“Were you drinking? How much do you remember from the night? If you initially said yes, then wasn’t that telling him something?” These were just some of the questions Ellie Ade Kur, a current UofT Ph.D student and co‐founder of UofT’s Silence is Violence, was bombarded with when she reported her sexual assault. “I was shut down really quickly.”
Approximately one in five women will experience some form of sexual assault in college or university, and often the assailant is someone the individual already knows; the notion of the attacker being an unknown person is less common.
Academic institutions have a reputation to uphold, and it is in the interests of the school to protect their image. The university has faced a great deal of criticism in recent years regarding the way it handles sexual assault. The process to file a complaint at UofT is extremely difficult, and some would say purposefully so. “My case was particularly violent, and I did not want to sit down with my attacker and go through the mediation process.” Kur’s story, like so many others, reveals the problematic climate of sexual assault cases, which is one rife with victim blaming. A complainant can enter the room with the certainty of their convictions regarding the incident, and leave the room feeling blamed and doubtful of their own experience.
“It’s skillfully done.” Kur leaned forward, her language sharp and clear. “As soon as a student dissents, they are persuaded to not report. What sets me off is my students coming to me now and telling me years later that they are experiencing the same problems I faced in undergrad.” Kur had a concerning and unproductive meeting with Sexual Assault Counsellor Cheryl Champagne, yet she emphasized that Champagne is a product of the broader issue of how UofT deals with sexual assault.
Lisa*, a University College student, was sexually assaulted by a fellow male student in early 2015. After a few counselling sessions, Champagne recommended various types of action that Lisa could take, from going to support groups to seeing therapists or taking legal action. However, Lisa felt that the procedure to legally report her assaulter was too arduous; the idea of repeatedly telling strangers of the incident was not an appealing step forward.
“I was torn about taking action,” Lisa explained. “There are some days even now when I think, should I report it? But then I decide not to. I don’t regret not reporting him but it’s a difficult situation… he’s in my program.”
Recently, UofT has mobilized discussion on consent culture, changing the dialogue that occurs during Frosh Week. Lisa, who was a Frosh leader this past year, said the consent discussions were beneficial. However, she believes that campus culture around sexual assault and violence still needs to change. “The whole idea of ‘it gets better’ needs to stop. That’s not necessarily true; you carry it for a long time.”
Lisa and Ellie are part of an epidemic of students who must face the bureaucratic dealings of sexual assault procedures at academic institutions. The Toronto Star released an article in 2014 that surveyed Canadian universities on how they handle sexual assault. Only nine out of 100 universities had a clearly defined sexual assault policy. For most universities, the sexual assault policy is part of the Student Code of Conduct. Currently, UofT does not have a singular policy on sexual violence.
The Star article states “Universities are in denial about the extent of sexual assault.” For decades, many students have felt their voices are not being heard and their concerns not taken seriously on sexual violence on campuses around the country. It begs the question: what is the university doing to support victims of sexual violence?
UofT’s Current Policy:
“Stage 1: Both parties take part in individual discussions with the Sexual Harassment Officer. They may also meet each other, in the Office, to talk about the matter with each other and the Officer. The Officer acts as mediator in these discussions. The complainant and respondent may agree on a resolution at this stage.”
This quote is taken directly from UofT’s Policy and Procedures for Sexual Harassment, which has not been updated since 1997. Section 29 of the current policy gives survivors two courses of action: informal resolution and mediation only; or informal resolution and mediation and, if necessary, a formal hearing to follow. In these informal resolution meetings, complainants are required to sit down with the respondent to the claim and attempt to come to a mutually agreed upon resolution to the situation with the Sexual Assault Officer. Only if these sessions fail is the claim then to proceed to a formal hearing.
For most students, Stage 1 isn’t even a viable option, and it’s obvious why.
In 2015, 137 informal complaints were brought forth, with 22 formal complaints being filed with the sexual harassment office. From these formal complaints, only three went to criminal trial. Twelve of these cases resolved at Stage 1 through mediation. None of the cases resulted in any suspension or expulsion of respondents.
