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Students lead charge against sexual violence on campus and in halls of power

(via The Canadian Press)

They call it "the red zone": the first weeks of the school year when researchers say sexual violence spikes on campus.

Students, particularly those in their first year, face a heightened risk of being assaulted during this season of back-to-school bashes, meeting new people and dabbling in drugs and alcohol, advocates say.

And in the absence of a strong response from schools, they say, it's students who will be fighting on the front lines to keep their peers safe as part of their prolonged efforts to prevent sexual violence, support survivors and push for policy reform.

The question is whether administrators and government officials will pay heed to the demands of this swelling student movement. Many campus activists say their influence is already being felt in the halls of power and on school grounds, but some maintain there's much more work to be done.

"I think this year is a litmus test to see what (students do) when those assaults unfortunately occur — because they will — and particularly to see then how each administration responds," said Dawn Moore, an associate professor of law and legal studies at Carleton University.

Moore said a number of Canadian universities and colleges have adopted new sexual-violence policies in recent years, particularly in provinces that have passed laws making them mandatory, such as Ontario, Manitoba, British Columbia and Quebec.

Other schools have been spurred to action by sexual-misconduct scandals, said Moore. Most recently, the University of Manitoba resolved to take another look at its policies after launching five investigations last week into allegations of sexual assault and harassment involving faculty members.

The quality of these policies can vary dramatically from school to school, said Moore, but even those that appear to have the best procedures on paper sometimes fail survivors in practice.

In a 2016 study on how Ontario universities are responding to the issue, Moore said 18 sexual-violence survivors told her research team that their top priority was improving school resources, which all of them had attempted to access in the aftermath of their assaults, and found the services to be grossly lacking.

She said campus groups across the country have been working to fill in these gaps by providing peer-to-peer consent training, conducting sexual-violence surveys and setting up student-run support centres.

In some respects, she said it seems students are doing a better job at preventing, diagnosing and treating the problem than the administrators entrusted with their academic well-being.

"The ways in which students have just decided to do it for themselves, and stop asking for things they're not going to get, I think is really impressive," she said.

"I take a lot of inspiration from the ways they've pushed back and just said, 'This is needed now, so we'll provide it now.'"

Students, she said, are uniquely equipped to deal with sexual violence on campus, because it's a threat they live with every day.

Of the estimated 636,000 self-reported sexual assaults in Canada in 2014, more than 40 per cent of incidents were reported by students, according to Statistics Canada. 

As the largest constituency on most campuses, students possess lived experience that is essential to crafting survivor-centred policies, Moore said. She said some schools have drawn on this knowledge as a resource, but those that haven't are in a sense "doing a violence to their students."

"It's a violence of promising their students that their voices matter, and their campus will be safe, and then turning around and doing the exact opposite," she said.

But now, campus activists across the country are banding together to speak out against sexual violence with a collective voice that it appears some policy-makers cannot ignore. 

"I think the fact that so many student unions and groups are coming together and working on (this issue) shows how important and how needed it is," said Jade Cooligan Pang, the chair of Our Turn, a national student organization representing about 30 campus groups.

Our Turn traces its origins to Carleton University, where in 2017, Cooligan Pang and a few other students launched a task force to gather research-based ammunition for their campaign to reform the Ottawa school's newly passed sexual-violence policy.

After conducting a nation-wide survey of school policies and consulting with other campus activists, Cooligan Pang said the Carleton students uncovered a troubling pattern: All over Canada, students were fighting to fix similar policy problems, and facing similar pushback from administrations.

These insights laid the foundation for the Our Turn Nation Action Plan, which designed a scorecard to evaluate schools' sexual-violence policies at 14 universities. On average, the schools scored within the C range, and while there was a wide grade distribution, the students found some problems were persistent across policies.

Nine schools had "gag orders" restricting how complainants can talk about their assaults, and eight had sections discouraging "frivolous claims," according to the analysis. It also found that two schools had one-year time limits on reporting a complaint, while only one institution had so-called rape-shield protections, which aim to prevent unfair scrutiny of a complainant's sexual history.

The action plan helped set standards that administrators and government officials could refer to in bolstering their sexual-violence strategies, said Cooligan Pang. As Our Turn and other campus groups move these initiatives forward, she said, it seems like policy-makers are finally taking a lesson from students when it comes to combating sexual violence.

"We took matters into our own hands," said Cooligan Pang. "Instead of just being told, 'No, no, no,' we did the research. We've done the work, and will continue to do so."

In Halifax, Cooligan Pang said Dalhousie University's Our Turn score has shot up from a D+ to an A after working with student representatives to develop a new sexual-violence policy. Dalhousie spokesperson Janet Bryson said officials looked at the Our Turn report during the drafting process and found that many of its recommendations were consistent with the school's new policy. 

At University of King's College, students comprise four of the nine voting members on the school's sexual-violence policy committee. The process has at times been contentious, but all parties agree that students have played a vital role in the initial policy drafting. 

At the federal level, Cooligan Pang said Our Turn members lobbied Liberal officials last year to impose financial consequences on schools that fail to take action against sexual violence, and was pleased to discover that a similar measure appeared in the 2018 federal budget.

Starting next year, the government said it would consider withdrawing funding from universities and colleges that are not implementing "best practices" to deal with campus sexual violence, citing the Our Turn report card among its evidence to support the move.

Boosted by the #MeToo movement, Cooligan Pang said students have made significant progress at the policy level, but many of the toughest battles are still being waged by advocates on the ground. 

About one year after the University of British Columbia passed its sexual-violence policy, student representatives found that certain aspects of the new regime had yet to be fully realized.

"A university can have a really great policy, but if implementation isn't following that policy, then it raises issues," said Max Holmes, vice-president of academic and university affairs at the Alma Mater Society, which represents UBC Vancouver's student body.

"The longer it takes to implement this policy, the longer survivors are hurt."

In an April submission to UBC's board of governors, the student representatives outlined some of their concerns, pointing to a society-commissioned survey suggesting students were confused about the policy details, and suggesting the school's Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office was "significantly under-resourced."

Administration officials responded to these issues with an implementation action plan that included commitments to hire more sexual-violence support workers and investigators, develop a communications strategy and provide further training and consultations.

Sonya Boyce, director of the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office on UBC's Vancouver campus, said in an interview last month that eight of the 10 vacant positions on her team have since been filled.

Holmes said he's hopeful that the policy will kick into full gear in the new school year.

"Students have really been at the forefront of bringing this issue forward," said Holmes. "That's often why they're most effective, is that we have consistently been... pushing on this issue, and will continue to be involved."

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press