In the News, Staying Safe

Western University launches task force on sexual violence as students plan walkout

September 16, 2021

Amid a provincial demand that colleges and universities update their sexual violence reporting policies, Western University in London, Ont., is launching a task force on sexual violence and student safety, as well as mandating in-person consent and violence prevention training for students and hiring new security guards.

The government has given post-secondary schools until March 2022 to update their policies with provisions that ensure those reporting sexual violence aren't asked "irrelevant" questions about their sexual history, and so students who do report don't get in trouble if they've violated the school's alcohol or drug policies. 

The president of Western University, where four sexual assaults were reported last week to police and multiple others have been talked about on social media, said he welcomes the announcement from the minister of colleges and universities. 

On Thursday afternoon, Western took things further, announcing a new student safety action plan and the striking of the task force to "better understand and eradicate sexual violence and create a campus culture where these unacceptable actions are prevented," officials said in a statement. 

We clearly have a culture problem that we need to address.- Alan Shepard, Western University president 

"This has been a tremendously difficult time for our students and the entire Western community. We clearly have a culture problem that we need to address. We let our students and their families down," said Western University president Alan Shepard.  

A student walkout is planned for Friday, to show support for survivors of sexual violence, address "the prevalent threat of rape culture on campus and connected underlying issues such as misogyny and queerphobia," and demand better resources for student leaders, according to organizers of the protest. 

In an email to CBC News, Western administrators expressed support for the walkout.

"We see this as a positive step forward in publicly affirming a collective commitment to stop gender-based sexual violence. This is an opportunity to work together on Western's culture and to ensure everyone feels safe on campus."

More security, more training

The immediate changes Western announced on Thursday include: 

  • All students in residence will have to take an in-person training course on sexual violence, consent and personal safety, starting Monday. The goal is to make it mandatory for all students. 
  • Up to 100 new "safety ambassadors" will be hired as part of a new program to support students in residence. They will be a mix of upper-year students that will work through night shifts. 
  • Security patrols on campus will be increased from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. 
  • Four special constables will be hired. 

The mandatory training for all 5,300 students in residence was developed with Western's Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children. Faculty and staff training will also be developed, the university said. 

The student safety and sexual violence task force will include student leaders, faculty, staff and community partners, officials said. 

"We have a lot of work to do as a community," Shepard said. "I've spoken with students who are hurting, and we are here to listen and to collaborate with them to find a better way forward." 

Sexual violence and assault is unacceptable, and protecting complainants is critical addressing the issues, he added. 

"Western has a strong policy in place that is in line with the requirements set out by the government today.

"Western is focused on addressing the culture of sexual violence on campus and will be sharing more information on further changes we are making to ensure our campus is a safe place for all students and our entire community."

The university's sexual violence policy, revamped in the past few years, is progressive and survivor-centred, said Annalise Trudell, a spokesperson for Anova, the London, Ont., agency that helps those dealing with gender-based violence. 

"Overall it is a good policy," Trudell said. "It is really centred around putting the control into the survivor's hands. You want to make sure that nothing is done outside of the survivor's control, because that really is what the experience of rape is — it's one of losing complete control and having power done to you."  

More work with young men

"We know that the best practice is that we want survivors to completely drive the process, and that's really the ethics of that policy. Does that mean that there's been enough work done on the topic of sexual violence? No. There's much more work that's needed." 

Western University's gender-based and sexual violence policy came into effect on May 1, 2020, after months of consultations. 

But no matter what policies are in place, most survivors of sexual assault don't make formal complaints ot universities or to police, Trudell said. 

"We need to keep pushing and getting a better understanding about where our gaps are, particularly in engaging young men," she said. "We've done a good job on campus of making people aware of what consent is, but how are we holding young men accountable? How are we engaging sort of a peer culture where young men are calling other young men out? Those are areas where we need to be doing more work."

It's important to remember that those who do disclose sexual assault usually do so to friends or family, or on social media, and not to officials such as university administrators or police, said Katreena Scott, director of Western University's Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children.

COVID-19 stalled important discussions

"There are many reasons that people choose to and not to disclose, and many reasons that people choose to and not to make an official report," Scott said. "Just because something has been disclosed on social media and not through more official channels doesn't mean it didn't happen." 

This September could be particularly difficult because first-year students who normally would have had a year of senior high school talking to their teachers about the transition to post-secondary education didn't get that opportunity because of remote learning, Scott said. Similarly, second-year students who would have had last year's orientation week and the full school year to discuss gender-based violence were learning from home. 

"That is in no way an excuse for behaviour, and it's not an excuse that they haven't had in-person experiences and therefore don't know how to be non-violent, but it is the case that many important conversations that happen in high school might not have happened last year," Scott said. 

"Those experiences and conversations, with teachers and with peers, about what is safe in relationships, what is healthy in relationships, what do unhealthy relationships look like, what does healthy masculinity look like, what does unhealthy masculinity look like — all of those conversations have been less possible. All of those experiences have been less possible, so this group of students is coming to university at increased risk because of not having all of those experiences and conversations to build from."

Read the original article on CBC London