McGill students' society moves to fill loophole in campus sexual violence policy

After a student executive was forced to resign following allegations of sexual misconduct, the Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU) is developing its own policy to combat sexual violence. It hopes to establish clear rules on how to handle complaints as well as mandatory prevention training.

SSMU wants clearer rules on how to handle complaints, training after student executive resigned last year

Students' Society of McGill University vice-president Connor Spencer, left, pictured with Caitlin Salvino, says SSMU is developing its own sexual violence policy after a student executive was forced to resign last year over allegations of sexual misconduct. (Leah Hendry/CBC)

After a tumultuous 2017 that saw the resignation of a student executive over allegations of sexual misconduct, the Students' Society of McGill University is developing its own sexual violence policy.

David Aird, a former SSMU vice president, resigned in February 2017 after a group of students banded together and posted an online statement about his alleged behaviour.

SSMU was criticized for its inaction as allegations of sexual misconduct had circulated about Aird before he was even elected.

Connor Spencer, SSMU's current vice president external, said the incident showed the lack of clear rules within SSMU about how to handle such complaints and what steps to take to remove someone from office if necessary.

"So that's disturbing," said Spencer.

She also believes the incident revealed some serious shortcomings within the university's own policy, which was adopted at the end of 2016. 

McGill's sexual violence policy applies to all students. The university can reprimand, expel or suspend a student.

However, it doesn't have the power to remove people from student associations, which are independent of the university's authority. It is up to SSMU to govern its own activities, including imposing sanctions on its directors or executives.
Nearly 150 McGill professors come out in support of student union's push for external investigation into how administration has handled sexual misconduct allegations involving faculty members. (McGill University)

"That was really disheartening for a lot of people to see that," said Spencer.

Following that incident, SSMU decided it needed its own policy to close that loophole.

A stand-alone policy will provide more choice, said Spencer, as many students are not comfortable making a formal complaint to the university about a fellow student.

"It's something you hear very often, 'I don't want to ruin his life,'" said Spencer. "Folks are looking more for accommodations than anything."

Draft policy underway

This past fall, SSMU hired a new sexual violence policy project coordinator. 

Caitlin Salvino has extensive knowledge of sexual assault policies across Canada. 

While she was a Carleton University student, Salvino co-created Our Turn, a student led movement that graded 14 Canadian universities on their sexual assault policies.

Caitlin Salvino co-created Our Turn, a student led movement that graded more than a dozen universities' sexual violence policies. She's now helping SSMU draft its own policy to both handle complaints and support survivors of sexual assault. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

In her new role with SSMU, Salvino is compiling a report of all the work that's already been done to combat sexual violence at McGill as well as available resources on campus.

Her team is also consulting with various student groups for their feedback. It is still in its early days, but Salvino says there is support for creating an independent ombudsman who could address complaints about alleged sexual misconduct.

If students file a complaint, repercussions could include banning that person from participating in certain student clubs.

It could also include prohibiting that person from entering the SSMU building, which the student group controls and where a big part of student life unfolds for the nearly 25,000 undergraduate students the society represents at McGill's downtown campus.

Mandatory prevention training

The university administration's sexual violence policy commits to prevention training, but Salvino says it is struggling with how to enforce it. 

And that's where Salvino thinks SSMU can make an impact. There are more than 200 clubs associated with the students' society and many of them rely on SSMU for their status, funding and room bookings.

Salvino would like that funding or status to be contingent on mandatory prevention training for anyone it has jurisdiction over. 

The training would include everything from explaining what consent is to outlining what sexual violence looks like. 

There are more than 200 clubs associated with the students' society. Many rely on SSMU for their status as well as funding, but SSMU would like that to be contingent on mandatory prevention training. (Canadian Press)

"I think we assume that people know. But a lot of the time, people kind of have a cookie cutter image of what sexual assault looks like," said Salvino.

The training would also give students guidance about what to say or where to go if a friend reaches out to them for help.

Salvino says the #MeToo movement as well as last month's uproar over widespread allegations of sexual misconduct in Concordia University's creative writing program has reinforced SSMU's push for change.

There's also momentum from legislation the Quebec government introduced last year to counter sexual violence on campuses.

"I truly believe we are in a watershed moment," said Spencer. "We're in this situation that we could actually make positive change."

SSMU's policy could be 'puzzle piece'

SSMU says it is working with McGill's administration to make sure its draft policy can be a "puzzle piece" that can fit into the existing sexual violence policy and resources that already exist on campus.

"We're not necessarily trying to replace anything, because we can't. We don't have the same capabilities or scope as the university does — but we do see from what happened last year that we are an existing hole," said Spencer, referring to the Aird incident.

Angela Campbell, associate provost at McGill University, said the university happy to consult with SSMU.

"We have been sharing input and ideas whenever they have reached out to administration about the development of their internal policy."

SSMU hopes to have a draft policy by the end of May. If accepted, it would like to see it in place by the start of the next school year.