This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. The Journal uses “survivor” to refer to those who have experienced sexual assault. We acknowledge this term is not universal.
Queen’s new Sexual Violence Policy says that if a student discloses an experience of sexual violence to a University employee who’s not a health care professional, that employee must immediately report the disclosure to the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Coordinator.
An additional requirement from the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response website also states that employees must provide the student’s name, student number, and email address to the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response (SVPR) Coordinator. The SVPR will then email the student outlining the resources and supports available to them.
This policy fundamentally threatens survivors’ abilities to comfortably seek support in a way that best suits them and their healing.
In addition, the faculty member must answer any inquiries the SVPRC has about the disclosure. The coordinator will then decide whether to email the student with potential options for moving forward and information about the resources available to them.
If that isn’t bad enough, a new “alternative resolutions” clause gives the University the power to resolve complaints with or without the permission of the complainant.
These policy updates come in response to a government survey which found Queen’s to have the fourth-highest percentage of reports of sexual violence out of 20 Ontario universities. It’s clear Queen’s is facing pressure to radically change how it handles sexual violence.
However, these policy changes are a mistake. They take the power out of the hands of survivors—who are already people who have suffered a crime that inherently robs them of their feelings of power.
If the first steps of a response system are to further deny survivors their agency, then that response system is fundamentally wrong.
While the changes might help the University pass muster after its poor survey results, they come at the expense of survivors.
Sexual violence reporting rates are already low in Canada, with only five per cent of survivors choosing to report to the police. Because of this, the majority of survivors aren’t gaining access to necessary resources that could aid in their recoveries.
That’s why the aim of any institution’s sexual violence policy should be to foster trust between survivors and their support systems, whether or not they choose to formally report.
For example, if a student approaches a professor or TA to share their assault, it’s because they trust them, or have nowhere else they feel they can turn. In any case, that student has picked that staff member for a reason, and with careful thought.
This new policy forces the faculty member in question to pass along what they’re told in confidence to someone the student has never met. This severs an otherwise trusting relationship, cutting off lines of communication for survivors of sexual violence, and discouraging reporting altogether.
In some ways, I understand the University’s logic.
Professors and other staff aren’t officially qualified to handle cases of sexual violence, whereas the SVPRC, Barb Lotan, is trained and experienced. But for many survivors, it’s not important how many credentials someone has, or what their crisis response certification is.
What’s important is being able to confide in a trusted source: someone they know and can speak to face-to-face.
The new policy forgets about students’ humanity.
On top of that, I’m genuinely confused about the purpose of these changes. The University website elaborates that, when the SVPRC is notified, it doesn’t count as an official report and no investigation will be launched without the student’s permission, except in special cases. If this is true, then why does the SVPRC need to be contacted against the student’s will?
While the referral to the SVPRC isn’t categorized as an official report, the coordinator still obtains the student’s identity and sexual violence story in their records. This seems like a violation of privacy.
It would be more prudent to train University staff to encourage students who have disclosed sexual violence to a trusted staff member to contact the SVPRC. They should direct the staff informed by survivors of incidents of sexual violence to make the student aware of the resources that would otherwise be shared in the SVPRC’s email.
In fact, these resources should be widely known by all members of the Queen’s community so they can be more easily accessed in times of distress.
I have no doubt the administration is genuinely trying to take this issue as seriously as it should be taken. Last year’s report was disturbing to many students. But this policy change misses the mark. Rather than making campus feel safer, it makes survivors feel even less safe and in control.
The bulk of the efforts to reduce sexual violence on campus should involve educating people about consent. We should continue to strive to prevent assaults from occurring in the first place.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Incidents of sexual violence will continue to happen. That’s why it’s critical we improve our response system and make resources widely available and widely known to survivors.
Schedule 3 of Ontario’s Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act requires universities to review and amend their policies at least once every three years. In the meantime, those who wrote and approved the current policy should ask themselves who it’s really meant to protect.
There’s a difference between protecting survivors and merely protecting Queen’s as an institution.
Nathan Gallagher is a third-year English major.
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