extensions were agonizing. My mental health wasn’t getting any better. I started my applications to other schools.

I held onto that date for the entire month. May 31. Finally, it would be done. As they’d told me back in late 2019, the decision-maker would have four weeks to decide whether or not he would be found guilty. 

May 31 came and went with radio silence. On June 2, I received yet another email: it would take longer and no, they could not give me a date. At least they told me, like they did in every email, that they “acknowledged the impact” this had on me. As if I believed it at this point.

It was June 19 when I finally got an answer— over eight months since I’d reported it and over ten months since the assault itself. Even the RCMP had given an answer to me before that, and they had ignored my phone calls for five months of the process. 

Although I’m not allowed to tell anyone aside from my family and “a trusted friend” what the outcome was, I think the fact that I’ve remained at SFU speaks for itself. 

SFU certainly isn’t the worst institution in the world when it comes to sexual violence. I’ve heard horror stories of schools silencing survivors or blaming them. For what it’s worth, the school inadvertently gave me an amazing support system. I will forever be grateful for the people working at the SVSPO. 

They connected me with a designated sexual violence counsellor at SFU Health & Counselling. They got a professor to allow me to retake a quiz I’d failed because I had seen my abuser on campus and spent the night shaking instead of studying. I would not have passed my first semester without that sort of help; I would not have survived my terminated second semester either. However, things would not have been so bad if I had not been so mistreated by the administration in the first place. 

It has been over a year since both the assault and the report and I’m still alive. I turn 20 soon but I remember not even thinking I’d make it to 19. I have PTSD, anxiety, and depression, but I’m coping with it. I’m still an SFU student, working towards getting my degree. You might think this is an uplifting ending, and maybe it is. I’m happy, for the most part. However, I don’t think I’ll ever truly get closure. 

It’s not because the police didn’t find any evidence. I always expected the worst. It’s because I am not allowed to name the man that found my protests inconsequential. I am not allowed to warn any of his romantic pursuits of what he did to me. I’m not even allowed to know all the consequences that SFU gave him, and the ones that I do know of, I’m not allowed to talk about. In speaking up, I’ve been silenced. 

I write this in fear of backlash. I write this in fear of losing my scholarship. 

I write this in fear of allowing SFU to treat more survivors this way because they have not been held complicit. 

I write this in confidence that it’s time for this to change.

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