Adding to the problems stemming from the policy is the requirement that complaints be made within six months of the incident, or, exceptionally, within the past year. Champagne has the final say on whether the individual cases are exceptional or not, and if they can proceed after the six month deadline.
Another student, Sarah*, described the process of filing complaints at UofT as unaccommodating. “In the university system, you are asked to recount your story, but with the current policy the difference between confiding in a counsellor to receive help versus launching a formal complaint is unclear. What tends to follow is a sequence of shuttling and referrals to different offices, which is frankly discouraging and exhausting, particularly for someone that has just experienced a traumatic event and is being asked to talk about it over and over.”
Again, we had to keep asking questions. Is this dated policy all UofT has? How is requiring survivors to sit down with their respondents an acceptable course of action? Why has this policy not been updated in almost 20 years? And will it ever be?
These queries arrived at an opportune time. This past February (2016), the Presidential and Provostial Committee on Prevention and Response to Sexual Violence (formed in 2014), released a recommended policy that UofT could potentially adopt.
Professor Angela Hildyard (Vice-President Human Resources & Equity) and Professor Sandy Welsh (Vice‐Provost Students) co‐founded the Committee on Prevention and Response to Sexual Violence, which comprises a tri‐campus membership of students, faculty, and staff. The committee was “tasked with establishing a set of recommendations to prevent and respond to sexual violence at the University of Toronto.” They consulted with over 25 student groups and distributed an online survey to 170 staff and faculty members and students. Additionally, they had recommendations from individual student groups such as Thrive UofT and UofT Students Against Sexual Violence.
The report outlines in detail various recommendations, the main ones being:
∙ Creating a tri‐campus Sexual Violence Centre, which includes support beyond the campus hours of 9 AM to 5 PM and an inventory of existing community partnerships and resources to be conducted
∙ Creating a singular policy on sexual violence with a clearly defined no‐tolerance claim, as well as a review and revision of the policy procedures in the Sexual Harassment Policy and Code of Student Conduct
∙ A university-wide education and training program, which includes prevention programs, educations for faculty and staff to make appropriate referrals to students, and professional development for those who receive disclosures
∙ A continual reviewing of procedures with a climate survey to be conducted regularly to reflect the campus communities’ needs
Professor Welsh recognizes the problems that many complainants must face during the reporting process. “Underreporting of sexual violence and people feeling comfortable coming forward are real issues, and there are barriers in place. Some of the work we need to do is make sure we do the best job of making it very clear that we know where students should go if something happens to them.”
What is noteworthy is an active engagement in the report on diversity and equity, as many organizations have noted that groups of people, including women who experience further levels of oppression, are less likely to report. The university needs to connect with other community organizations and centres to focus on marginalized groups in the trans and LGBTQ+ communities, as well as people of colour, as they suffer higher rates of sexual assault and are less likely to report.
Professor Welsh commented on this by saying, “The issue of diversity and equity is a key principle at the front of the report.” She continued, “Researchers said it is a core principle for the work that we do in all the arenas at UofT. It is ensuring that we reach out to local community organizations who can provide and support diverse groups. And that the people that will provide services at our university have the training they need to understand and respect diverse groups of our community. Our policies and training are keeping that very much in line.”
The central aim for a new policy is transparency. The lack of transparency under the current system is a major factor when discussing under-reporting. By formulating a clearly defined procedure and allowing easy navigation of resources for all students to understand and be aware of, reporting would be more accessible and less intimidating. However, some students believe that the barriers instigated by the policy discourages survivors from reporting. “UofT focuses their attention to the new centres, arenas, and nice buildings to present this image. If it’s known that there are students reporting sexual assault, they’ll lose that sponsorship,” Kur said. “As I said before, if you dissent you’re shut down—if you report or encourage it, you’re dissenting.”
