Canadian post-secondary schools failing sex...
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Nov 20, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Canadian post-secondary schools failing sex assault victims

Just nine of more than 100 universities and colleges polled by the Toronto Star have adopted a special policy to address sexual assault


Tess Klaver was an 18-year-old first-year student at Queen’s University the year she says her boyfriend pinned her on his bed, choked her with his hands, then grabbed her hair and forced her to perform oral sex.

“We had been kind of fooling around and I was in my underwear and then he pinned me down. . . . I was screaming and saying no. . . . Once I was being choked I couldn’t say no anymore,” she recalls.

It was the middle of the day, in the fall of 2011. Klaver and her boyfriend were both students at the Kingston university.

Klaver eventually notified her department at Queen’s and sought help from a school counsellor. She said both let her down. She did not report the assault to police.

Her story makes her among as many as one in five young women who experts estimate will experience some form of sexual assault during their time at college or university.

A three-month-long Toronto Star investigation has found that only nine of 78 Canadian universities have created a special sexual assault policy, considered a necessary step in dealing with the problem of sexual violence on Canadian campuses. The Star also surveyed 24 colleges in Ontario and found none had a special policy.

Among universities yet to adopt a special policy are the big three in Toronto — the University of Toronto, Ryerson University and York University, though York has promised a draft policy next year and U of T is studying the issue. Also lacking a special policy are Queen’s, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and McGill in Montreal. (McGill is also looking into the issue.)

Lakehead University in Thunder Bay developed a strong policy in the wake of a student’s sexual assault.

Lori Chambers, a professor at Lakehead who helped implement the school’s new “sexual misconduct policy,” said governments should compel all schools to adopt a similar set of rules.

“I think it’s really important that every institution have a policy about sexual misconduct that states explicitly what behaviours are prohibited, the rights victims have and the supports available to help them heal,” Chambers said.

‘A person I know’

The Star has interviewed more than a dozen women from across the country who say they were sexually assaulted during their time at school. Reporters also spoke to administrators, professors, residence advisers, rape crisis centres, police and parents and friends of victims. They spoke of sexual assaults that took place at parties, in dorm rooms and in apartments rented by students, far away from the security lamps schools provide to make a walk on campus safe. The assaults have derailed the academic careers of women attending top institutions across the country and left them shaken, confused, anxious and depressed.

Klaver, the former Queen’s student, says that after her boyfriend choked her she doesn’t remember walking back to her dorm room. They stayed together for months in what she described as an abusive relationship and it wasn’t until after they broke up that she came to terms with what had happened.

“I always thought of it being the stranger in the darkness and this (was) a person I know,” she says.

A year later, in the fall of 2012, she wrote to her department at Queen’s informing the school she was dealing with a high level of stress because she had been assaulted by another student. Klaver, who came to Queen’s with a 92 per cent average, described how she couldn’t sleep, eat or focus on her school work. Klaver said she wanted to drop a course after deadline to keep her grades up, and was hoping to transfer out of Queen’s.

“It felt as though I had suddenly hit a brick wall,” she wrote. She had been struggling since seeing the man she says was her attacker on campus three weeks earlier.

The school rubber-stamped her request. No one asked a single question, she says, or referred to the assault.

In the weeks leading up to her writing the letter, Klaver had seen a counsellor at the school, who she says was helpful. But her next three appointments in a row were cancelled by counselling services at Queen’s, making her feel like she was being told she wasn’t in urgent need of help.

Before Christmas that year she would try to take her life.

The principal of Queen’s, Daniel Woolf, refused an interview request.

A statement from the university, which is home to nearly 25,000 students, said it cannot comment on individual cases but that it takes sexual assault “extremely seriously” and works with victims to individualize support. The statement notes Queen’s has employed an outreach counsellor focusing specifically on sexual assault since 2009 and since 2012 has hired six full-time and one part-time counsellor across faculties and in health services, making 14 full-time positions.

The mother of another former Queen’s student sent the Star a letter that she wrote to principal Woolf in 2012 about her daughter’s experience and the university’s continued failure to support her over four years.

“My daughter . . . was raped while sleeping in her room at Victoria Hall, Queen’s University,” the mother wrote.

She says her daughter, whose identity is protected by a court-ordered publication ban, received a generic note from counselling that forced her to re-explain her alleged rape over and over again to skeptical professors when school work overlapped with court preparation and dates.

“Eventually she stopped asking; it was too hard,” her mother told the Star in an email, adding her daughter suffered from panic attacks.

The accused, also a former Queen’s student, was charged by police with sexually assaulting her and with break and enter. He was acquitted of both in 2011.

There are two sides of the story, both of which were presented in court.

The woman, 18 at the time of the alleged attack, told court she was out earlier in the night with friends, came home, watched a show on her laptop, fell asleep and didn’t know if the door was locked. She says she woke up in her dorm room around 4 a.m. to a stranger having sex with her.

