Content warning: This article contains discussions of sexual violence.
U of T has announced a review of its sexual violence policy, which it must conduct every three years. The review will seek ways to strengthen the policy by consulting students, staff, and faculty on the policy itself and on current support that the university has in place for survivors.
In wake of the review’s announcement, student initiatives like the Prevention Empowerment Advocacy Response for Survivors (PEARS) Project, a trauma-informed initiative at U of T led by sexual violence survivors, have already been organizing to express their dissatisfaction with the current policy and speaking up about the issues they see.
The policy review will be led by Linda Johnston, dean of U of T’s Faculty of Nursing, and Allison Burgess, director of the Sexual & Gender Diversity Office. The review team will reach out to student groups and other stakeholders to hold a consultation process which will occur in February 2022.
The review is seeking opinions from community members on a variety of issues, including how sexual violence cases should be handled if there is no formal report of the incident in question. Through the review’s consultation website, stakeholders are also invited to send their feedback on the policy, the student guide on breakdown of the policy, or U of T’s support services.
After the consultations are finished, recommendations and proposed policy changes based on the review’s findings will be presented to the university’s governing bodies.
The review comes more than a month after the Ontario government has announced that it will require certain changes to be made to sexual violence policies. The government’s required changes include making sure that students who report sexual violence don’t face repercussions for violating any university’s drug or alcohol policies at the time of the incident. Moreover, survivors cannot be questioned about their sexual history or expression.
The university is already implementing changes to the policy which are in line with the government’s requirements. Additionally, it noted that the review is another way for the university to reaffirm its commitment to keeping students safe on campus and addressing sexual violence.
In an interview with The Varsity, Micah Kalisch, founder of the PEARS Project, explained that while the university should protect students in vulnerable positions, the current policy doesn’t put that into practice.
Kalisch noted that there is a lack of transparency about U of T’s processes for supporting students that have faced sexual violence. They noted that several of the university’s policies may prevent survivors from getting help.
This includes section 79 of the policy, which states that an investigation will be discontinued if the student, on whose behalf it is being conducted, no longer attends the university. Another part of the policy which Kalisch took issue with was related to privacy laws which, according to them, could restrict the rights of survivors when put into practice. They also noted that the current policy does not talk very much about substance abuse in the context of sexual violence.
Kalisch also added that there’s very little cohesion between university policies, student union policies, and internal workplace policies, which makes the system much harder to navigate. All of these factors compound, and may silence survivors who are already having a hard time speaking up.
U of T’s support centre for survivors of sexual violence is the Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre (SVPSC). It was established in 2017 as a part of the university’s initiatives to combat sexual violence on campus.
In a press release, the SVPSC noted that its work is “heavily informed by community feedback,” as well as information from other sources, including the provincial government’s survey on sexual violence. This allows the centre to provide students with support and accommodations that will be most beneficial to them.
The centre also emphasizes education, and it offers workshops and training modules on topics like consent to student groups and departments. Moreover, while the centre doesn’t conduct investigations or take disciplinary action, it can walk students through the processes of making a report.
In response to current policy problems, PEARS has made it part of their mandate to advocate for sexual violence policies which are more centred on the survivors.
Kalisch said that one of the biggest problems is that students don’t understand the policy because it’s not accessible. Consequently, PEARS has been working on a preliminary policy analysis with the Dandelion Initiative, a group which works to promote survivor-centric practices for survivors of sexual assault.
Once PEARS has finalized the analysis, it will then organize a town hall in conjunction with other student unions where it will read out the policy analysis and foster a discussion about what kinds of changes students would want to see in the policy.
After the results of the policy analysis and town hall are compiled in a report, PEARS plans to schedule a meeting with the university where it will present its findings. It plans to invite students who attended the town hall to this meeting.
Kalisch added that professors and members of the SVPSC will not be invited to the town hall to ensure that there will be no one to disrupt conversation by defending the policy, unlike the town hall held earlier this month for the review of the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy.
“By defending the policies, [professors and SVPSC members] invalidate students or dismiss what it is they have to say,” Kalisch explained. “While it’s important that [the university is] hearing our voices, we also want to make sure that everyone feels like they can safely share their voice.”
According to Kalisch, the university has not yet contacted PEARS nor anyone that the initiative works with, which includes a range of advocates and survivors.
Kalisch concluded that they are “cautiously optimistic” about the outcome of the review. An ideal outcome, for them, would simply mean that the university listens and implements the changes survivors are asking for.
“The reason I am cautiously optimistic… is because of the incredible people in PEARS that I’ve been working with,” Kalisch said. “I’ve never seen so many survivors and so many allies come together in a space like this to really advocate for change.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence or harassment at U of T:
- Visit safety.utoronto.ca for a list of safety resources.
- Visit svpscentre.utoronto.ca for information, contact details, and hours of operation for the tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266 or by email at [email protected].
- Call Campus Safety Special Constable Service to make a report at 416-978-2222 (for U of T St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (for U of T Mississauga)
- Call the Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre at 416-323-6040
- Call the Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre at 416-495-2555
- Call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 866-863-0511