EARLIER this month, a CBC News article recounted an unsettling incident of sexual harassment at Brock University. An internal university investigation concluded that a professor — David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, who was the acting associate dean of research and graduate studies for the humanities faculty at the time — “gave [a student] alcohol and tried to force himself on her sexually.”
Throughout the investigation, the student was subjected to Brock University’s reluctance to address the issue. Brock University repeatedly warned the student to stay quiet about the situation, citing confidentiality as being of the “utmost importance” and that it “must be maintained at all times.” Then after the professor was found guilty, the student was intentionally not informed if or how disciplinary action would be administered; and, even though the university’s investigation was completed in January 2016, Schimmelpenninck van der Oye was still teaching until March 2016.
Brock University states “privacy and human rights legislation” as the reason why they enforced confidentiality and were not able to disclose any information regarding disciplinary action, which calls into question the fact that policy protecting their employees is prioritized over policy that is supposed to be protecting student victims of sexual violence.
Ellie Donohue-Miller, coordinator at the Brock Student Sexual Violence Support Centre and the student’s advocate during the investigation, agrees that “the students’ needs and their rights weren’t put first.” By sacrificing her needs for security, resolution, and closure, the university’s actions led the student to believe that she was being silenced because she was “just a problem.”
This incident at Brock, however, is only one of the many mishandled sexual violence complaints that are occurring at post-secondary institutions.
In late 2014, the Toronto Star led an investigation that highlighted the sorry state of sexual violence policy across Canadian post-secondary institutions. Their findings demonstrated that less than nine per cent of the universities and colleges in Canada had adopted a special policy to address sexual violence. Despite the fact that Brock University was one of the institutions to have already implemented a policy, their handling of this recent incident goes to show that the current policy remains outdated and insufficient in protecting victims.
The University of Toronto, on the other hand, was one of the universities that did not have a stand-alone sexual violence policy. In response to the Toronto Star investigation, the university claimed they were “studying the issue” and were quick to form the Advisory Committee to the President and Provost on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence.
The University of Toronto’s swift response to this urgent matter ceased there though. After 15 long months of deliberations, on February 2, 2016 the committee finally released a report of principles and recommendations regarding sexual violence. Even though Cheryl Regehr, vice president and provost, and Meric Gertler, president, said they would “immediately begin to review the report’s recommendations,” it is unclear how long their review will take and what will eventually become of it.
Meanwhile, as Regehr and Gertler leisurely “develop [their] response to the review,” the university is left in a disheveled state of affairs. CBC News followed up the Toronto Star investigation with an article profiling exactly how the lack of a sexual violence policy affects students. After polling 87 Canadian universities and colleges, they contacted the University of Toronto’s very own statistics professor Jeffrey Rosenthal to analyze the data.
“At a certain point, we noticed there was something strange, which was that the rates of sexual assaults on the campuses were considerably lower than the rates of assaults for the surrounding cities,” explained Rosenthal. The analysis concluded that the “surprisingly low” number of reported sexual assaults at Canada’s post-secondary institutions are “an indication that they are doing a poor job of encouraging students to come forward.”
The reason for this lack of encouragement is clear: the mistreatment of sexual violence victims that do come forward is dictated by policy — policy that is currently not satisfying a victimized individual’s needs.
On March 8, the Ontario government finally took matters into its own hands and passed legislation that will require campuses to establish a sexual violence policy by January 2017.
Students should not have to wait so long though. The University of Toronto claims that “sexual violence will not be tolerated on our campuses,” but they have not done much to demonstrate that yet. Victims’ voices need to be heard and they need to be dealt with appropriately. The university needs to stop inadvertently silencing victimized students and make some sexual violence policy changes already.
Ariel Gomes is a third-year Victoria College student studying English, French, and linguistics. She is The Varsity‘s associate senior copy editor.