Last year, the Ontario government launched It’s Never Okay, an action plan requiring workplaces and post-secondary campuses to protect their communities from sexual violence through the development of prevention programs. Bill 132, a central part of the plan, was passed that March. Under the bill, each of the province’s 44 universities and colleges were obligated to implement standalone sexual violence policies by January 1, 2017.
Bill 132 reinforced what activists and academics have long insisted: that post-secondary schools have a responsibility to address sexual assault. Here, experts explain why colleges and universities play a vital role in helping survivors cope in the aftermath of sexual violence.
How common is sexual violence on campus?
“College and university campuses are second only to people’s homes as sites of sexual violence,” says Julie Lalonde, an Ottawa-based women’s-rights advocate. “That alone means the issue is their business.”
In recent years, a number of high-profile cases have drawn attention to sexual violence on Canadian campuses. But survivors often don’t report incidents, and institutions seldom discuss them — two factors that have contributed to the misconception that such cases are rare. While Canadian data is hard to find, research suggests that at American colleges and universities, about one in five women will experience sexual violence. Still, it’s estimated that only 1 to 2 per cent of campus assaults are ever formally reported.
Why do so few survivors report to police?
“People make the assumption that if survivors report to the police it will lead to justice,” says Charlene Senn, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Windsor, “but that’s not often the case.” Reports of sexual assault rarely lead to charges, Senn points out, and even when they do, very few of those charges lead to conviction. Plus, punishments are often light: see the case of former Stanford University student Brock Turner, who was sentenced to serve three months in jail after being convicted of rape.
Meanwhile, trials can be incredibly taxing for survivors. Complainants must endure having their privacy invaded and the details of their personal lives scrutinized in the courtroom, and some may become newly traumatized as they revisit their assaults again and again in testimony.
“No one can, in good conscience, suggest that [reporting to police] is the most important thing a survivor could do,” Senn says.
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What can schools offer that the criminal justice system can’t?
Not only can reporting to a school feel less intimidating than reporting to police, it can also lead to more favourable outcomes for survivors. A common misconception, Senn says, is that survivors who report their assaults are all seeking justice. When it comes to complainants who’ve experienced sexual violence on campus, the majority simply need support.
A survivor who makes an informal complaint — meaning they don’t request an investigation or punitive measures — might still get the help they need. If the person’s attacker lives in their dorm or attends one their tutorials, for example, the complainant may ask to be moved to a different residence or classroom. If the complainant needs counselling, the school can provide access to free care. And if they need more time to complete tests or assignments, the institution can accommodate that, too.
“Only the university can take action on those fronts,” Senn says. “That’s not something the criminal justice system can make happen.”
This day-to-day support can help survivors to better cope with trauma. And for student complainants, school accommodations have the potential to salvage academic careers. Lalonde says she personally knows of half a dozen women who transferred schools or dropped out entirely after their universities mishandled their sexual assaults. “Schools should be guaranteeing that people who paid money and who invested time and energy into their dream of going to their institutions aren’t being denied their education,” she says.
What role can schools play in prevention?
If they choose to invest in educational programs, universities and colleges have an opportunity to lessen the risk of sexual assault both on and off campus.
Some schools, such as Wilfrid Laurier University, have mandated consent education, where students learn what consent is, how to properly ask for it, how to give it and how to refuse.
At the University of Windsor, Senn has developed a program for women in first year university that teaches them to recognize and safely remove themselves from situations with coercive partners. The school also provides bystander training—a program that encourages participants to see themselves as potential witnesses and instructs them on how to intervene in order to prevent an assault from taking place. Programs like these empower students and encourage them to see prevention as a collective responsibility.
What should schools focus on now?
While schools implemented their policies earlier this year, advocates say there’s more work to be done. It’s up to institutions to review their policies regularly and change them as needed.
Hayley Moody is a sexual violence counsellor and advocate who works with students at Laurier’s Brantford campus. A queer woman with Ojibwa-Métis roots, she wants schools to prioritize hiring counsellors from a diverse range of backgrounds and to offer cultural-specific support—some Indigenous students, for example, may feel most comfortable speaking with an on-campus elder.
“If a university understands that a student’s intersecting identities impact their experiences as a survivor, then students may feel more comfortable seeking support,” she says.
Megan Jones is a Montreal-based writer and editor who covers health, LGBTQ, and women’s issues.
Photo courtesy of Tohan B. and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
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