Is there a gulf between feeling safe and being safe on Canadian campuses?

Every postsecondary student has the right to feel safe on campus, and many do.

Whether they actually are safe, though, is a question that has provoked a growing discussion across Canada. Institutions from coast to coast have drafted new policies devoted to ensuring the safety of their students—sometimes proactively, and sometimes retroactively. Governments have joined the movement too, with several provinces proposing or passing legislation that requires public PSE institutions to have standalone policies for dealing with sexual misconduct. 

So how do Canadian students feel about campus safety?

To find out, we asked our StudentVu panelists a number of questions relating to safety and received 1,200 responses. Our results showed that students were generally confident about the safety of their schools, but further analysis revealed that this confidence was often based on limited information and not always reflective of the rates of violence experienced by these same students.

For this survey, students generally agreed that faculty, staff, and administrators treat students fairly (3.9 out of 5), that faculty genuinely care about students’ wellbeing (3.8), and that there are good support systems available to students for addressing safety concerns (3.8). More specifically, students felt that their institutions would take reports of physical and sexual assault seriously (both 4.3).

How seriously do you think your school would take the following forms of assault (Scale of 1 to 5)?

The study also found, however, that panelists were less likely to believe that their institutions would take reports of verbal assault seriously (3.6). 

Trusting campus authorities 

When asked whom they would contact if they experienced violence on campus, nearly three out of four respondents (72%) said that they would contact on-campus police. Just under two-thirds would go to the city/local police (58%), and just over half would go to a friend or classmate (52%). 

One StudentVu respondent suggested that some students would most likely go to local police before their institution due to skepticism about their school’s ability or willingness to act on reports of violence: 

“My university is known for being dangerous and having a high number of assaults that occur, yet the school doesn't appear to be doing anything to change this. It also seems to try and hide the number of incidents from the public. Students do not look to the university for help, it is easier to deal directly with the police.” – StudentVu Panelist

Overall, StudentVu respondents generally agreed that in the event someone were to report a sexual assault to a campus authority, the institution would protect that person’s safety (3.5 out of 4), keep the report anonymous (3.5), take corrective action to address the factors leading to the assault (3.2), support the person making the report (3.4), and take corrective action against the offender (3.3). However, students who identified as women or another gender were less likely than men to express this confidence, as were those who identified with a sexual orientation other than “heterosexual.” Most notably, women and those identifying their gender as “other” were less confident that their institution would take corrective action against a sexual offender (3.2 and 2.8, respectively) compared to men (3.5). They were also less confident that the institution would support the person making a report (3.4 and 2.8, respectively) compared to men (3.5).   

One StudentVu panelist summed up their feelings in the following way.

I know very little in this area of issues [sexual misconduct]. While I do feel safe, I am a healthy male, so I don’t have the same concerns that my female friends have expressed. Additionally, I know little to nothing about procedures and measures taken in relation to the various forms of assault on campus (preventative or reaction based).
— StudentVu Panelist

The second half of this student’s response points to another notable finding, which is that even though students were confident in how their school would respond to sexual assault, the majority (54%) stated that they did not understand their institution’s formal procedure for addressing complaints of this nature. Thus even if students indicate a fair level of confidence in their safety on campus, it is important to investigate whether this confidence is based on reliable information, or just on a lack of personal exposure to violence.

Women, students identifying as other than heterosexual more likely to report experiencing physical violence

When analyzed according to gender, women and those who preferred not to identify their gender were consistently more likely to report having experienced physical abuse than respondents identifying as men. While 5% of respondents identifying as men said they had experienced a given form of physical aggression, the number rose to 7% for women and 19% for those identifying as another gender. The categories of physical aggression were:  

  • Threats of physical aggression or violence 
  • Violence/aggression intended to intimidate or embarrass 
  • Violence/aggression intended to cause physical injury 
  • Chasing or stalking 
  • Other forms of physical aggression or violence

Sexual aggression or assault

Among the panelists who agreed to answer questions about sexual aggression or assault, one-quarter of respondents identifying as women reported that they had experienced some form of sexual aggression. Respondents identifying with sexual orientations other than heterosexual also reported much higher rates than heterosexual respondents. 

This study asked students whether they had experienced the following types of sexual aggression:

  • Verbal threats of sexual aggression or violence
  • Unwanted sexual advances
  • Rape
  • Verbal/emotional manipulation intended to lead to a sexual encounter
  • Use of drugs and/or alcohol intended to lead to a sexual encounter
  • Sexual behaviour primarily intended to intimidate or embarrass
  • Sexual behaviour primarily intended to cause physical or emotional injury
  • Stalking
  • Other form of sexual assault/aggression

Overall, 24% of respondents identifying as women said they had experienced at least one form of aggression from the list provided, while 4% of respondents identifying as men reported experiencing such aggression. Women were twice as likely as men to report rape, three times as likely to report manipulation intended to lead to a sexual encounter, and five times more likely to report the use of drugs or alcohol intended to lead to a sexual encounter. 

Percentage of respondents that experienced at least one of the listed forms of sexual aggression:

When analyzed by sexual orientation, the results showed even higher rates of experiencing sexual aggression for respondents who identified as gay/lesbian (22%), bisexual (29%), questioning (29%), and other (32%), with nearly one-third of most of these groups reporting that they had experienced such aggression. 

Percentage of respondents experiencing sexual aggression by sexual orientation


While gender did not appear to be a determining factor in whether respondents reported witnessing sexual aggression directed toward someone else, there was a notable increase in witnessed sexual aggression from students who identified as bisexual (49%), gay/lesbian (40%), asexual (47%), questioning (43%), and other (73%).   

“Students should be given the opportunity to be allies with their institutions against sexual assault,” says Meranda McLaughlin, Program Advisor with the Government of New Brunswick and former Policy and Research Analyst for the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission. For McLaughlin, such an effort requires institutions to gather reliable information on campus sexual assaults, as well as educate students on the various forms that sexual violence can take. For example, McLaughlin states that “some university policies still do not clearly state that sexual assault can take place between individuals of the same sex. Without making this clear, students may find it difficult to reconcile their experiences with what their university defines as sexual violence, which could act as a barrier to reporting.” 

For McLaughlin, providing students with reliable information is only one step among many toward addressing sexual assault on campus. Other initiatives could involve “educating student leaders on the subject and training the student body on how to be proactive bystanders.” Yet regardless of what form these initiatives take, McLaughlin says that it is imperative that schools engage every member of the campus community and beyond to take responsibility for preventing sexual assault. 

Takeaways:

Based on the findings of this study, schools looking to take a proactive approach to campus safety might wish to consider the following actions, among others:

  • Gather reliable data on campus safety and share it with students, parents, and the community
  • Ensure that all students are fully aware of the processes for reporting violence or misconduct
  • Create, implement, and enforce a rigorous standalone policy for sexual assault/misconduct
  • Train all students on how to be proactive bystanders in the prevention of assault or harassment
  • Gather and consult data on which student groups face a higher likelihood of experiencing violence, and take specific steps to help protect and support these groups

It all starts with a deep understanding of the sector, the institution and the stakeholder groups. We’ll bring our two decades of applicant and student survey data and combine it with custom research that is specific to the challenge you’re facing or strategy you’re considering. How do applicants perceive your institution?

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