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Former administrator leads sexual harassment complaint against B.C. university

Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C. Katrin Roth, a former Crown prosecutor in Alberta and Vancouver Island University’s director of human rights, filed the human-rights complaint this past July on behalf of women at the school.

John Gardiner

Vancouver Island University is facing a human-rights complaint that it failed to protect female staff who said they were being sexually harassed by a student who engaged in fetishistic behaviour in and out of the classroom.

The complaint is led by the school's former director of human rights and workplace safety, who says she was fired because she continued to investigate the matter that pitted the rights of employees against a student who argued his behaviour was a condition that needed to be accommodated.

Internal e-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail, as well as interviews, other documents and a formal complaint filed with B.C.'s Human Rights Tribunal outline allegations that the student wished to be treated like an infant, wearing a soother around his neck, talking in a baby voice and submitting an assignment that included a photo of him in a diaper.

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Vancouver Island University, which is located in Nanaimo, B.C., declined to discuss the matter specifically, writing in a statement that it hired an outside lawyer to investigate and takes the safety of students, faculty and staff seriously.

The student did not respond to interview requests. The Globe has chosen to not name the student as the complaint is aimed at the university for its handling of the case.

Katrin Roth, a former Crown prosecutor in Alberta who in 2013 was named Vancouver Island University's director of human rights, filed the human-rights complaint this past July on behalf of women at the school. B.C.'s Human Rights Tribunal ruled the complaint could potentially proceed, but the initial filing was too broad. Ms. Roth has until the end of November to submit an amended version.

Ms. Roth alleges the student sexually harassed at least half a dozen women at two of the university's campuses over approximately a two-year period, starting around 2015. She said the school failed to take quick or meaningful action.

"Steps must be taken in a timely manner and they have to be effective," she said in an interview.

Ms. Roth added: "There is no law in Canada that I know of, either in legislation, in policy, in human-rights case law jurisprudence, that would require women to endure or tolerate having a male impose his sexual fetish on them. That's unreasonable."

Janis Ledwell-Hunt, an English professor at Vancouver Island University and chair of its women's studies program, said she first met the student in 2015 when she was teaching a literature course.

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"Since meeting him, I second-guess everything I do in a classroom, in and around communicating with students," she wrote in a document prepared to assist with the amended human-rights complaint. Prof. Ledwell-Hunt detailed her exchanges with the student, stating that he e-mailed her more often than other students tend to, but she initially believed it was well-intended. However, she said his behaviour turned "odd."

She said the student would regularly stare at her chest and bring in children's books for her to read aloud. She said he began wearing a soother around his neck and once denied a request from her by answering in a baby voice.

Prof. Ledwell-Hunt said the student would ask her to take walks and once remarked he'd seen her ride away from school on her motorcycle. She believed he was letting her know he was watching her.

The student submitted the photo of himself in a diaper as part of a brief essay. Prof. Ledwell-Hunt believed he was attempting to have her play a role in his fantasies, she wrote in the document assisting the human-rights complaint.

The professor said she grew fearful of the student on campus and began compulsively checking the locks at home. She said she even altered her appearance, cutting her hair very short so others would be less inclined to view her as maternal.

When she reported the student's conduct to a university official, Prof. Ledwell-Hunt said she was told the behaviour could amount to sexual harassment. However, she said the official told her to grade the assignment containing the diaper photo nonetheless.

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Prof. Ledwell-Hunt said the university official later told her the student was threatening to file a human-rights complaint and was arguing he was being "discriminated against on the basis of his exceptionality." The official said the student also suggested he had a disability but did not immediately provide additional evidence, according to the e-mails obtained by The Globe.

The university asked Prof. Ledwell-Hunt if she would grant the student's request to meet face-to-face and let him continue the course (he feared he would not be allowed to stay). The professor refused. The university ultimately removed the student from the class.

However, Prof. Ledwell-Hunt said the student enrolled in a colleague's class soon after. She said the university did not offer the colleague any sort of warning.

She said the second professor grew so concerned by the student's behaviour that she had her male partner accompany her to evening sessions.

"I really feel that [Vancouver Island University] absolutely dropped the ball on this on a number of occasions," Prof. Ledwell-Hunt said in an interview.

Ms. Roth said the school had an obligation to protect women on campus, no matter what the situation. When she attempted to investigate the matter, she alleges she was obstructed by other university employees.

She was fired from her position in January and wrote in the sexual-harassment complaint her dismissal was "in retaliation for seeking evidence and endeavouring to support the female survivors by advising them of their right to file a human-rights complaint."

Ms. Roth has filed a separate human-rights complaint over her firing.

She said the sexual-harassment claim is about empowering the women involved. Through her investigation she said she knows of six women who were harassed: two professors, two staff employees, one counsellor and one medical professional. She said the student's behaviour included following women to isolated areas, repeatedly asking them out on dates and leering.

Shortly after Ms. Roth was fired, she wrote a letter to the then-chair of the university's board requesting a review by an outside lawyer. Prof. Ledwell-Hunt said she was interviewed as part of that review but was not apprised of its findings. The results of the review have not been made public.

Several Vancouver Island University employees and board members, including the school's president, did not grant interview requests. The school issued written statements through its chief financial officer and privacy officer.

"We are confident the university acted appropriately throughout, and that there is no existing risk to our community related to this matter," the statement from the chief financial officer, Shelley Legin, read.

The statement added the university's risk and threat assessment protocols were appropriately followed.

"We confirm that the University took all appropriate and reasonable actions to respond to any concerns that were raised and to protect the safety and well-being of our campus community. This matter has been carefully and thoughtfully investigated by an experienced and legally trained external investigator who determined that actions of the University were reasonable."

The university's privacy officer, Marie Armstrong, said the school could not disclose any specific information about the matter owing to B.C.'s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Ms. Roth and Prof. Ledwell-Hunt said they were not aware of the student having enrolled in any courses over the past several months.

Liberals announce bill to crack down on workplace harassment (The Canadian Press)
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