When asked to comment on why UofT has not updated or created a singular sexual violence policy, Professor Welsh wasn’t forthcoming with details. “This is the time we are taking to update these policies so they are reflecting what our campus community needs right now.” Yet, hasn’t this been a problem on campus for decades? While a report is acceptable on paper, it does not imply that action is taking place on campus.
UofT President Meric Gertler and Vice‐President and Provost Cheryl Regehr have commented that they will thoroughly review the recommended policy and engage with the community to “improve” UofT’s response to this critical issue. However, these figureheads do not have the best track record with student groups, and while the report is a positive step forward, many student organizations and initiatives are hesitant to sing its praises.
Student Response to Recommended Policy:
Reaching out to various student groups who contributed to the recommended policy, UofT Students Against Sexual Violence, a group founded by Celia Wandio, provided important critical and reflective feedback on the report.
Enxhi Kondi, a member of the group, discussed the pros and cons of the recommendations. “As a whole, the report is an excellent response from the administration to most of the criticisms and complaints that students who were consulted had about sexual violence on campus. The report goes even further than the role of complainant and emphasizes an equal procedural field and safeguards for both complainant and defendant, which legitimizes sexual violence to the same degree as other crimes.”
While the recommendations received a nod of approval in certain aspects, there was significant controversy with the consultation of student groups. Kondi explained that the committee faced numerous accusations of lacking inclusivity and transparency during its consultation period. It also failed to effectively disseminate a survey, ultimately reaching only a minimal number of students (less than one percent of the student populace).
“With unsupported claims that the committee included broad representation of all affected parties, this report should be seen at best as a stepping stone,” she commented, “and at worst as a failure at ameliorating anti‐sexual-violence culture on campus. What this report misses the mark on is preventative measures and, most importantly, actually changing campus culture regarding sexual violence.”
Kur stated that CUPE3902, the union representing contract academic staff at UofT, was not asked for consultation, and the Graduate Students Union (GSU) was given one to two weeks to respond and provide recommendations. “Some of the groups have been working for years on this issue and how to address it. Then, all of a sudden, they are given a couple of weeks to pull something together. It’s just telling of the administration.”
The student groups’ discontent is apparent, as the surveys, meetings, and consultation they have conducted over the years are sidelined. “This report is written by a committee made just over a year ago,” Kur remarked. “All of a sudden they consult student groups, which have been around for years dealing with survivors, and sideline the survivors by making them a group to consult with, instead of actual policy makers. They should be at the forefront.”
Professor Welsh responded to the stated student concerns by saying, “Here at UofT, we are very aware of the issue of sexual assault and about student health, their mental health, and their academic career, and we’re working hard to do what we can do to improve things […] our report was very clear that we had a lot of work to do. Our students were saying, ‘This is a problem, this is an issue,’ and we’re clearly focused on continuing to [make] the changes that we need to make. The student voice is central to moving forward with the policy, and their input is key.”
From the responses of student activists and administration, it is clear that both do not see eye‐to‐eye on the issue at hand. The opposing narratives reveal a contentious and troubling aspect in the relationship between UofT administration and its students.
What about Vic?
Outside of the discussed policy framework at UofT, the fragmented nature of the university adds another layer of complexity to such a contentious issue. The college system at UofT leads students to largely identify with their respective colleges and use college resources as opposed to those of the university at large. Sexual violence is handled at the UofT administration level, and for several good reasons. It is understandable that differing sexual violence policies across each college would inevitably lead to problems.
As VUSAC Equity Commissioner Claire Wilkins told us, “When you’re dealing with sexual assault, you don’t want to be tossed from person to person, [and] you want to deal with the solution in the most healing way possible.” She stressed that this was the main issue expressed toward the ways that sexual violence has been handled at college level, particularly at Victoria College, and the main motivation for the sexual violence focus groups, the only wholly student-run focus groups at UofT.
