McGill University aims for balanced approach with new sexual assault policy

McGill University has adopted a new sexual assault policy that aims to balance a "survivor-centred approach" with a fair process for all involved.

Administration looks to address longstanding concerns of students

McGill University's sexual assault policy includes plans for 'prevention, education, support and response to sexual violence.' (Canadian Press)

After years of delays and contentious debate, McGill University has adopted a new sexual assault policy that aims to balance a "survivor-centred approach" with a fair process for all involved.

The university's senate voted unanimously last week to adopt the policy, which aims to "render its campus safer, more inclusive and more equitable for all community members."

It was approved by the board of governors at a meeting on Thursday night. 

Student groups, many of which criticized the school's administration for dragging its feet on the issue, say they are mostly happy with the plan.

Calls for a clearer, more pro-active approach to dealing with sexual assaults date back to at least 2013, following the revelation that three McGill football players had been charged with sexual assault.

For students, years of frustration

Frustrated by the slow pace of policy reform at the university, students developed a policy of their own, which wasn't adopted.
Angela Campbell, associate provost at McGill University, helped draft the new sexual assault policy. (McGill University)

Last April, the Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Students' Society published an open letter, saying it was "tired of empty words and hollow actions."

However, Angela Campbell, a law professor and associate provost at McGill, said the administration has made developing the policy a priority in the past year.

Campbell, who helped draft the policy, said the understanding of sexual assault on campus has evolved, as the issue of campus sexual assaults has been thrust into the spotlight given high-profile events in Quebec and across North America. 

"The notion of consent wasn't understood as robustly as it is now, so the discussions have become much more advanced and progressive," she told CBC in an interview.

Another change, said Campbell, who attended McGill as an undergraduate and law student in 1990s, has been the shift from individual to institutional responsibility when it comes to a culture of sexual assault.

"When I was going to university, women were told, 'Here are the things you do to stay protected.' So we were offered self-defence courses, we were told to watch our drinks, we were given the number for 'Walksafe' at McGill."

"Now, things have shifted a little bit, and the focus has moved from the individual, a potential victim, to the institution," she said.

New sexual assault centre

The policy itself isn't limited to how to handle reports of assault. It also "establishes measures that McGill will adopt with respect to prevention, education, support and response to sexual violence."

Erin Sobat, vice-president of university affairs for the Students' Society of McGill University, said the group is happy and relieved the university will have a clear and more comprehensive policy. (SSMU)
McGill will also set up a new sexual assault centre under the new policy, with trained staff "dedicated to sexual violence education and response."

Erin Sobat, vice-president of university affairs for the Students' Society of McGill University, said the student group is "happy and, in some ways, relieved" to have a clear and more comprehensive policy and a centre to handle all issues related to sexual assault.

But he's still concerned about how complaints will be handled by the university.

"What it doesn't do is address the disciplinary process past the process of filing a report," Sobat said, adding that coming forward with a complaint of sexual violence should be treated very differently from something like plagiarism.

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