In March 2022, the first school term back following pandemic-related closures, Ruth Panofsky, an English professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, said she was approached by a graduate student who disclosed she had been sexually assaulted on campus.
“She was absolutely breathless, fearful and terrorized,” she said.
“I had never experienced anything like that. I have never met anyone in the aftermath of that kind of trauma and my heart just sank.”
The student was assaulted in the bathroom of Kerr Hall and reported it to police who arrested and charged a man in connection to the incident.
Following the assault, Panofsky said she decided to hold virtual classes instead, out of fear for student safety, but in fall 2022, she decided to return to Kerr Hall for classes.
“I went in in good faith, thinking OK, the campus is full of people we will be safer, and then a second assault took place – nearly the same kind of circumstances as the first,” she said.
According to police, in October 2022, a woman said she entered a bathroom and a man she did not know followed her in. The man sexually assaulted her and fled the area.
Police said the incidents are unrelated.
The suspects are not believed to be members of the TMU community.
Following the initial assault, Panofsky said the university didn’t do enough to widely notify staff and students of the assault.
“An announcement was embedded on the (TMU) safe app and the announcement was not disseminated widely to faculty staff or students,” she said.
“The notice was so innocuous. It didn’t indicate … the heinousness of the crime.”
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A petition was launched following the second assault which called for increased security on campus.
“These incidents act as a warning that, without changes made, these attacks will continue to happen and students will live in fear,” the petition reads. It has garnered more than 13,000 signatures.
Following the second assault, Mohamed Lachemi, president of TMU, issued a statement that read in part, “we have been hearing from our community about safety in response to reports of sexual assaults in Kerr Hall. It is concerning that something like this would happen on our campus and I want to assure our community that we acknowledge and share your concerns.”
“We have invested, and will continue to invest a great deal of time and resources in campus security. Our security operations team takes a proactive approach by innovating, growing and adding specific training to programs that improve our ability to respond,” the statement said.
On Jan. 10, 2023, the university outlined a series of safety enhancements implemented in Kerr Hall, including the installation of 16 new CCTV cameras, the addition of security guards and Crime Prevention Specialists stationed specifically in Kerr Hall and the implementation of 187 new locations for new duress buttons, which will be installed between now and the end of August 2023.
Panofsky said she is unsure if those measures will enhance safety.
“Kerr Hall ought not to be used as a place where faculty and students should be learning and teaching. It should not be a place where people hold office hours and congregate,” she said.
In a letter posted to the university’s website on Friday, TMU president Mohamed Lachemi said the school’s senior leadership and community safety and security teams “have been listening to our community’s concerns.”
“Unfortunately, concerns about public safety are not unique to our campus, it is a reality in many parts of our city today, particularly following the pandemic,” Lachemi said in the letter. “Immediately after the first incident in March 2022, I personally spoke with the Mayor and our City Councillor, asking them to increase a range of services in our area in order to increase and improve safety and well-being.”
Lachemi said the university is “actively working” with the city, Toronto police, and others to develop a “community centric approach” to safety and security.
Lachemi encouraged members of the community to share ideas about improving safety and well-being on campus.
“We all want to create an environment where we can teach, study, learn, research and work together peacefully,” the letter said. “I always appreciate feedback from our community and we will always make a concerted effort to address your concerns.”
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, find available supports at the ‘Getting Help’ page of the Ending Violence Association of Canada.
– with files from Global News’ Isaac Callan
© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.