He testified he and a buddy had been having a threesome at a room in the residence earlier in the night. He left that room and soon thereafter ended up walking into the alleged victim’s room. The sex was consensual and she only objected when her roommate woke up, he said.

The judge ruled the prosecutor failed to prove the sex was not consensual.

The mother’s letter says that despite a promise by the former principal that her daughter would be supported and cared for, no one from the school’s administration reached out during the pretrial or trial.

“We all felt very abandoned by the university,” the letter says.

Abandonment was a common refrain from those the Star spoke with.

At the University of Saskatchewan, another mother received no follow-up when she called to report her daughter’s rape in residence. The school did not send an alert warning students of a potential predator and she says the president’s office initially told her nothing could be done without a criminal finding of guilt, information the family would discover weeks later was incorrect.

“It made me feel like I wasn’t believed, like I should just stop at that point,” says Jenny, the 23-year-old victim in that case. The university president later wrote Jenny a letter of apology.

At Lakehead, a student seeking help choosing courses that didn’t overlap with the schedule of the classmate she says raped her was told by her department chair that assisting her would violate the alleged rapist’s privacy. Her experience would eventually spur major changes at the school.

Post-secondary schools have a “duty to care” for the students who come to study and live on their campuses, many of whom are away from home for the first time, says Chambers, the women’s studies professor who helped implement the Lakehead policy. She has found many universities are ignoring the problem.

“Why are universities allowed to put their heads in the sand?” Chambers asks.

‘An epidemic’

The Star created a survey and asked 78 universities across Canada and 24 colleges in Ontario to supply their sexual assault policies. Most schools pointed to a single reference in their wider student code of conduct — lengthy documents dealing with a list of misbehaviours like plagiarism, bomb threats and copyright infringement. Some directed the Star to discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment policies. Others, including Algonquin College and the University of British Columbia, forwarded policies that had no mention of sex.

Just nine universities had special policies designed to address sexual violence. While some are stronger than others, all include a definition of sexual assault based on the Criminal Code — make clear there is zero tolerance for the behaviour, and commit to supporting and accommodating victims. There are protocols on who to speak to and what could happen if a student comes forward, including how the school will investigate and adjudicate a formal complaint.

The nine universities with special policies are: Lakehead; the University of Guelph; Brock University in St. Catharines; St. Mary’s, Acadia and St. Francis Xavier Universities in Nova Scotia; St. Thomas and Mount Allison universities in New Brunswick; and Western University in London, Ont. In the case of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, its policy is an appendix on sexual assault procedures (now part of its Code of Student Conduct) after a student who was allegedly assaulted on campus barred herself in her room to avoid seeing the man she said attacked her and then tried to commit suicide.

Ottawa University, which recently saw two former hockey players charged with sexual assault, is reviewing its policies and results are expected by next year.

“This is really an epidemic. It is big and serious,” says Wendy Komiotis, executive director of METRAC, of the prevalence of sexual assaults on campuses.

Her Toronto-based organization recently researched how 15 universities manage sexual assault and, in a report obtained by the Star, said the absence of a clear policy stops people from coming forward.

The action committee found that some existing policies define the rights of the alleged attacker more clearly than those of the victim.

Komiotis said government has “a responsibility to create legislation” that will result in comprehensive policies on sexual violence and then ensure that each school is complying with those standards.

In Ontario, the province has raised the issue through a guide developed by the Ontario Women’s Directorate, a provincial agency specializing in violence against women.

In 2013, the directorate, in collaboration with the Ministry of Colleges and Universities as well as post-secondary and student organizations and six respected women’s groups, released “Developing a Response to Sexual Violence.”

Chief among the recommendations was the “critical role” a formal policy and protocol can play in “creating an environment where everyone on campus understands that sexual violence is unacceptable, survivors receive the services they need and perpetrators are held accountable.”

Chambers said the guide was the most helpful Canadian resource in creating Lakehead’s new sexual misconduct policy.

The guide came after a study the government did in the lead-up to their 2011 Sexual Violence Action Plan, where they interviewed women who claimed to have been sexually assaulted while at school. Some women said they weren’t being warned of danger, that their complaints weren’t being taken seriously and that appropriate follow-up and consequences for assailants were not being pursued by schools, according to documents obtained by the Star.

One woman said the university (not identified) that looked into her complaint was “biased and relied on myths about rape in their judgment of the case” and tried to “find fault in her credibility based on mental health status, rather than investigating the case in an unbiased manner,” according to a summary of her interview.

Title IX in the U.S.

Canadian universities and colleges educate about 2 million students annually, according to data from Statistics Canada, and regularly hand out sanctions for breaches of codes of conduct like plagiarism or vandalism. Whether schools are equipped to investigate and adjudicate sexual assault is being debated intensely in the United States, home to more than 10 times as many students.

In the U.S., post-secondary institutions regularly conduct hearings and hand out sanctions against perpetrators, offering women a quicker process than a criminal court.

Because the schools don’t have the ability to send anyone to jail, the hearings are decided on a balance of probabilities (is it more or less likely something happened), unlike the exacting standard of reasonable doubt in a criminal trial.

