The Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response, for Survivors Project (PEARS), a trauma-informed initiative at U of T led by sexual violence survivors, held two town halls on January 7 and January 10 to consult with survivors on an analysis of U of T’s sexual violence policy that was recently released by PEARS.
The policy analysis — created in collaboration with the Dandelion Initiative, a group that works to promote survivor-centric practices for survivors of sexual assault — was created in response to U of T’s current review of its sexual violence policy that it is obligated to carry out every three years.
The policy was presented at the town hall, where students were able to comment on PEARS’ critiques and recommendations. Attendees also voiced their concerns, which will be added to the analysis before it is presented to university officials.
The analysis, which includes critiques of a handful of policy sections as well as recommendations to improve them, aims to make the university’s sexual violence policy more intersectional and survivor-centric. PEARS will be conducting an anonymous survey to obtain quantitative data that can be shared alongside the analysis.
The analysis notes that survivors often feel unsupported by the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre (SVPSC), which was created to work toward a campus environment where community members are safe from sexual violence. It primarily critiques the university’s policy on the basis of potential issues surrounding conflicts of interest, the lack of survivor consent in the reporting process, the timeline and procedures for reporting, and “contradictory and unclear language.”
Though the policy states that part of the SVPSC’s mandate is to support survivors, many have reported that it is inconsistent about responding to students and that, when they call the centre, their calls are sent to voicemail. Moreover, the analysis concludes that students may feel uncomfortable reporting to the SVPSC or Campus Safety due to a lack of trust in both institutions.
The analysis also calls on the university to outline what supporting a member of the community who has been accused of sexual violence would look like, how that would impact the survivors and the reporting process, and how it would differ if the respondent is employed by the university.
Regardless of whether the survivor wants to make an official report, the university is allowed to proceed with a formal investigation if it deems not doing so a threat to the university community.
The analysis recommends that the university include criteria for what would be considered a threat to the university community and trigger an investigation without the survivors’ consent, so that survivors can be aware of those criteria when disclosing their experiences.
PEARS also writes that rushing survivors to report as soon as possible and setting a one-year timeline for all cases to be resolved conflicts with the university’s goal to ensure investigations follow a fair process. A lack of information surrounding the vetting of witnesses and designates, who adjudicate cases, was also brought up as a concern.
In an email to The Varsity, Sandy Welsh, U of T’s vice-provost, students, reaffirmed the university’s commitment to protecting community members from sexual violence and acknowledged that there is still more work to be done.
“Many of the issues raised in [PEARS’ report] are crucial to the review,” Welsh added. “The review co-chairs have invited the student leaders of PEARS to meet with them, and look forward to their feedback.”
Town hall discussion
In an interview with The Varsity, Micah Kalisch, the founder of the PEARS Project, said that the intention of the town hall was to provide students with a shared space to review PEARS’ analysis, provide feedback, and ask questions. All attendees who contributed to the conversation received an honorarium for their emotional labour.
In addition to talking about the analysis, town hall participants looked over the definitions in the sexual violence policy to see if they were inclusive and representative. Survivors wanted to see the university add more definitions, including those for ‘gender-based violence,’ ‘witness,’ ‘retaliation,’ ‘confidentiality,’ ‘rape culture,’ and ‘intimate partner violence.’
Students also voiced concerns about the university’s use of legal language in a document that does not speak to any real legal procedures. According to Kalisch, the term “complainant” being used for survivors feeds into a culture of doubt and makes those who are seeking resources or support feel uncomfortable.
“There’s a very big difference between just providing a survivor [with] support and going and arresting someone,” Kalisch explained. “If somebody comes in and says that they’re a survivor [then] they’re a survivor. And you treat them like a survivor, and you believe them.”
Kalisch clarified that they believe in a fair investigative process, but that they’re concerned with how the university’s mindset impacts those procedures, especially if it has a vested interest in protecting a student or employee that has been accused of sexual violence.
Ultimately, Kalisch concluded that it would be best if the reporting process and investigation were conducted externally. According to them, the SVPSC could still act in situations where the respondent is not involved, but removing the university from the reporting process would assuage concerns about conflicts of interest.
Additionally, students wanted to see more diversity in the SVPSC, as well as sections in the sexual violence policy outlining survivors’ rights, expressing the university’s commitment to ending violence against women and gender-diverse people, and noting the rarity of false allegations.
PEARS will proceed by updating its analysis with the feedback it received from the town hall. Kalisch noted that many survivors who attended the town hall said this was the first opportunity they had to truly engage with the university’s policies outside of a feedback form provided on the SVPSC’s website.
PEARS will speak to the co-chairs of the sexual violence policy review on February 15 to present its findings and get answers to the questions asked in the analysis and at the town hall. It will then present those findings on social media and contact town hall participants to provide an update.
The university will also be conducting nine consultation sessions over Zoom until the end of February. Participants will be able to share their thoughts on the current policy and opportunities for improvement. “We know that the community’s trust in our Policy and the supports we offer is crucial… and we are committed to building that trust,” Welsh wrote.
For Kalisch, the university’s next steps should include listening to students, working with them to implement recommendations, and reimbursing them for their contributions. “None of this is new,” Kalisch concluded. “Survivors have been asking for this at U of T for years… so I think the next step for them is to actually listen to what survivors have been saying.”
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