Support for survivors and prevention of sexual assault on campuses has a long way to go

Brock Students protested the University’s reaction to an alleged sexual assault on campus by a professor in 2016. /CBC

Post-secondary education is a student’s first real taste of freedom. However, that freedom is uncharted territory which can potentially result in vulnerable and even dangerous situations in the lives of students. Ultimately, sexual violence and assault are significant issues on university campuses across Canada.  While legislation has been put in place to try and protect students and survivors of sexual violence and assault, policy often lacks attention to diversity, does not provide accurate timelines for how long it can take for investigations and reports to process, and does not always include resources necessary that could make them effective.

Brock University is no stranger to cases of sexual assault. In 2016, a Brock professor allegedly sexually assaulted a student. The student also being allegedly asked to keep quiet about the investigation that came with the initial report. The incident brought a spotlight to how Brock addresses sexual violence and assault and incited students to protest in front of the Schmon Tower.

This incident in particular was what prompted Brock’s updated Sexual Assault and Harassment Policy; a blanket policy that is specific to acts of sexual violence. The policy is the first time the university has given a definition of sexual violence.

So what has Brock done since to protect students? Is there more Brock could be doing to protect students?

Samantha MacAndrew, a CUPE Local 4207 Equity Officer and soon-to-be graduate of the Social Justice and Equities graduate program at Brock, believes that while Brock’s upgraded policies are a step in the right direction, there is still much that needs to be done in order to further protect students from sexual violence. While there are many factors that need to be taken into account, she says, there are a few significant aspects in need of action: a lack of record keeping, extended and unreliable timelines, a disconnect between avenues of reporting and accommodations, the amount of accommodations available on campus, reactive as opposed to preventative measures being provided and a lack of additional policies for marginalized or vulnerable peoples.

Statistics and record keeping under any circumstance can be difficult to read due in large part to the avenues that survivors may take if they decide to report incidents.

“At Brock University, the office of Human Rights and Equity has annual statistics on the R.W.L.E.P. which is the Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy. So that policy, for awhile, did kind of house any instances of sexual violence. They have annual statistics,” said MacAndrew. “But if you look at their annual reports it is difficult and at times kind of vague what those statistics represent.”

She says the solution to this vagueness is a better, more accurate record keeping process.

“[The lack of record keeping] makes it extremely difficult to not only know if your institution’s doing well itself, but also [how well it’s doing] compared to others,” said MacAndrew.

Brock is not the only university institution that lacks record keeping, she says. “There aren’t very many institutions that have very specific statistics on rates of sexual violence.”

Additionally, many survivors who decide to report sexual assault or harassment through the university are faced with the obstacle of long waiting periods.

MacAndrew, who helped in conducting meetings with students across campus about the new sexual assault policy, found that a significant amount of the feedback had to do with timelines.

“There were a lot of restrictions for people who wanted to process a complaint of sexual violence but not really timelines for the office. It could take up to 60 business days for that type of investigation but also left space for it to potentially take longer.”

The waiting mixed with the unknowing is another reason why survivors may not come forward. Providing quicker, or more accurate timelines may help in easing the anxieties of survivors. While timelines do not have expected waiting periods, there is a flowchart available at the back of the policy that gives a breakdown of disclosure processes labelled as ‘emergency’ and ‘non emergency’ incidents of sexual violence.

Other aspects include how difficult it can be for a survivor to get everything they may need when so many resources are separate from each other.

Accommodations at Brock tend to be fragmented and not in conversation with one another, says MacAndrew. “Say, for example, a student needs to get a form because they missed class, but the organization they went to doesn’t have the system to give them that form and then it takes them too long and they miss class and their grades go lower.”

This can be a deterrent to a survivor who might be considering reporting sexual violence to a university. Fragmented resources leave survivors who do report in a position that often impedes on their incomes and mental health. Additionally, the available resources for survivors are often lacking or unavailable altogether.

“I think there could be more of an emphasis on having things actually at the University,” Manchari Paranthahan, a second year Dramatic Arts undergraduate student and member of the Student Justice Centre (S.J.C.), says. “Right now it’s reaching outside the University, but I wonder if there could be better accommodations at the University like using residence rooms that aren’t filled to be a space for survivors to go if they are needed in an immediate situation.”

MacAndrew, through the feedback she has received from students, found that policy was also vague on the subject of resources. “There are a lot of questions around accommodation. Although it was meant in a way to better help survivors because you can’t always know what someone might need or timelines or specifics, it’s also such a grey area that you don’t know what help you could potentially get, so while the policy is a good first step, myself and a couple other students explained that we shouldn’t celebrate and stop. We need to work still a lot harder to continue fixing policy.”

While the sexual assault and harassment policy is a great starting point to better serve and protect the Brock community, both MacAndrew and Paranthahan believe that it does not do enough to protect students before situations of sexual violence occur.

