Professors say new sexual violence policy could put students at risk

Following a sexual violence disclosure, staff and faculty must provide student name, identification number, and email address to the University

Professors say new disclosure requirements could put students at risk.  
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Under Queen’s newly inked sexual violence policy, students who disclose experiences of sexual violence to university employees who aren’t healthcare professionals will no longer be able to do so in complete confidence.

In interviews with The Journal, Jordan Morelli, a physics professor and member of Senate, and Meghan Norris, chair of undergraduate studies in the psychology department, said the new requirements under the updated policy could cause unintended harm to students who disclose experiences of sexual violence.

Approved by the Board of Trustees in May, Queen’s updated sexual violence policy states “all University employees who are not healthcare providers and who have received a Disclosure shall immediately notify the Sexual Violence Prevention & Response Coordinator and shall answer the SVPRC’s inquiries about the Disclosure. A notification to the SVPRC alone does not initiate a formal process.”

In accordance with the policy, the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response (SVPR) website now says employees must provide the student’s name, student number, and email address to the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Coordinator, Barb Lotan. The SVPR coordinator will then email the student outlining different resources and supports available to them.

Morelli said the new disclosure requirements—which were not specified in the policy passed by the Board in May—could discourage students from disclosing experiences of sexual violence to university employees.

“Anything that we implement that makes it less likely for a student to do a disclosure is, in my view, not good,” he told The Journal in an interview. “I suspect this will have a chilling effect on students’ willingness to disclose anything.”

In a written statement to The Journal responding to the criticism, Tom Harris, interim provost and vice-principal (Academic), wrote, “The safety and support of our students is of paramount importance to Queen’s and sexual violence in any form is unacceptable.”

“If a student discloses that they have experienced sexual violence, the revised policy helps to ensure the proper experts are notified and the student is contacted as appropriate to their circumstance, to ensure they are made aware of the help and support that is available to them.”

Harris also clarified that student disclosures to health practitioners in Student Wellness Services remain entirely confidential.

While Morelli said he doesn’t have a problem with the language in the policy itself, it’s the additional requirements on the SVPRC website he says could discourage disclosure. He said an email from the SVPR coordinator could alert a student’s abuser that the student is seeking help.

“Now we just have declared that we're going to put this person in jeopardy by sending them an email to their university account that the person who's abusing them may have full access to,” Morelli said. “And nothing could be more dangerous.”

In his statement, Harris said faculty and staff now have access to a notification form on the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response website that he says includes “considerations for identifying any potential safety and privacy concerns” that would inform how SVPRC responds.

Morelli said some professors are considering placing signs outside their office doors to warn students about what will happen if they disclose experiences of sexual violence.

“If a student’s going to make a disclosure to a faculty member, it’s because they have some level of trust,” he said. “Nothing is going to be more damaging to that than me having to put a sign on my door saying the moment you say anything in my office, I'm going to tell somebody else.”

Alternatively, Morelli said, the University could provide its employees with resource cards to give to students when they disclose incidents of sexual violence, and then inform the SVPRC that a card has been distributed.

Although he acknowledged the policy’s final approval rests with the Board of Trustees, Morelli was disappointed the University didn’t ask for Senate’s input on these specific requirements.

“It's one of the central functions of Senate that we have a concern for all matters that affect the general welfare of the University and its constituents,” he said. “Had Senate had an opportunity to vet this policy, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

In his statement to The Journal, Harris wrote that recent changes to the sexual violence policy followed a “comprehensive review” with sector partners and a consultation process with faculty, staff, and students.

Norris, who also criticized the mandatory reporting provision, said Queen’s should aim to build a climate of support that allows for safe connections to supports.

“It’s such an important issue and one that we all want to get right,” she said in an interview with The Journal. “I think it’s important that we focus on how we all have a common goal here, which is to help people who have experienced trauma to get the help that they need and to build a safe community.” She added the mandatory reporting provision could have “unintended harms.”

“It can complicate roles of employees who are forced into reporting and there’s some concerns that it might prioritize legal liabilities over student welfare,” she said.

Like Morelli, Norris said students should be aware of what will happen if they tell a university employee about an incident of sexual violence. Norris pointed to research that suggests mandatory reporting can discourage students from making disclosures. 

“I think it’s important that we use this emerging research to create a policy at Queen’s that really takes this research into account to be innovative in developing a policy that’s aware of these risks.”

Corrections

This article has been corrected to reflect Meghan Norris' correct title.

The Journal regrets the error.

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