If you were to ask nearly any student at Vic, you would likely find that few students know what the existing protocol for dealing with sexual violence is. As Wilkins stressed, “We wanted to work towards establishing a protocol that students know about before seeking help […] we wanted to think about what we can do to make Victoria College support more visible and more accessible, and less logistical.”
Wilkins and VUSAC Co‐President Gabriel Zoltan‐Johan are in the process of developing a report to be presented to the Dean’s office in the near future, which will include student testimonies, as well as policy and protocol recommendations. Zoltan‐Johan offered insight into some of the recommendations that are to be laid out in the report.
He stressed several key themes that the protocol recommendations are to include. “Bystander intervention is a really big point that our focus group [focused on], and that it should be done for all student leaders, all Fosh leaders, and all Frosh,” he said, echoing the recommendations of the Presidential and Provostial Committee’s report. They also found that in terms of response measures, the current counselling setup at Vic was considered “very insufficient,” due to its appointment‐only structure. As a result, establishing access to email, phone, and online chat communications to crisis response is a key measure laid out in the recommendations before it is presented to the Board of Regents for approval. Also suggested in the report, for the Burwash guest room to begin to function as a “cool‐down space,” which students could use to talk and recover in times of crisis, before seeking further help.
Kelley Castle, Dean of Students at Victoria College, has shown a keen interest in the issue and helping to stimulate change at Vic. Although the Dean’s office initially came out against the focus groups, they have since come around after recognizing their importance. “The focus groups, which are student-run and student-filled, are helping my office to figure out what we can do that are things that students think they need, not what we think students need,” Castle said. When asked about the feasibility of access to the Burwash guest room as a safe space for survivors, she said that “having access to resources on weekends and after-hours is essential […] as far as what kind of after‐hours resources are needed […] I mean, we don’t get calls every night.”
Efforts have been made to help stimulate dialogue around the subject through the Dean’s Office and their “Ask, Listen, Talk” campaign at Vic. Dean Castle said the goal behind the campaign is to “try to get people to understand that they can talk to us and they can talk to each other.” Through posters around campus and awareness efforts, students have access to more information on the resources available to them in times of need. “But it is difficult when it isn’t student facilitated to actually get students to genuinely feel like there is a conversation available,” Wilkins said.
While all of this talk surrounding awareness campaigns and policy recommendations is positive and represents a resurgence in conversation surrounding the issue of sexual assault and sexual violence, we should be mindful of the fact that they are simply just that—awareness campaigns and policy recommendations. A shift in the culture at universities, including Vic, needs to accompany any policy if real change is to occur.
Universities are marketed to incoming and current students as safe, inclusive environments, which will allow students to grow and excel as intelligent and capable individuals. The University of Toronto is no different in this regard.
If the recommended policy moves forward, it would be an improvement on the sexual harassment policy that is currently in place. However, the aim of this article has been to highlight the systemic problem of reporting through administration, which, students have disclosed, did not support their best interests. Even if the policy were to go through, would the culture around sexual violence change? Would survivors be encouraged to report, and would UofT support this completely? These are all questions that cannot be answered at this point in time. What is known is that the dialogue is moving and the awareness around sexual violence is becoming more prevalent. For the recommended policy to really effect change on campus, it needs to be accompanied by a change in culture surrounding sexual violence. The conversations occurring between students, their administrations, and the activism that accompanies it signify a step in the right direction, but there is a long way to go.
At UofT and Victoria College, there is an apparent conflict of narratives dealing with how UofT handles sexual assault. The root of the problem for under-reporting at universities needs some sort of response, and if one delves deeper into the issue, the answer is not appealing. Students need to come before UofT’s reputation. If this is the root of the cause, UofT has a lot to answer for—not just for the faculty, students, and staff, but most importantly for survivors who urgently need the justice they deserve. The administrations need to be reminded that this is an issue that must be addressed and solved. If the entire student body is to feel safe on a fundamental level, it can no longer be ignored. Safety is the ultimate goal—one we are slowly inching toward.