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University grapples with sexual-assault allegations against football players


ANTIGONISH, N.S. — The bucolic university campus is set in a small Nova Scotia town: A cluster of steeples, ivy-covered brick and stone buildings and manicured sports fields.

St. Francis Xavier University, an undergraduate-focused school with Antigonish County's rolling hills as a backdrop, is a tight-knit community with small class sizes, a familial atmosphere and a strong spirit.

It also has a reputation as a party school, with rowdy weekends and a binge-drinking culture — one that is under scrutiny after allegations of sexual assault surfaced last week.

Two varsity football players have been charged with sexual assault. Both have been released with conditions and are set to appear in provincial court in January, police said.

The allegations first came to light after an 18-year-old woman reported an alleged sexual assault to Antigonish RCMP on Wednesday, Nov. 22.

She said the incident took place over the previous weekend.

During their investigation, another victim — a 19-year-old woman — came forward and alleged that one of the accused had also sexually assaulted her, RCMP said.

She said the assaults happened on two separate occasions on campus, once in September and again in November, police said.

RCMP said Jonah Williams, 19, has been charged with three counts of sexual assault, while Tyler Ball, 18, was charged with one count of sexual assault. Both men played defensive back for the X-Men varsity football team, but their online profiles have since been removed.

The university administration has responded by imposing immediate interim measures against the two students while an internal investigation is conducted.

"One of the accused has been denied access to campus. The other has been granted restricted access to campus, only permitted to attend classes," Andrew Beckett, head of student services and vice-president of finance and administration, said an emailed statement. "It is important to note that arrangements are being made to allow continuation of course work remotely."

He added that all student privileges have been revoked, including participating in varsity athletics.

The allegations against the young men have not been tested in court. But the charges have rekindled a wider conversation about sexual assault allegations and universities.

Although St. F.X. recently introduced new consent and sexual violence training, as well as a victim-centric sexual assault policy, such allegations underscore the need for greater awareness about sexual assault on campus, the student union president said.

"We can always do more," said Annie Sirois. "But the fact that people are reporting these incidents is indicative that these education programs are working."

Sirois rejected the notion that St. F.X. has an out-of-control party culture.

"It's a really social atmosphere. We definitely have fun but we work hard," she said. "Most first-years live in residence and there is a really strong sense of community ... you're kind of indoctrinated into this family."

One of the accused was also reportedly a house president of a student residence, a leadership position among the student body.

"You can be really popular and a really amazing athlete and have great grades and still be a perpetrator of sexualized violence," said Heather Blackburn, manager of the sexual assault nurse examiner program at the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre.

It's not until recently that society has inherently believed the victims of sexualized violence, Blackburn said.

"We are at a watershed moment now in North America," she said.

Blackburn stressed that sexual education during orientation week at the Antigonish university has improved by "leaps and bounds." But she said awareness about consent and what constitutes sexualized violence needs to start earlier.

"If the first conversation they have about consent is at university, it may be too late," she said. "Evidence suggests that one-off conversations tend to not change attitudes and behaviour."

While the small university campus in a rural area has its benefits, she said it can also make it hard for victims to come forward and report crimes.

"We know that sexualized violence tends to go unreported or under reported ... especially in rural Nova Scotia."

- By Brett Bundale in Halifax

The Canadian Press

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