Ontario’s universities and colleges have launched a review of the existing policies of 44 member schools to determine if they are properly equipped to manage sexual assault on their campuses.
Two reviews, one by a university council and the other by a college association, have come in response to an ongoing Toronto Star investigation looking at how post-secondary institutions have been failing sexual assault victims.
The Toronto Star found most universities across Canada, plus all public Ontario colleges, lack a special policy to deal with the issue. Women interviewed by the Star said that following an attack they felt their school did not provide support.
Friday, two schools named in the Star’s investigation — Queen’s University in Kingston and the University of Saskatchewan— announced they would institute a special policy. Only nine of 78 universities in Canada have such a policy, seen as a critical first step in tackling the issue. Of 24 colleges surveyed in Ontario, none has a policy.
“Our number-one priority right now is to make sure, as fast as we can, that women who have been sexually assaulted know they have a safe place to turn and can immediately find out what to do,” said Bonnie Patterson, president and chief executive officer of the Council of Ontario Universities.
Patterson said several members of the council will meet next week to discuss what universities can do to prevent sexual assault and improve their response if it occurs.
“It is a call to action for everyone and this gives individuals working in this area an opportunity to talk directly with their peers about what is working well,” Patterson said.
The national organization representing universities, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, said they will respond to the Star’s request for comment on Monday.
At Colleges Ontario, a special meeting has been organized for Tuesday. Presidents of 24 Ontario colleges will meet to discuss the issue.
“The main topic of discussion will be whether or not we can do something as an entire system so that we can have policies that are transparent and easily accessible and common through the system so no matter where a student is at school they will be able to understand the policy in the same way,” president and CEO Linda Franklin told the Star.
Experts the Star spoke to throughout its investigation say a special policy that outlines the rights of those who come forward and the school’s responsibilities provides a clear path so those coming forward don’t have to fumble through a bureaucracy.
The Star investigation found that only four universities in Ontario have created a special policy to deal with sexual violence. Those schools are Brock University, the University of Guelph, Lakehead University and Western University.
A 2013 guide created by the Ontario’s Women’s Directorate, a government agency specializing in violence against women, said a formal policy plays a “critical role” in making clear that sexual violence will not be tolerated, victims will be supported and perpetrators held accountable.
Jessica McCormick, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, said she thinks schools are more interested in maintaining their public images.
“There is neglect on the part of administrators to do some meaningful work on the issue.” The federation, which represents more than a half-million students, is calling for all schools to examine how they handle sexual assault and adopt special policies.
At the Ontario umbrella group for universities, Patterson said that the schools she represents do have policies and codes of conduct in place already that can be used to manage complaints for many misbehaviours. The Star’s investigation found that most post-secondary institutions have included a single reference to sexual assault in their wider codes of conduct — lengthy documents that also deal with plagiarism, bomb threats, graffiti, harassment and sexual harassment policies.
“Our response protocols may not be easy enough to find and that is regrettable,” said Patterson. “We are actively working together as a sector to come up with some solutions.”
The news Friday that Queen’s University will implement a policy came from principal Daniel Woolf, who had previously refused to comment to the Star.
In a statement, Woolf told the Star he had asked the school’s sexual assault prevention and response working group to move production of a draft policy “to the top of their list of priorities.”
Woolf said he was “deeply disturbed” to read the Star’s investigation and that he was “profoundly sorry” that two women reportedly experienced sexual violence during their time at Queen’s and didn’t feel supported.
Woolf pledged to do better on the issue and is directing the task force of students, staff and faculty members to fast-track recommendations on how to improve safety. He said he intends to meet the group in the next two weeks and will call on them to make their findings public by the end of the school year.
Former Queen’s student Tess Klaver, 21, who says she was sexually assaulted by her boyfriend during her first year at Queen’s, called the creation of a sexual assault policy a “step in the right direction.”
During her time at Queen’s, Klaver says she had three counselling sessions in a row cancelled on her. She decided to transfer to a different school and, in a letter she wrote to her department, she said she had been assaulted by a fellow Queen’s student. The school asked no follow-up questions, she said.
In his statement, Woolf said the school has made “significant strides” and in the past five years has enhanced resources to deal with sexual assault, including developing training programs for residence dons and orientation leaders.
“Like most universities, we have much work to do in this regard,” he added.
In another statement released Friday afternoon, University of Saskatchewan vice-provost Patti McDougall again apologized for how the school responded to a 2012 sexual assault in residence.
“We did not do enough to care for those involved,” she said.
The apology came after the Star’s investigation revealed the U of S’s response to Jenny, a 23-year-old who was raped in residence in 2012.
When Jenny’s mother reported her attack to campus security and the president’s office, she received no follow-up. It took the university six weeks, and pressure from the family, to send an alert out to students warning them of a potential predator in residence.
“It saddens me to see the state of affairs at campuses across Canada and it especially saddens me to see how our own university handled the event depicted in these articles,” said McDougall, in response to the Star’s stories.
“Our senior leaders are committed to changing this and following the lead of nine Canadian universities that have already developed and implemented sexual assault policies.”
McDougall said the university has, in recent years, improved its efforts to prevent sexual assault.
“It is clear that the University of Saskatchewan, along with many other post-secondary institutions across our country, have work to do,” she said.
“Our goal is to continue to look for ways to improve how we deal with sexual assault when it happens on our campus and how we take steps to prevent this from happening.”
Jenny, the victim in the case, told the Star McDougall’s response was the “most sincere” response she had gotten from the university so far.
“I feel I have finally been heard.”