Addressing Sexual Violence on Campus: Reflections on a Panel Discussion

In front of an audience of my peers and human rights practitioners, I recently shared my thoughts and recommendations for addressing sexual violence on university and college campuses. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in tackling this complex topic. I was part of a panel packed with the expertise of four other very accomplished women with a wealth of related knowledge and experience. This exciting conversation happened at this year’s Canadian Association for the Prevention of Discrimination and Harassment in Higher Education national conference in Toronto. 

A full schedule of the event – including details on guest speakers, workshops and panels – is available online. 

At the beginning of my panel’s discussion, the moderator asked us each to describe what role universities and colleges can play when a student who has experienced sexual violence doesn’t want to go through the legal system. I was happy to speak to this, particularly since I recently learned that some institutions automatically refer reports of sexual assault (a criminal offense) to the police rather than offering to address them internally. The reality is that most institutions have a host of internal services that may better serve students’ needs than the legal system (e.g., informal or formal complaint processes, coaching, or counselling). Students may also benefit from other services available through community centres (e.g., helplines, support groups). Human rights practitioners need to inform victims about all of these options (including those available through the legal system) and explain the pros and cons of each. This will give students the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about their pathway to healing.

When we were asked to comment on common pitfalls in addressing sexual violence, I decided to identify what I see as a “red flag” in institutional policies. Mediation is often offered as an option for addressing complaints of sexual harassment (including sexual assault). Yet scholars warn of the challenges and even dangers of using mediation in such cases, given the documented disadvantages for victims. These disadvantages mirror the concerns about the use of mediation in family law cases when intimate partner abuse is present, except that in family mediation, professional associations (such as Family Mediation Canada and the ADR Institute of Canada) have established standards of practice to help minimize the risk of further victimization. Meanwhile, comparable standards do not yet exist for mediation involving sexual harassment (in PSE or elsewhere). I suggest institutions look to professional standards of practice in family mediation and build upon those practices to help improve the safety and fairness of mediation processes at their institution. 

Before the panel came to a close, we were asked to make three recommendations for what human rights practitioners should bring back to their institutions for developing a framework to address sexual violence (both in terms of prevention and policy/procedures). 

My first recommendation was to focus prevention efforts on bystanders. This helps shift the focus (and responsibility) of preventing sexual violence away from victims and back on the community as a whole. This also increases students’ ability to help and support one another when their peers experience sexual violence. One program in particular that is gaining considerable support is Bringing in the Bystander. At the conference, I spoke with two individuals from different institutions who are adapting this program for use at their college or university. One of my co-panelists also mentioned a fascinating initiative focused on bystanders that involves integrating sexual violence awareness and education into the curriculum (2013 winter issue of Psynopsis) by way of offering two for-credit courses on the subject, with half of the seats reserved for male students. Her institution also delivers annual workshops to undergraduate students and evaluates the effectiveness of this work. This is a really exciting example of what can be accomplished at an institution when there is administrative support for such efforts. 

I also recommended that human rights practitioners collect feedback from policy users. Very few institutions seem to do this. Yet, those who have experienced the policy in practice, and who have been in a situation for which the policy is intended, can share a unique perspective regarding how they felt throughout the process, whether anything was unclear or confusing, if at any points they felt fearful or trapped, or how satisfied they were at various stages of the process. Collecting feedback doesn’t need to be complicated. A few brief questions could provide institutions with the information needed to make key policy revisions that would improve the process for future students involved in a sexual harassment complaint.

Finally, I recommended that college and university employees tasked with providing services related to sexual violence seek out opportunities to collaborate with other postsecondary institutions for the (1) Development (or improvement) of sexual harassment and assault policies and mechanisms for tracking and reporting related incidents; (2) identification of approaches for addressing barriers to reporting; and (3) design and implementation of prevention and awareness programs. The theme of collaboration resonated throughout the event and human rights practitioners certainly showed an appetite for learning from their peers and others with related expertise. This was demonstrated not only through their attendance at the event, but also in their enthusiasm to ask questions, exchange contact information and engage in meaningful discussions of complex issues. By sharing best practices and working together we will be better equipped to ensure students are safe and healthy on campus. 

Meranda obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree in History from St. Thomas University. She is now pursuing a Master of Philosophy in Policy Studies at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) while working as a Policy and Research Analyst at the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission (MPHEC).

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