The University of Alberta is formally tracking the number of sexual assault complaints it receives in its annual student conduct and accountability report for the first time.

Twelve students faced formal complaints of gender-based violence including sexual assault, sexual harassment and drugging during the 2015-2016 school year, according to the report. There were between 41 and 45 victims of these 12 students, according to the university.

Deb Eerkes, director of student conduct and accountability, said the university began tracking complaints last year after a review into their sexual assault policy asked for more transparency.

"In a situation where you're talking about something so difficult, you need to talk about it more, not less," Eerkes told CBC News.

Gender-based violence has been measured before by the university, Eerkes said. In 2014-2015, the university recorded 13 cases of gender-based violence, but at the time did not provide details about the type of allegations brought forward.  

Formal complaints can be forwarded to police at the survivor's discretion, Eerkes said.

'We really don't know what's happening out there'

If a survivor decides to file a formal complaint, Eerkes said, the university's protective services division will launch an investigation, make a finding and then impose sanctions, if appropriate.

Survivors also have a third-party reporting option, where they can report the assault to the school's sexual assault centre or another service in Edmonton without launching a formal investigation.

In most cases, Eerkes said survivors prefer not to make a formal complaint and ask instead for help deferring a class, changing dorm rooms or getting a referral to mental health supports.

"If someone discloses that they've experienced sexual violence, they can tell us what they need," Eerkes said.

Samantha Pearson, director of the university's sexual assault centre, said victims are more likely to talk to their families and friends instead of accessing formal supports to cope with sexual violence.

For those that do come forward, Eerkes said the university's survivor-centred approach limits the amount of information it can collect.

"Because we don't have many reports, we really don't know what's happening out there," she said.  

Eight out of 10 instances of sexual assault in Canada are not reported to police, according to a 2011 Statistics Canada report.

Eerkes said the rates of sexual assault that go unreported on campus are about the same, if not higher.

The U of A has four internal working groups trying to figure out a way to more accurately measure and educate students about sexual assault on campus. The groups are expected to present some of their work in the fall.

Spike in survivors accessing support services

Students coping with sexual assault have many options at their disposal, Eerkes said.

Survivors can access the university's sexual assault centre, a confidential resource for students on campus where they can speak to a staff councillor, volunteer or psychologist.

"We're really firm advocates that reporting absolutely needs to be something that somebody does when they're ready," Pearson said.

The centre saw 218 clients during the 2016-2017 year, up from 191 the year before.

The centre also provided 626 consultations and support sessions last year, up from 515 in 2015.

Access to the support services is not limited to those who experienced sexual viiolence on campus, Pearson said.

Eerkes said the university has seen an increase in the number of survivors coming forward and sharing their experiences with sexual assaults informally, something she hopes will lead to more formal complaints down the road.

"If we're seeing increases in the number of complaints and disclosures, it's a good-news story," Eerkes said. "That means we're doing something to help the people … that have experienced sexual violence."

The university plans to release its 2016-2017 student conduct and accountability report in November.

anna.desmarais@cbc.ca

@anna_desmarais