Nova Scotia

Dalhousie student union joins coalition to improve grade on sex assault policy

The national student group Our Turn gave Dalhousie University's sexual assault policy a grade of D+.

Dalhousie University's policy given a D+ by national student group Our Turn

The Dalhousie student union has joined student unions from across the country in advocating for better policies on campus sexual assault. (CBC)

The student union at Nova Scotia's largest university is joining its counterparts across the country to fill gaps in how sexualized violence is handled on campus — an effort that comes after a report gave Dalhousie University a less-than-stellar grade for its sexual assault policies.

Our Turn, a student group that started at Ottawa's Carleton University and has since expanded to include 20 student unions at 14 universities, recently published an action plan for sexual assault, including a report card grading 14 universities' policies.

Dalhousie was given a D+.

"I would say currently we don't really have a consent culture going around campus, but it's something that the Dalhousie Student Union is definitely working towards," said Masuma Khan, a DSU vice-president.

"Our Turn essentially allows us as a student union to stand with student unions across the nation in solidarity to stand with survivors and hold our institutions accountable."

Khan said Our Turn also helps create policy recommendations and strategies to combat sexualized violence and rape culture on campus.

Combating ignorance with education

The Our Turn report assessed universities on features such as whether they had a stand-alone sexual violence policy, whether the policy included a time limit to submit a complaint after an incident and whether there were anonymous complaint options.

It identifies not just specific supports that the university should provide, but ways in which universities can address the underlying culture that leads to sexualized violence.

Caitlin Salvino, the chair of Our Turn and one of the authors of the report, said that culture includes "everyday actions," from the Facebook posts that led to the Dalhousie University dentistry scandal and the rape chants during Saint Mary's University's 2013 frosh week, to campus activists receiving rape threats.

Students gathered at the Dalhousie University campus in 2015 to demand more action from the administration in response to the scandal involving students in the school's dentistry program. (CBC)

"It beings with our language and then it can escalate to higher forms of violence, including sexual violence." 

Khan said the DSU has brought in supports to help change the culture on campus, including opening a Survivor Support Centre with a focus on advocacy. 

"I would say that, you know, rape culture really stems from ignorance and the only way that we can get rid of this ignorance is through education."

Khan said that Dalhousie administration is currently updating its policy on sexual violence, and when that policy is released, the union hopes to bring it to the broader university community for additional consultation. 

Average grade a C-

While few universities received good grades in the report card — the average grade the report gives a university's policy is a C- — Salvino said she's been heartened by the response from student unions and administrators thus far.

"They're reading the action plan and they're taking it into account as they're looking to reform their policies, so it's a really positive sign."

No other Nova Scotia universities were graded in the report.

With files from CBC's Information Morning