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Their stories: sexual assault on Nelson campuses

Two former Nelson students share their stories following the #MeToo campaign
Laela Haedt and Mharianne McKeeve are sharing the stories of their educational institution’s response to their sexual assault complaints in the hopes of improving the system in the future. Photo: Will Johnson

It was about four years ago that Nelson singer Laela Heidt was faced with an impossible decision — report her sexual assailant to police, potentially “ruining his life,” or keep silent about what happened to her.

She was 16 years old at the time, a new student to Selkirk College’s music program, and she struggled with what to do.

“You feel really isolated and alone, because it feels like if you bring it up everyone will look at you differently,” the 20-year-old told the Star, following the #MeToo social media campaign.

“When I went through what I did, it’s not that I don’t think the school tried to make a difference in the aftermath. But just because of the social stigma that exists around these topics, it felt like the school wanted me to be quiet, and we just wanted to keep going like everything was going to be OK — which it was — but the mental end was really hard for me.”

Now she’s speaking out, alongside fellow Nelsonite Mharianne McKeeve, in the hopes of encouraging local educational institutions to examine the ways they protect and support victims of sexual harassment and assault, and to show other people experiencing what they did that they’re not alone.

Laela’s story

Thinking back, Heidt can remember hearing stories about sexual assault and “naïvely” thinking that would never happen to her — which meant she was unprepared to process what happened when it did.

The emotional tumult following Heidt’s assault left her questioning her value, and struggling to have healthy relationships with the men in her life.

She sought the help of an on-campus counsellor, who was instrumental in helping her get through the experience, but she wishes she understood at the time how prevalent the problem was, and that there were other people going through exactly what she was.

“I feel like seeing you’re not alone, and campaigns like #MeToo, make a big difference,” she said.

“This is everywhere. I’m not here to **** on the school, or **** on the person who did this to me, because I have moved forward and the school did its best to help me. But I’m here today because most people don’t come forward and let it fester, and let these things affect their value.”

Heidt was pleased to learn that Selkirk has instituted a new sexual assault policy, and hopes it will make a difference. She believes students coming to the college should receive talks about sexual assault and harassment on the first day of school, at orientation.

“I want to get the message out that this is in high schools, colleges and small towns — I want this to be more open to discussion, which will take away the fear and social stigma I experienced.

“I did come forward with the story, but on my end I was really scared. I was mad, but I didn’t want to ruin anybody’s life. I remember just wanting to feel normal, because being 16 in college you already feel like the black sheep,” she said.

“I feel like fear made me bury what happened to me, and that probably happens to lots of people. I wouldn’t say I’ve overcome the fear, but the more I’ve been able to talk about it the easier it is to move forward with my life.”

Mharianne’s story

While Mharianne McKeeve was a high school student at L.V. Rogers, she played on a sports team that was really important to her. Unfortunately, that brought her into routine proximity with her assailant — something she shared with the school administration. The thing is, the assault had occurred off school grounds and not during school hours.

“Grade 12 was a really hard year for me. I had a lot going on, and this happened right before I started so I was really close to dropping out of school,” she said.

“The one class I kept going to, which I loved, he was in. That was really hard for me to navigate and to try and figure out how to handle being around him constantly.”

She reached out to a school counsellor, and she received support to go through with pressing charges. But then she learned the evidence she had wasn’t enough to go forward, even though she had heard stories from another student involving the same person.

She was disappointed in the Nelson Police Department’s response, and said they didn’t return phone calls.

“Two of us came forward to try to get the ball rolling so we could have some comfort going to school, and I was told it was brought into a meeting. Then I heard there were people being forceful about getting our names out, which was terrifying to me.”

Her fear: “I thought people would say I was crazy, or they wouldn’t believe me.”

She has a vivid memory of him approaching her during class, and being frozen in place. She had a previously close relationship with her assailant, and that’s something she believes people don’t realize — quite often the people responsible for sexual harassment or assault are close friends or family members.

“This person had shown so much aggression towards me that I was actually nervous being around him, and I didn’t want to be in the same school as him — and that was a whole year.”

The school administration brought in a speaker and led the group in a team-building exercise, but McKeeve was disappointed that “the one person who should’ve been there wasn’t.”

Creating violence-free campuses

Sexual violence and harassment is something that Selkirk College president Angus Graeme takes seriously. Over the past three years the college has introduced a Healthy Campus advisor, Leslie Comrie, as well as a new sexual assault policy that gives students a clear guideline for how to report what has happened to them and seek help.

“Over the last three years the college has put focused effort into making sure that our students and staff feel safe and supported. This is absolutely critical if we are to achieve our aspiration of a violence-free, safe and inclusive college,” Graeme told the Star.

Comrie is a former instructor and a human services professional, and is prepared to deal with students face-to-face when they come to her. In the wake of the #MeToo campaign, she’s working with students on a daily basis who need her support.

“Through the work Leslie is doing with students and staff on a daily basis, campaigns like #MeToo are being talked about and learned from as a matter of course on all our campuses.”

A new initiative they’ve begun is called “Bringing in the Bystander,” a training program that’s been in place since the fall. Based on the work of Jackson Katz, it’s a workshop-style course that involves peer-to-peer training to “help participants understand the continuum of inappropriate sexual behaviour and develop skills of intervention.”

Recently Selkirk released a video, introduced by Graeme and featuring local artist and teacher Matty Hillman, called “Selkirk Men Speak Out Against Sexual Violence”. In the short film, the pair speak out against a form of masculinity that involves “disempowerment, violence, sexualization and control over others.”

“Violence against women is a men’s issue, and men are responsible for stopping it,” Hillman says.

“Because rape culture and male privilege are so deeply embedded in our society, they can be easy to overlook or dismiss. To change this culture we need a spirit of compassion.”

‘A community approach is essential’

L.V. Rogers principal Tamara Malloff can’t speak to the specifics of McKeeve’s case, which happened before she took the job, but she acknowledged that these situations can be extremely complex to navigate — both for the students, and the administration.

She was deeply moved by the people coming forward during the #MeToo campaign, and feels there needs to be a cultural shift towards believing people who come forward with stories of assault or harassment.

“With recent media exposure, we hope that students feel there is less of a stigma around disclosing and reporting,” she said.

“We want to ensure that we address assault and harassment at the cultural level as a school, through developing proactive relationships with our students.”

Malloff said that when dealing with cases like this, a community approach is essential. Cooperating with Victim Services and the Nelson Police Department, they’re working to smooth out any wrinkles in their processes to better support those coming forward.

“We’ll continue to refine our response protocols at the school level, but we know that a wider cohesive approach will be the key. We’ve learned that as a school, with finite resources and an increasing mandate, that a community and district approach is not only helpful, but essential.”