Universities, colleges grapple with sexual assault issue

It is estimated that one in three Canadian women will experience sexual assault in their adult life. A recent published report said that only nine out of 78 universities in Ontario have an existing sexual assault policy to prevent this — and the University of Guelph is one of them.

Guelph put its protocol in place in October 2011 and has since seen an decrease in sexual assault-related incidents. The school has a sexual assault prevention group made up of staff and students, led by the associate vice-president of student affairs.

“Our statistics would suggest that it’s working, but we also realize the protocol is only one part of a multi-pronged approach to dealing with this issue and that there is always room for improvement,” said the university’s public affairs officer, Kevin Gonsalves.

The university works directly with Guelph Police Services after alleged sexual assaults. Based on the severity of the assault, even without an arrest, a student may experience changes during the investigation — such as in class scheduling, assignments and distance education. The accused is always offered an initial presumption of innocence. And the university waits for criminal charges to be dealt with before taking the case to the school’s internal tribunal — where penalties include probation, fines, restricted program access, suspension or expulsion.

Now schools without policies are stepping up and hoping to adopt stand-alone sexual assault protocols at their own campuses as sexual violence becomes a bigger issue across the province.

Universities and colleges are encouraging Premier Kathleen Wynne to make schools a higher priority in her anti-sexual harassment initiative, that is to be put into action this Sunday, March 8, International Women’s Day. The Canadian Federation of Students spoke with the premier at Queens Park to request that she do more to push post-secondary schools into creating new policies.

For her part, Wynne said, “We are at a moment where there are more people paying attention and so we have to seize that moment and make some gains.”

Wynne hopes to raise awareness of sexual violence and harassment with a public education campaign, measures to improve government caucus policies, training, the creation of a standing “Roundtable on Violence Against Women,” and work across several ministries to improve victim support.

Universities and colleges are now adapting to Wynne’s plans, in part due to recent publicity exposing a lack of sexual harassment victim support. The president and CEO of Colleges Ontario, Linda Franklin, said she hopes the protocol will help students have a more clear understanding of the help and resources that will be there for them.

“The [Toronto Star] report found that there were gaps in the system that left students feeling confused,” she said. She added that Colleges Ontario has a goal of their work informing a broader discussion.

The Canadian Federation of Students is holding a national forum from March 19-20 in the hope that it will help develop strategies to reduce sexual violence on campus. The federation is Canada’s largest student organization, having more than half of a million members.

The national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, Jessica McCormick, states that the recommendations that will come out of the forum will be focused on preventative education, institution accountability, student-driven policy development and well-funded survivor support.

“All students deserve to be safe where they study,” she said, so this forum will find the best existing practices with proven success and prepare its participants to “build cultures of consent.”

The stand-alone protocols will be seen on some school websites by March 31.