If a student feels the university has mishandled a complaint, the student can turn to the U.S. Department of Education using a piece of legislation called Title IX. Activists have been teaching women who feel their schools failed them to make Title IX complaints and as a result more than 80 schools are now under investigation.

The White House has thrown its weight behind the issue, accusing schools of shirking their responsibilities.

“We need to provide survivors with more support and we need to bring perpetrators to more justice and we need colleges and universities to step up,” said U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, in a public address in April.

Of the nine Canadian schools the Star found with special policies, all explain a process for adjudicating a sexual assault complaint. Sanctions can include suspension or expulsion, or put restrictions on a student’s movements throughout campus or in certain classes.

Klaver, the Queen’s student who is now 21, says she didn’t know whether she could have reported her boyfriend to the school.

At Queen’s, students are entitled to make formal complaints under a harassment policy, the school said. A single reference to sexual assault is tucked into the section on sexual harassment. In a recent editorial, the student paper, The Queen’s Journal, slammed the school for not having a separate sexual assault policy.

Wayne MacKay, a human rights lawyer who oversaw a task force that helped create a new policy for St. Mary’s University in Halifax, due to be adopted next month, says he sees no reason why post-secondary institutions can’t adjudicate sexual assault complaints or operate parallel to criminal investigations, as long as the process is fair and careful.

Because so few criminal cases make their way to court and even fewer end in a conviction, he says it’s even more reason for “an effective and clearly communicated university structure as well.”

He adds: “But it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t presume guilt.”

Universities underestimate the amount of work they need to do to prevent sexual assaults from happening in the first place and are in denial about the extent of the problem, says MacKay, who is also the former president of Mt. Allison University in New Brunswick.

By far the most common theme the Star encountered during its investigation was the question of consent. MacKay’s task force at St. Mary’s was created after a video of male and female students clapping and chanting during orientation week went viral. The chant went: “We like them YOUNG … Y is for your sister, O is for oh so tight, U is for underage, N is for no consent, G is for go to jail.”

MacKay said he was alarmed by how many students at St. Mary’s didn’t understand the concept of consent.

Klaver, the former Queen’s student, says she is not even sure her boyfriend understood what he had done is a crime and thinks schools must educate their students.

In addition to its sexual assault policy, St. Mary’s is implementing other recommendations that include overhauling its orientation week and creating mandatory education for students.

St. Mary’s will also be conducting its own research to determine the scope of the problem on its campus. Several studies over the years, in the United States and Canada, have estimated that 15 to 25 per cent of women had experienced some form of sexual assault during their time at school. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently conducted its own survey and found the number was one in six.

Of the 102 post-secondary institutions surveyed, the Star found a few unique examples of efforts to educate students, like the University of Windsor’s bystander initiative to mitigate sexual assault, adapted from a U.S. workshop and offered through credited courses where students are taught to intervene before an assault happens. The professors behind the initiative said they initially had to fight for funding. Windsor said they are looking into developing a distinct sexual assault policy.

Several schools require mandatory training for residence advisers and student leaders. Then there are information sessions on sexual assault during orientation, expert speakers and poster campaigns for the broader campus community. Those programs are optional and don’t necessarily reach the majority of students.

Some of those programs are paid for by the Ontario government, through women’s safety grants that have been doled out to universities and colleges since 1991, worth a total of $1.45 million each year or about $33 million since the program started.

The majority of the government money, though, is used for security upgrades, like cameras, emergency phones and sealing off stairwells, according to documents obtained by the Star through a freedom of information request.

At Sault College in Sault Ste. Marie, more than $50,000 (two years of its grant money) was used to prepare for a lockdown. Durham College in Oshawa spent $2,700 clearing shrubs and bushes around residence. The college said a sexual assault policy is “under development.”

“A lot of the universities are . . . thinking these technological measures are going to be the magic bullet that is going to solve everything,” says Fuyuki Kurasawa, a sociology professor at York.

While the safety of campus public areas is important, many allegations of assault involve people who are known to each other, and the incidents occur in residence rooms.

“They increase the feeling of safety; they don’t necessarily increase the reality of safety,” Kurasawa said.

Klaver’s experience, which took place in her boyfriend’s apartment, was scarring.

“I am feeling very overwhelmed, and also extremely frustrated that I have not felt capable of performing to the academic standard which I have previously set for myself. I have felt a little as though I am drowning,” Klaver wrote in her 2012 letter to her department.

She felt she had no other option but to leave the school.

Two weeks before Christmas break that year, Klaver says she walked to the shores of Lake Ontario at 3 a.m., took off all her clothing, jumped off a pier into the freezing water and waited to see if she wanted to die.

After two minutes, limbs numb, she pulled herself out.

She told her family and got the help she needed, she says. She is currently majoring in sexuality, marriage and family studies at the University of Waterloo.

- With files from Jacques Gallant and Alex Ballingall

Toronto Star

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