The SVPSC offices. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

At the University Affairs Board (UAB) meeting on November 13, in a relatively empty Governing Council chamber, the university’s sexual violence policy went through its first three-year review. The reports presented at the UAB found that from early 2017 to late 2018, there were 56 cases reported through the Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre (SVPSC), but during that same time, only one hearing was held.

That hearing saw the respondent admitting to “non-consensual touching.” The respondent was sanctioned with a one-year suspension, a five-year notation on their transcript, and a one-year probationary period after the suspension, limiting contact with the survivor.

This review was part of the mandate of the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act that was passed under former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, which sparked the policy’s creation in the first place. U of T’s proposed revised policy clarified language, but included no substantial changes.

At the same meeting, the university released its numbers for non-academic offences, which included the number of tribunals held in cases where the respondent to a report of sexual violence is a student.

“Cases can be resolved in different ways. Where the respondent is a student, cases may be referred to a hearing under the Code of Student Conduct, but may be resolved before the hearing is conducted,” wrote Sandy Welsh, Vice-Provost, Students, in an email to The Varsity.

“In making a decision as to whether a matter is referred to a hearing, the wishes of students who come to the centre are always considered,” wrote Welsh. “In some cases they may not want a hearing, and would prefer the matter be resolved in another way.”

How we got here

In 2016, the provincial legislature enacted the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, which, through the then-Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development, mandated that universities and colleges were to develop independent sexual violence and assault policies. Up until then, U of T’s policy was embedded among several other policies, including the Student Code of Conduct and the university’s Policy and Procedure on Sexual Harassment. Following calls to action from the U of T community, and part of a wider movement across North America in 2014, the university began the process of consulting on revisions for a new policy.

By the time the then-bill reached royal assent in 2016, U of T’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment was undergoing consultations, with the university releasing a draft in September and a final version in November of that year. The policy was the work of years-long consultations, research, and various task force and committee recommendations — including the development of a tri-campus SVPSC.

Since then

In 2017, a year after its release,  U of T’s policy received a “C” grade for its sexual violence policies from Our Turn, a coalition of 20 Canadian student unions. The policy was marked down for lacking mandatory sexual violence sensitivity training, not acknowledging the existence of a rape culture at the university, and not having clearly defined timelines for reports and investigations. The same year, Tamsyn Riddle, a U of T student, filed a human rights complaint against U of T and Trinity College, citing a failed 17-month sexual assault investigation in 2015 and failure of the college to enforce the interim measures imposed on her assailant.

Various reports were released in 2019, reflecting the policy’s first three years: the university’s own SVPSC 2017–2018 report, a report from the U of T student advocacy group for sexual assault survivors Silence is Violence, and the Ontario provincial survey on sexual violence at postsecondary institutions.

The SVPSC reported that 56 cases of sexual violence were filed under the university’s sexual violence policy from the office’s first two years of operation.

Silence is Violence, a grassroots student advocacy group, collected its own data, surveying 544 anonymous students. Of its respondents, 109 reported experiencing at least one instance of sexual violence or were uncertain whether the incident they experienced was an act of sexual violence during their time at U of T. Thirty per cent of respondents indicated that they knew someone who had experienced sexual violence on campus.

The provincial Student Voices on Sexual Assault survey released on March 19 reported that of 26,824 U of T respondents, 4,628 reported experiences of stalking and 12,293 reported instances of sexual harassment, including discrimination and online and physical harassment. It also found that 3,602 U of T students reported non-consensual sexual experiences, which makes up 13.42 per cent of U of T’s respondents.

The revised policy, with clarified language but lacking any substantive additions, will continue through the governance process, where it will ultimately be voted for approval at the December 12 meeting of Governing Council.

The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities was unable to comment at the time of publication.

Editor’s note (November 18, 6:00 pm): This article has been updated to clarify that the data is compiled from multiple reports. The article has also corrected that the SVPSC report is from 2017–2018, not 2018–2019.

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