Universities face increasing pressure to address campus sexual assault
Many universities revising policies in wake of Brock Turner scandal and other high-profile assault cases
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.
"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.
- Brock Turner released after 3 months in jail for Stanford sex assault
- Stanford University defends how it handled sex assault case
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.
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.
'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."
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.
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."