Universities face increasing pressure to address campus sexual assault

Former Stanford student Brock Turner was released from jail a week ago, highlighting the issue of campus sexual assault just as students head back to class. Brandie Weikle takes a look at what some Canadian campuses are doing to protect their students.

Many universities revising policies in wake of Brock Turner scandal and other high-profile assault cases

University of British Columbia, above, is one of several universities in Canada and the U.S. that have revamped their policies on sexual assault in wake of high-profile cases that have raised questions about whether schools have done enough to address the issue. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

University of British Columbia students got an extra jolt along with their caffeine fixes when they returned to campus last week.

The school's student union, the Alma Mater Society (AMS), has launched a campaign to raise awareness of campus sexual assault, wrapping coffee cups in sleeves that draw attention to UBC's track record for disciplining offenders.

The coffee sleeves make a stark comparison, showing that while 257 students were suspended over a 10-year period for plagiarism or other academic cheating, none were suspended for sexual assault during that same time. They also encourage students to weigh in while the university seeks feedback on its new sexual assault policy.
UBC's Alma Mater Society has launched a coffee cup sleeve campaign to encourage students to provide feedback on the review of the university's sexual assault policy. (Michelle Huang/Twitter)

"Sexual assault has been an issue almost as long as campuses have been around," says Ava Nasiri, president of AMS. While progress has been made, more needs to be done to make victims comfortable coming forward, and to send a message to perpetrators at campuses everywhere that sexual violence has serious consequences, she says.

The need for more progress is a big topic on campuses across the country this year as many schools try to improve their policies for protecting students. 

Stanford under the microscope

But perhaps no school anywhere is under more scrutiny than California's Stanford University.

Former student Brock Turner — convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman near a fraternity party — was released from jail on Sept. 2, completing half of a six-month sentence that sparked international outrage and an online petition to remove the judge who presided over his case. Judge Aaron Persky has since asked to hear only civil cases.

Man convicted in Stanford sexual assault dodges media questions 0:20

The prestigious school issued new limits on hard alcohol last month, a move widely criticized for putting the onus on women to drink less, rather than on men not to commit sexual assaults.

Stanford said the new restrictions are "a harm-reduction strategy" aimed at curbing the medically risky rapid consumption of hard liquor. But the student body quickly connected the new policy with the Turner case, given that during the trial Turner said he was inexperienced with alcohol before beginning college.

Ralph Castro, director of Stanford's Office of Alcohol Policy and Education (OAPE), told campus newspaper The Stanford Daily that the new policy was not a result of a recent focus on sexual assault, but rather previous initiatives that had been underway since 2011.

Shelby Travers says she was sexually assaulted on Humber College's north campus at the end of the last school year. While Travers says she was treated well by school administrators when she came forward, more needs to be done to ensure safety at school events. (Cathy Bidini)

'Alcohol is not consent'

Shelby Travers, a second-year student in media communications at Humber College, was watching the Brock Turner case unfold while coping with the immediate aftermath of being sexually assaulted on campus the day before classes ended last academic year. 

She describes her assailant as "someone who at the time I thought was my friend and who just abused that sense of comfort and pushed boundaries, and, frankly, at the end of the day didn't respect me or what 'no' means." 

Protesters at a Stanford University commencement ceremony in Palo Alto, Calif., hold signs to raise awareness of sexual assault on campus in the wake of the national attention brought by the Brock Turner case. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

Travers, who opted not to report what happened to police, says her case was handled well and efficiently by the college's department of student conduct, which has banned the perpetrator from campus until 2018. Still, she says she'd like to see student governments work with their colleges and universities to ensure safety at school events.

When I was giving my statement I was asked, "Had you had anything to drink?" and I just don't see why it's relevant. It's not.- Shelby Travers , sexual assault victim

"That's where a lot of these incidents happen, at the school bar, at these events where people are mistaking being under the influence with consent," Travers says. "Alcohol is not consent. That's where the whole victim blaming or shaming comes in — 'Oh, you had a drink,' or 'You were wearing a short skirt' — none of that means anything. When I was giving my statement I was asked, 'Had you had anything to drink?' and I just don't see why it's relevant. It's not."

New policy at U of T

The University of Toronto released a new draft policy on sexual assault last Wednesday. 

Provost Cheryl Regehr said the policy is the result of consultations and committee work that have been ongoing since November 2014.

But the timing of the policy announcement was intentional, she says. 

"We wanted to have the draft policy ready for when the students came back to school so that all students would have an opportunity to provide input."

Provincial law also requires all Ontario universities and colleges to have sexual violence policies in place by January 2017, a change that came about as a result of the government's "It's Never OK" action plan on sexual violence.

Front and centre in the U of T policy is the creation of new "sexual violence prevention and support centres" on all three campuses.

The policy also makes a distinction between disclosing an assault and making a formal report. Victims won't be required to file a formal report with campus authorities or police in order to access support as well as academic, employment and other accommodations, Regehr said.

Former Stanford student Brock Turner was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, but served only three months of the six-month sentence that sparked international outrage and calls for reform in how universities and the justice system handle campus sexual assault cases. (Gary Reyes/Associated Press)

The proposed changes also protect victims from having to come face to face with their alleged perpetrators in meetings unless they agree to do so.

Preventing the problem

Perhaps the most critical campus reforms, though, are those geared to preventing sexual violence in the first place.

To that end, Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Que., just rolled out new mandatory sexual-assault training for all first-year students during orientation. The university says it's also planning to offer the training to students in second, third and fourth years, as well as to faculty and staff.

Regehr says U of T has long had education programs in place, starting during orientation. But under its new policy, a panel of education experts will consult with the campus communities about whether these are working and also outline areas for improvement.

UBC's Nasiri says she'd like to see education around consent and healthy sexual relationships start at the elementary or high school level and hopes not to see a repeat of what happened at Stanford.

"The way that that case was handled is something that we take major issue with," she said. "No student body and no institution should allow for this kind of situation to arise again. We're doing our best to advocate for as much prevention as possible and to set a new standard for universities nationwide." 

About the Author

Brandie Weikle is a senior writer for CBC News based in Toronto. She's a long-time magazine and newspaper editor and podcast host with specialities in family life, health and the workplace. You can reach her at