Senior administrators from each of Ontario’s publicly funded universities are vowing to “prevent and respond to sexual assault” on campus and are taking steps to fix systems that are not working.
Each of the 20 provincial universities will create a special sexual assault website that lays out rights and options for students in distress. And a task-force has been struck to address how to better support victims and what more can be done to prevent sexual assault on campus, Bonnie Patterson, president and chief executive officer of the Council of Ontario Universities, told the Star in an interview Friday.
“In our immediate focus, we are really zeroing in on ensuring survivors of sexual assault can actually find their way,” said Patterson.
The announcement comes a week after the Toronto Star launched its ongoing investigation into how colleges and universities across Canada are dealing with sexual assault. The Star spoke to several women who said they felt unsupported when they turned to their schools and had to fumble through a bureaucracy without a clear path.
The assaults have derailed their academic careers and left them shaken, confused, anxious and depressed.
The Star found that of 78 public universities across Canada, only nine had adopted a special policy to deal with sexual violence, seen by many experts as a necessary step. None of Ontario’s 24 public colleges surveyed by the Star had a special policy and earlier this week the colleges unanimously agreed to create a provincewide one.
Ontario universities have stopped short of committing to a provincewide policy and said they will continue to review their existing policies over the coming months. The council said all the schools had support systems, like counselling, a complaints process and prevention education. Some schools are insisting they just need to make their existing policies more accessible. Others, like Queen’s and York University, have said they are creating a policy that specifically addresses sexual assault. Guelph, Lakehead, Brock and Western universities have already done so.
Each special website will include a statement from the president or provost, said Patterson. They will also, she said, include contact information for a sexual assault response team on campus, counselling resources available and instructions for how students can use existing policies to launch formal complaints that could result in punishment of perpetrators. Other suggestions include a bill of rights for survivors and definitions of terms like consent, said Patterson.
The Star found that most schools reference sexual assault once in their wider student codes of conduct — lengthy documents that also deal with plagiarism or bomb threats — or harassment policies.
Students say these policies are hard to find and not comprehensive enough. Following the Star’s investigation, the universities have recognized that their policies and procedures, in their current form, aren’t easy to navigate.
Jessica McCormick, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, which represents half a million university students across Canada, said that while Friday’s announcement was positive, it was also the “bare minimum” of what students have been demanding for “a very long time.”
Her federation, as well as the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, which represents nearly 150,000 students, both said Friday they still want to see universities implement special sexual assault policies, created with their input.
Wendy Komiotis, executive director of Toronto-based METRAC, an organization specializing in the prevention of violence against women, said she was disappointed that Ontario’s universities did not take the same route as its public colleges.
“Consistency across the board will help people to find out if (policies) are effective over time,” she said.
Some of the special webpages have already gone live.
“Sexual violence is a most serious issue and needs to be addressed on an ongoing basis,” said McMaster provost and vice-president academic David Wilkinson in his online statement.
In her statement, Cheryl Regehr, vice-president and provost of the University of Toronto, said: “We want to ensure that our students, staff and faculty understand the range of options and resources available to them should they require support following an assault or have safety needs while on campus.”
Patterson, the head of the university council, told the Star that after several meetings this week, the universities have also struck a task force, made up of senior administrators, to see what more they can do to support victims and educate students to prevent sexual assault. Over the coming months they will work together to address a problem they’ve each been dealing with individually.
“We know prevention education is key and we think there’s a real opportunity to take that also to another level by working together,” said Patterson.
For example, Patterson said she’s already talked to the provincial government about an initiative that would see high schools and universities work together on education programs.
More ideas will be discussed at a meeting with senior administrators next week, including how to engage student leaders in the process.