A new year for SVPR sees news hires

The Journal speaks with Queen’s two new sexual violence hires after a year of tumultuous policy debates

Student Wellness Services.
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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.

After a year of upheaval in Queen’s sexual violence policy, including the release of troubling survey results and a policy suspension and review, the University is looking at 2020-21 with fresh eyes.

In an effort to improve sexual violence prevention efforts on campus, the University onboarded two new hires who specialize in Sexual Violence Prevention and Response (SVPR) this summer. The first is Taylor Mackenzie MacPherson, who will fill the role of Sexual Violence Prevention & Response Community Outreach and Student Support Worker, and Michelle Wells, who joined Student Wellness Services (SWS) as a Personal Counsellor for Sexual Violence.

MacPherson sees her role as a “central contact for SV prevention related educational initiatives and events.” She hopes “to be a resource in the expertise [she] holds, to be someone who can support initiatives, find opportunities for collaboration, bring in resources and speakers, and provide support.” MacPherson will also be working with the SVPR Office to design and implement educational initiatives.

In an email interview with The Journal, she said her background working in residence as a Don and Acting Manager with Residence Life (Education) at Queen’s and as a Residence Manager at Western gives her experience and expertise in “developing holistic education initiatives” and crisis management. She also previously volunteered with the Sexual Assault Centre Kingston (SACK) and hopes to build the relationship between SACK and Queen’s.

Wells credited her background in preparing her to take on the new role; while obtaining her master’s degree at The University of Southern California (USC), she was accepted into the United States’ only Military Social Work program, where she studied post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and military sexual trauma. Through this, she’s been trained in evidence-based practices proven to treat sexual violence and PTSD.

“[S]exual violence-specific support provides specialized, solution-focused, ongoing treatment, if needed, for students who have experienced sexual violence, and conditions related to the trauma,” Wells said.

Wells typically treats students on a weekly basis, as is the established protocol for evidence-based trauma-related therapy.

While neither MacPherson nor Wells were hired to work specifically with SVPR policy, both join the SVPR Task Force which deals with policy consultation, formulation, and review.

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Both enter into a turbulent climate surrounding SVPR at Queen’s—particularly over the last year.

In 2019, the University’s sexual violence policy was revised for the first time since its implementation in 2016. The revisions included a new procedure around disclosure that required staff and faculty to provide a student name, identification number, and email address to the University—likely to Barb Lotan, Queen’s University Sexual Violence Prevention and Response coordinator who works underneath Human Rights Advisory Services—if they receive a disclosure of sexual violence.

As such, students who confided their experiences in any University employee who wasn’t a healthcare professional wouldn’t be able to do so in confidence.

The backlash was swift. Students spoke out about the potential danger of the lack of confidentiality and professors told The Journal they worried the new policy would deter students from coming forward.

In response, the requirement was suspended on Oct. 10, 2019, and the administration held open community meetings—which often resulted in tense discussion—to hear feedback. The former Interim Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Tom Harris admitted the consultation process that led to the implementation of the disclosure requirement had “failed.”

An emailed feedback form was launched last fall to review the suspended policy. Review of the feedback, in addition to a more extensive consultative process throughout the winter, was expected to be undertaken by the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Task Force. However, COVID-19 delayed the process of writing a new policy until July 21, when the proposed amendments were finally released. The proposed policy no longer requires staff to identify a student who has disclosed an incident to the university unless given permission by the student. If passed, they will still be required to notify Lotan of a disclosure.

However, last year’s policy issue wasn’t the only time Queen’s has grappled with sexual violence. After two years of silence, the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities released the full results of the long-awaited Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey this past February.

The data showed Queen’s ranking fourth in the province for prevalence of sexual assault, and second for sexual harassment, just behind Western University. More than 7,000 Queen’s students participated in the survey in 2018.

The most commonly cited reason for not telling university staff of an incident of sexual violence, at 50.7 per cent, was “not thinking it was serious enough.” Will Greene, former AMS vice-president (University Affairs), called the results “alarming and heartbreaking.”

 The Journal also reported last year that, beginning in 1989, multiple recommendations for a sexual assault centre on campus had gone unanswered.

A member of the SVPR Task Force and thus having the ability to shape policy, Wells called being a part of the team “a privilege.”

“The work being done [by the task force] is multi-faceted and ever-evolving with the focus on arriving at a clear policy and respectful processes that the community can rely on. All voices are heard and valued,” Wells said.

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Both MacPherson and Wells have had busy entrances to Queen’s. MacPherson has been focusing on building relationships with students and services that focus on SVPR. She said she’s looking forward to further collaborating with QSACK, Levana Gender Advocacy Centre, Consensual Humans, the Sexual Health Resource Centre, the Bystander Intervention Program through the Student Experience Office, and the Peer Support Centre.

One project MacPherson is currently involved in is a Gender Based Violence prevention workshop series, which is being organized along with the AMS Social Issues Commission.

Wells has been busy with multiple projects as well, providing personal counselling for student survivors of sexual violence in addition to working through SWS with the SVPR Task force.

Wells’s days are also varied. Since she specializes in crisis response, a student who contacts SWS with sexual violence crises are referred directly to her, and she has time allotted to meet urgent needs in a timely manner.

Another one of Wells’s responsibilities is training other counselors at SWS to work with survivors of sexual violence.

“I have been providing consultation to my colleagues whenever needed,” she said. “More formal training will take place at a later date.” Her plans for training include psychoeducation on the effects of trauma, as well as sharing strategies “used to teach survivors to self-regulate when hyper-vigilant or hyper-aroused.”

Of course, the pandemic has changed how Wells and MacPherson originally envisioned their roles. Counselling and initiatives have been moved completely online, posing unique challenges to already complex work.

“We’ve had some successes with online initiatives like the Letters to Survivors Campaign, which is inspired by activist Tani Ikeda, launching our monthly newsletter, and educational posts around consent during COVID on our Instagram,” MacPherson said. 

MacPherson said she’s looking forward to running a virtual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence campaign in late November, which “will address tangible ways we can engage in activism against Gender Based Violence with a particular focus and recognition of the different ways that [Gender Based Violence] impacts people based on their identity and lived experiences.”

For her part, Wells says her clients have adapted well to online therapy. She has “noticed that they feel at ease and display increased signs of comfort by being in their own homes with the ability to have personal items such as blankets, pillows, candles or even pets around them.” 

Both Wells and MacPherson expressed excitement about what is to come in their new positions. Despite a complicated history surrounding SVPR at Queen’s, they’re dedicated to working toward building a stronger consent culture and student and survivor support. However, MacPherson acknowledged that ensuring Queen’s doesn’t revisit the problems of the past can’t be done alone. She’s hopeful when she sees the efforts surrounding SVPR already being promoted by students on campus.

“Prevention work needs to be a campus effort, and I know there are already fantastic initiatives and groups doing great work at Queen’s.”

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