Sexual assault policies at universities fail the people they’re supposed to protect, students say

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A Carleton University student who says she was sexually assaulted in her dorm by a student in the room next door is one of many people calling on Ontario post-secondary institutions to better support survivors who report their assault. 

“It was by someone I trusted, someone I considered a friend,” said Brittany Galler, 19, providing few details of the night, to avoid jeopardizing a police investigation. “I woke up the next morning and I knew something was wrong. I was laying in my bed without my clothing. That’s not how I went to bed. I felt really disgusting.” 

It wasn’t until the following afternoon, a Friday, that the law student decided to report it to a residence fellow who then directed her to campus security, where she had to repeat her story. And, Galler says, the university didn’t move quickly enough to provide the support she needed.

Sexual assault policies 

The debate about the way schools handle sexual assault complaints heated up after several high-profile incidents on campuses made headlines.

University of Ottawa hockey players were charged with sexually assaulting a girl during a trip to Thunder Bay in 2014. That same year, a Facebook group of dentistry students at Dalhousie University was discovered to include misogynistic statements about female classmates. In 2013, a video from Saint Mary’s University showed students chanting about non-consensual sex with underage girls

Amid increasing pressure from students and advocates, the Ontario government introduced Bill 132 in March 2016. It requires that every college and university have a standalone sexual assault policy detailing how the school will deal with complaints and how it will investigate.

The policies had to be in place by January 2017.

What students want in a campus sex assault policy2:24

But Wendy Komiotis, executive director of METRAC, a not-for-profit organization fighting violence against women and children, says nine months in, institutions should be doing better.

“They’re still lagging and struggling,” she said, pointing out that institutions are still protecting their reputations. “The cat is out of the bag. It’s hurting women. Let’s just deal with the issue head on.”

But the incoming president of Carleton University, Alastair Summerlee, disputes that accusation.

“There must be no hint we would protect an institution if wrong is being done,” he said.

CBC Toronto asked about Galler’s case, but the university would not comment because of confidentiality. 

Consistency and clarity 

Groups like the Canadian Federation of Students echo Komiotis, saying the policies lack consistency and clarity, and in many cases, are not implemented properly. 

Wendy Komiotis

Wendy Komiotis, executive director of METRAC, says some universities are still trying to protect their reputations. (Law Society of Ontario)

“We’re happy there’s a policy, but we want to see better supports in place,” said Sami Pritchard, with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).

For example, Carleton’s policy stipulates someone who has experienced sexual violence is given “appropriate academic, employment or other accommodation … to stabilize the situation and/or separate the parties.” 

Another section states the school’s formal complaint process does not prevent and is not “intended to discourage an individual from also reporting sexual violence to the police.”

But when it comes to “separating the parties,” and reporting to the police, Galler says that wasn’t her experience. 

‘There was only a wall separating us.’ – Brittany Galler, 19

“There was only a wall separating us,” said Galler, referring to her alleged perpetrator living next door to her. 

“They offered to move me into a different room in the same building. He also had access with his key card to that floor.”

Sami Pritchard

Sami Pritchard, the national executive representative of the Canadian Federation of Students, says there isn’t enough oversight when it comes to universities’ sexual assault policies. (Canadian Federation of Students)

It took the school six days to move him out of the residence building, she said. 

And even though a school counsellor determined Galler was too traumatized to return to class, the school’s equity services department, responsible for helping students who experience sexual assault, could not accommodate her need to continue a course online.

The counsellor wrote this note to one of Galler’s professors: 

Brittany Galler's note

(Brittany Galler)

Galler received this response back from the professor: 

Email

(Brittany Galler)

 She did not want to disclose her sexual assault to yet “another stranger” and subsequently dropped the summer course. 

She didn’t drop the issue, however. In July, she requested an investigation into why it took so long for the school to move the perpetrator from the residence. Because she had already gone to police, she said equity services told her it couldn’t do anything until the police investigation ended.

Policy vs. practice 

Galler questions why the interim measures weren’t implemented more promptly, as per the school’s new policy, and why it said it could not investigate.

“You come to a school and pay a lot of money and have an expectation of how you’ll be treated and what kind of services you’ll have access to,” said Galler. 

Komiotis said schools need to work on implementation. “It’s not enough to say student engagement is important,” she said. “What does that look like on a day-to-day basis and how do we know it’s working?” 

Alastair Summerlee

Alastair Summerlee, Carleton University’s incoming president, defends the school’s sexual assault policy.

But Summerlee, the incoming Carleton president, defends the university’s work with the policy. “We are doing a really good job at identifying where we need to think about things and who we need to talk to,” he said. 

Loose guidelines 

There are also major differences in policies across campuses. For example, Carleton’s policy is one of the few that stipulate students filing a formal complaint can’t speak to media or on social media about the incident during an investigation. 

York University, which CFS credits with having a more robust policy, is one of the only schools detailing policies must be finished in under 60 days. Others say they have to be finished in a “timely” manner. 

According to Debbie Hansen, executive director of the university’s community support and services department, says York held more than 35 consultations. “[The university turned] our mind to making sure we are survivor-centric and taking our cues from survivors,” she said.

Deb Matthews

Advanced Education and Skills Development Minister Deb Matthews says it’s important that universities develop their own sexual assault policies because ‘that’s where the students are.’

In creating Bill 132, the province says it wanted individual schools to craft their own policies.

“Empowering institutions to develop their own policies, apply their own policies, it’s closer to where those students are,” said Advanced Education and Skills Development Minister Deb Matthews.

Matthews admits the policies are meant to be “living” documents that continue to evolve, but experts and survivors who spoke with CBC Toronto say good policies:

  • Acknowledge rape culture, rape shield protection (you can’t ask about someone’s sexual history).
  • Have immunity clauses for underage drinking and drug use. 
  • Protect survivors from face-to-face encounters.
  • Are revisited more than once every three years(province suggests three).
  • Have clear timelines. 

Bad policies:

  • Give time limits for filing complaints
  • Have clauses saying survivors won’t be informed of sanctions against offender 
  • Have gag orders

‘No oversight’ 

Student groups and survivors have been calling for better accountability. 

“There’s no oversight,” said Pritchard of CFS. “If students don’t feel like they’ll be taken seriously and they have nowhere to report their concerns, the chances are the students will discontinue reporting altogether.” 

The province said it will be collecting data from the schools annually. It will also send out a campus climate survey to students every three years. The province is aiming to have it ready by spring 2018. The metrics and survey questions have not yet been finalized.

Expert Charlene Senn at the University of Windsor points out good policies should result in:

  • Increases in disclosures (not formal reports).
  • Increased student satisfaction no matter the outcome of formal complaints.
  • Increases in informal accommodations made for students not tied to formal complaints.
  • Improvement in proportion of formal cases resulting in outcomes commensurate with harm caused. 

Reports of sexual assault since Jan. 1 provided to CBC Toronto: 

  • Carleton: 3 reports/investigations 
  • McMaster: 1 report/investigation 
  • Queen’s: 6 reports 
  • Ryerson: not provided 
  • University of Toronto: declined to provide 
  • Western: 21 formal reports; 15 investigations
  • York: 1 report/investigation

Sex Assault on Campus: Are schools failing students?

CBC Toronto is bringing you stories about survivors of sexual assault and how policies on campuses are working for them. Share your story: Lisa Xing can be reached at [email protected]

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