Report details gaps, improvements in sexualized violence response at King’s

An interim report by investigators tasked with probing allegations of sexual assault involving a former professor at the University of King’s College has found there is plenty of room for improvement in tackling sexualized violence at the Halifax school, but good work is being done to address challenges.

The University of King’s College hired two Toronto lawyers in March 2021 to conduct a third-party review of allegations against longtime professor Wayne John Hankey.

Hankey was facing three criminal trials for charges of sexual assault, indecent assault and gross indecency for incidents involving former students between 1977 and 1988, but he died in early February before any of the trials took place.

The interim report of the investigators, Janice Rubin and Elizabeth Bingham, was released to the King’s community on Tuesday. It contains their recommendations on how King’s can ensure it is providing safe environment with regard to sexualized violence. Another report from the investigators is expected in September, and will detail their findings on allegations involving Hankey.

The report is based on 273 responses to a survey conducted of current King’s faculty, staff and students, and alumni from the classes of 2019, 2020 and 2021, as well as interviews with 43 of those respondents.

‘Culture of silence’

Many respondents said they had heard rumours about Hankey’s conduct, or were warned about Hankey by upper-year students, friends or family members, with some saying they heard about allegations within days of starting their studies. 

Those rumours, the report said, affected the respondents’ perception of the school, making some feel that King’s didn’t take allegations of misconduct seriously.

One participant told the reviewers: “Having Wayne Hankey on payroll and in the community of King’s for so long has set a precedent for ignoring allegations of sexual abuse, and that culture is pervasive.”

Many spoke of a “culture of silence” at King’s regarding sexualized violence, including the feeling that the school would cover up allegations of sexual misconduct.

“It feels that nothing is dealt with until there is public pressure and media attention. The focus is on burying things,” one person told the investigators.

Former King’s professor Wayne John Hankey was facing three trials for sexual offences but died in February before the first trial took place. (CBC)

Another theme that emerged in the survey and interviews was that King’s is a small and tight-knit community, which could be a barrier to people speaking up about sexualized violence, as doing so could ruin relationships or become fodder for rumour.

The small community at King’s and the close relationships between students and professors was seen as an advantage by many, but some respondents also said “unhealthy power dynamics” can lead to boundary-crossing behaviour, including “romantic overtures made by professors towards students.”

Participants told the reviewers that since students at King’s come predominantly from a wealthy and white background, people who do not fit into that culture may not feel comfortable reporting sexualized violence because they believe it would be futile and they could face greater social consequences.

Many respondents told the investigators of their own experiences of sexualized violence at King’s, including sexual harassment, threats of sexual violence, and sexual assault in residence. Some participants said they were dismissed by residence dons when they came forward, and some said dons themselves made sexual advances toward students or were involved in sexual relationships with students.

Alcohol was also a factor noted by some participants in the survey, including many reports of drink tampering at the campus pub, the Wardroom. The report notes that Wardroom staff have taken action to address drink tampering, including training for staff.

Positive steps on campus

King’s introduced its sexualized violence awareness, prevention and response policy in 2018, and now has a sexual health and safety officer who garnered praise by many survey participants.

The investigators found the policy “robust and consistent with best practices,” and many participants said it has made a positive change on campus.

But many respondents said they had received little or no training on the policy, and they felt training should be both mandatory and ongoing.

Recommendations

Rubin and Bingham made a handful of recommendations, including that King’s come to terms with its past.

“We believe that there is a compelling need for King’s to reckon with its history,” the reviewers wrote. “It was evident from the survey responses and interviews that the alleged misconduct of Dr. Hankey continues to deeply impact the present-day King’s community. Participants described feelings of anger, hurt, and betrayal towards King’s, particularly following the announcement of criminal charges against Dr. Hankey in 2021.”

The investigators recommended that King’s implement supports for the community when they release their second report this fall.

They also suggested that King’s consider improving training on its sexualized violence policy, including making it mandatory.

The university should provide a forum for King’s professors to reflect on their role as teachers and mentors, and how they can “maintain the highest standards of professionalism in their relationships with students.” The school should produce a document addressing appropriate boundaries between professors and students, the report recommends.

The reviewers cautioned against relying too heavily on the school’s sexual health and safety officer, who the report notes often serves as a “first responder” for students who have experienced sexualized violence. They also suggested:

  • Creating a checklist of steps to take after a sexualized violence disclosure is made.

  • Creating a process for dealing with multiple disclosures about the same person.

  • Addressing how documents relating to reports about sexualized violence are kept, accessed and maintained.

  • Requiring members of the school’s sexualized violence hearing panel to be trained in topics related to sexualized violence. The three-member panel is appointed to review investigation reports and provide recommendations and ensure procedural fairness.

  • Prohibiting investigators from asking survivors irrelevant questions about their past sexual history.

  • Creating an explicit timeline for appeals.

University response

The university declined an interview request from CBC News about the report, but a statement to the King’s community contained an apology.

“The information shared with [law firm] Rubin Thomlinson shows that many members of our community have experienced sexualized violence or vulnerability to sexualized violence without having the protection and support they should have been provided. To all of these members of our community, we are sorry. We must address the ways in which King’s has failed you.”

The statement said King’s accepts all the recommendations and is developing an action plan in response.

“While an action plan is necessary, we understand that more is required than policy, procedures and sharing information on the university’s website,” the statement said. 

“What is called for is a fundamental change in our culture and a deep reckoning with our past. We have started that process of change, but we must recognize we have a long way to go and that it is the responsibility of the university as a whole and not of those who have individualized experiences with, and vulnerabilities to, sexualized violence to take the lead role in this work.”

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