Toronto

Sexual violence still a major problem at the University of Toronto, report warns

A new report outlines what students believe are gaps in U of T's handling of sexual violence incidents on campus.

Province mandated standalone sexual assault policies at postsecondary campuses by Jan. 2017

Jessica Wright, lead researcher and survivor of sexual violence, says she was surprised how many students did not know what they experienced was sexual violence. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

A report released by a campus advocacy group at the University of Toronto suggests students are still facing hurdles when trying to come forward about their experiences of sexual violence. 

Silence is Violence (SiV), which is led by survivors, say they wanted to get a sense of students' experiences, following a series of controversies at the school, including a student filing a human rights complaint against U of T after she reported her sexual assault and another who said the school failed to help her after she was assaulted by a classmate

In recent years, multiple schools across the country have come under fire for the way they've handled students' sexual assault investigations.

As a result, the province of Ontario mandated every postsecondary institution to have a standalone sexual violence policy. Bill 132 stated they had to be in place by January 2017. 

Despite this, SiV's report, End the Silence, End the Violence, claims U of T's policy is not reflective of "actual practices" on the ground. 

"There is very little that has changed," said Jessica Wright, lead researcher with the group.

SiV sent out a survey through mailing lists and campus groups across U of T's St. George, Mississauga and Scarborough campuses and received 544 responses. 

It found: 

  • As many as 20 per cent of students experienced at least one instance of sexual violence (the group defined it as anything from unconsensual texts to rape) during their time at U of T. 
  • About half of that 20 per cent were unsure if what they experienced constituted sexual violence.
  • Thirty per cent of participants stated they knew someone who had experienced sexual violence during their time at U of T.
  • Marginalized respondents, like LGBT and students with disabilities, experienced disproportionately high rates of sexual violence, including 57.1 per cent for Indigenous students 

"What surprised me the most was that so many students described experiences of sexual violence to us ... that they didn't think that was sexual violence," said Wright. "That was upsetting and startling."
 
A survivor of sexual violence herself, Wright said that finding shows there needs to be more education around consent.

Disclosure and reporting

The report also found just 12.9 per cent of survivors tried to report their assault to someone affiliated with the university, which Wright said may have to do with a variety of barriers, including students not feeling comfortable reporting, while others weren't believed or told to move on when they disclosed. 

"Survivors were having to, for instance, disclose and report at various different places and tell their traumatic story over and over," she said. 

Of those who did report, Wright said students found the process to be long, despite a pledge for shorter timelines. 

The report states some limitations of the survey, including recognizing some students have limited access to computer technology and some survivors drop out due to various reasons. It also acknowledged the survey indicated being a U of T student was criteria for inclusion, but did not have a way of confirming it.

CBC Toronto put the results of the survey to the school's Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre, created in January 2017 as a result of Bill 132. 

Angela Treglia, director of the Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre, says the centre is listening to students. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

"There's a commitment to reducing the number of times that people need to tell their story," said its director, Angela Treglia. "We know we have work to do." 

Treglia said some may not know about the existence of the centre because it's a relatively new service offered to students, but it's continuing to raise awareness, including delivering workshops on campus and creating campaigns around consent.

The report includes recommendations to the school, including a "central" hub of resources so survivors can just tell their story once and receive services like therapy. The group is calling on the hub to be run by survivors, but funded by the university. 

"We look forward to working with any students and student groups that want to be engaged in this conversation," said Treglia.

About the Author

Lisa Xing is a journalist by trade and a historian by degree. She's also a creative writer, photographer and traveller. Email her at Lisa.Xing@cbc.ca.

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