Clarity needed in UBC system for handling sex assault allegations: report

An investigation has found staff at UBC who handled sexual assault allegations against a PhD candidate acted in "good faith," but human error and a lack of clarity led to a delayed response.

Several graduate students complained it took far too long for staff to respond to sexual assault complaints

University of British Columbia students stroll on the Vancouver campus. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

University of British Columbia staff who handled sexual assault allegations made against a PhD candidate acted in "good faith," but human error and a lack of clarity led to a delayed response, an investigation has found.

Interim UBC president Martha Piper outlined the key findings of a report at a board of governors meeting Monday.

The university hired lawyer Paula Butler to investigate complaints raised by several current and former history graduate students that it took far too long to act on multiple allegations against the PhD candidate.

Butler said in her report that there was no breach of the university's policies, including the general harassment and discrimination policy that the school currently uses to handle sexual assault reports.

Lack of clarity 

She found the assertion that it took 18 months to act "misleading," but said there was a delay because of a lack of clarity around the process for reporting and responding to assaults.

At least six groups were involved in handling complaints, including the history department, the Sexual Assault Support Centre and campus security, making the process unclear for the women and some staff, Butler said.

"Sporadic communication amongst these groups at times resulted in ineffective or little action being taken," she wrote in her report.

"It is not optimal for one complainant to have to tell her/his story to four or five different people, and to have to be asked on numerous occasions if she/he wants to go through a resolution process, all of which happened in this case."

The better option is for complainants to deal with one or two people who are consistently assigned to a case, Butler said.

Policy and staff shortcomings

The situation was exacerbated because several UBC staff members and complainants didn't have enough knowledge of the harassment and discrimination policy, which does not include a time requirement for dealing with cases, she said.

The policy also doesn't explain the difference between a formal and informal complaint and there is nothing in writing for complainants to know which type of document they should file.

That, combined with unclear explanations from a staff member, caused "much confusion" for complainants, Butler said, calling the system "flawed."

"The system of handling such sexual assault complaints needs to change," she said.

The university is launching a review led by an expert panel to establish a stand-alone sexual assault policy, and a faculty-led conference held Monday and Tuesday was to form recommendations.

In January, more than 80 faculty members from a wide range of disciplines signed a letter to the UBC community apologizing for not doing more to ensure the institution protects students from sexual assaults.