“There wasn’t a huge emphasis on sexual violence prevention. That’s a reactionary approach,” Paranthahan said. “Sexual violence prevention needs to be about prevention as well as reacting. It has to put things in place for students after the fact but it also has to do things before.”

Brock’s policy is also reactionary to situations prompted by the public sphere, like the sexual assault case that received significant media coverage in 2016. Additionally, the creation of Bill 132 may have also played a key role in the creation of the newer policy. The Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act (Supporting Survivors and Challenging Sexual Violence and Harassment), known as Bill 132, put into effect that all post-secondary institutions would need to have a sexual violence policy in place. Up until this point there were only nine universities in Canada that did.

Additionally, the need to push for a policy change may have likely been caused by student demonstrations on campus.

While having this new policy in place is a promising step in the right direction for Brock, it is a blanket policy that covers the entirety of the Brock community. The problem with having this type of policy is that it doesn’t take into account marginalized or vulnerable peoples who are more likely to experience higher rates of sexual violence.

“What we have right now protects the mainstream student body at best,” Paranthahan says. “I think we need to look at the roots of sexual violence, how it has been used as a way to marginalize people and to silence people and acquire power over other people. I don’t think we have enough going on yet.”

“Even with policy as it is already, it doesn’t tend to incorporate intersectionality,” MacAndrew says. “Having a one-size-fits-all policy, in my mind, doesn’t help.”

While the core content of the policy could be updated to better service the Brock community, both MacAndrew and Paranthahan made note of the size and overall clarity of the policy could also play a role in whether or not survivors decide to seek resources on campus.

“If I was a survivor and I wanted to know how the university could protect me and I looked at the policy, I don’t think that I would feel comfortable in what it was offering me,” Paranthahan says. “There was a lot of information that, unless you were subject to policies and that kind of information, wouldn’t be easy to grasp.”

“The policy is very long. It obviously needs to be because it covers a lot of different things but there are also a lot of gaps,” MacAndrew says. “Restorative justice is one of the things in the policy that is kind of an alternative to the resolution process but there are no specifics of ‘what does that process look like’ so there are gaps in that sort of way.”

Even with the flowchart available at the back of the policy, the inconsistencies can make the process difficult and daunting for a survivor to make sense of it all. This is especially true without an access to some form of interpretation as the policy can be long and difficult to understand on its own.

“Policy may not be perfect but the point is to give survivors options,” MacAndrew says, “you’re not really giving them options if it’s not a policy that someone’s going to trust enough to use, or know enough, or if it’s implemented properly.”

While the policy itself could use some work, whether that be through reevaluating gaps and inconsistencies or adding more to prevent and protect,  it’s still a good start. With the policy being updated on a yearly basis through the help of student feedback it will only continue to grow more from here. The criticism, MacAndrew says, it not simply for the sake of criticizing.

“If it weren’t for these organizations being in place it would be much worse,” MacAndrew says. “From my point of view, it’s great that they’re there it’s just there are things that need to be improved.”

If you would like to get involved in sexual violence prevention on campus there are many different avenues you could follow, school run or otherwise. Brock has a Sexual Violence Prevention Committee on campus that was created for the purpose of “identifying and recommending strategies to improve Brock’s policies, and processes in relation to sexual violence awareness, prevention, and response.”

The Sexual Violence Prevention Committee also had additional sub-committees that address Education Working, Student Policy Consultation, Research and Funding, and Services and Supports. If you become a member of the Sexual Violence Prevention Committee, you can join any one of these sub-committees that are most meaningful to you.

Additionally, the SJC will be offering a sexual violence prevention workshop with an emphasis on diversity Wednesday Sept. 27 between 5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. in Thistle 252. The event will discuss diverse narratives and will feature a panel of student leaders on campus.

If you or someone you know have experienced some form of sexual violence and are in need of assistance, there are many resources on campus as well. A Safer Brock, the Brock Student Sexual Violence Support Centre, offers different kinds of support that are free and confidential. This includes a 24 hour texting line (289-990-7233), 24 hour email support (Support@ASaferBrock.org), phone support (905-397-7671), peer support, advocacy, accompaniments, court support, and financial and practical assistance. A Safer Brock also gives you the option of complete anonymity if you prefer. For more information, please visit asaferbrock.org.

The SJC will also begin drop in hours within the next few weeks for peer support and additional resources. There are also resources listed at the back of Brock’s Sexual Assault and Harassment policy that detail emergency services, off campus sexual assault centres, as well as listing campus security and residence numbers.

 

Your mental health is important. If you are in crisis, there are services that can help. If you need to speak with someone right away, please contact the Good 2 Talk 24 hour hotline  at 1-866-925-5454, or the Niagara distress Centre at 905-688-3711 for help. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please call 911 right away.

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