Dalhousie University sexual assault help line hangs up

A phone line for sexual assault survivors at Dalhousie University is no longer in service after a funding dispute between the union and administration.

Fluctuating funding made it hard to 'build trust,' says student leader explaining low call rate

It's unclear why the student union did not pay its equal share of the cost of the help line at Dalhousie University. (CBC)

A phone line for sexual assault survivors at Dalhousie University is no longer in service.

The Dalhousie Student Union says it had to shut down the sexual assault and harassment phone on Nov. 3 because the university refused to fully fund it.

"In terms of the phone line itself, unless we receive the full funding for it, we will not be relaunching this year," Dalhousie Student Union vice-president academic and external Amina Abawajy said Monday.

"But we do want to work with the university — and we do want to see the university step up and support survivors."

Last school year, the university and student union agreed to split the cost. This year the university agreed to its portion again, but the union said it wants Dalhousie to shoulder the whole cost.

From Sept. 3 to Nov. 3, the phone line operated at reduced capacity with one staff member and a number of volunteers.

Hard to 'build trust'

A Dalhousie Student Union internal review of the phone line found that of the 57 calls to the line between September 2015 and April 2016, 17 were "legitimate." Staff referred 14 people to services.

"I think in this case, legitimate means the number of conversations that were had," Abawajy said.

"I think low-call volume is to be expected from a new service and also the service had an end date that was moved continuously — and that greatly limited our ability to promote and made it harder for the service to build trust."

The rest of the calls included wrong numbers, missed calls and hang-ups.

Funding dispute

The phone line began as a six-week pilot project in September 2015, but was extended until April 2016.

Initially, the student union asked the university for $60,000 to fully fund the phone line with two staff; one to do community outreach and the other to co-ordinate volunteers.

The university instead gave the student union $30,000 — half the estimated cost. The program ended up coming to $45,000. The parties agreed the student union and Dalhousie would each pay $22,500.

This semester the university agreed to renew the $22,500, for one more year. Abawajy said the union wants the school to pay the full cost as the phone line is a student service. She wasn't clear why the student union won't pay half the cost.

"The phone line ran for a year and after that we put in a new proposal with the university and they did not adequately fund the phone line," Abawajy said. 

Services offered, school says

Dalhousie University did not have anyone available to speak to CBC Monday. Instead, spokeswoman Janet Bryson emailed a statement.

In the statement, Bryson said the university has a number of other support services around sexual assault and professionals who provide education and training to prevent sexual violence.

"Our office of human rights, equity, and harassment prevention provides advice on reporting options, internally and externally, as well as information referrals for both Halifax and Truro campuses," she said in the statement. 

"They also provide faculty, staff and student leaders with information and resources on how to respond to and provide support to survivors; as well as first responder training for members of our community to minimize secondary trauma after disclosure, to listen in a supportive way and to make referrals."

In addition to on-campus security, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Dalhousie also has medical care and counselling services available, she said.

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Sherri Borden Colley

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Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts.