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Second review of Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment presented at UTSC and UTM Campus Councils

UTSU, UTMSU, PEARS Project reflect on the review’s 13 recommendations
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EHSAN ETESAMI ; THE VARSITY
EHSAN ETESAMI ; THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence and harassment. 

A review of U of T’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, announced in October 2021, was recently completed and presented to the UTM Campus Council and the UTSC Campus Council on May 24 and May 25, respectively.

Developing the current policy

The Governing Council first approved the policy in December 2016.

The Ontario goverment’s Bill 132, Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act — which was given Royal Assent in March 2016 — ordered all universities in Ontario were to implement sexual violence policies by January 2017. Further, the legislation requires that universities consult with students in developing these policies, and perform reviews of their policies every three years. 

Following the release of a draft in September 2016, the university released a finalized policy in November 2016. The policy took effect in January 2017.

The 88-point policy was formulated with a “survivor-centric” approach and covers the reporting, assessment, and investigation processes of an incident of sexual violence or sexual harassment. In accordance with Bill 132, the policy stipulates that the university must complete a review of it every three years; this review must involve consultations with students, staff, and faculty. 

In October 2019, the first review was performed, and a revised policy — with clarified language — was put into effect in January 2020. 

The university again revised the policy in November 2021, following the announcement of changes to Ontario’s requirements for sexual violence and sexual harassment policies at postsecondary insititutions in January 2021. While the changes the provincial government outlined were components of U of T’s preexisting policy, the policy still underwent revisions to better align with the language and terminology of the new requirements. It came into effect in January 2022. 

The current review was launched in October 2021, and is the second three-year review.

October 2021 review

The second comprehensive review was lead by Linda Johnston, dean of the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, and Allison Burgess, director of the Sexual and Gender Diversity Office. 

The consultation process was carried out between November 2021 and March 2022. The team consulted various student groups — including the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union  — from all three campuses, and received 44 written submissions of feedback from students, staff, and faculty. 

The UTSU and the Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response, for Survivors (PEARS) Project — a student-led, grass roots initiative that provides trauma-informed support to survivors of sexual violence at U of T — also submitted formal feedback submissions. 

The team presented their report to the UTM Campus Council on May 24, and then to the UTSC Campus Council on May 25. The report is currently in the governance path and will reach the Governing Council for information on June 28. 

The team presented a total of 13 recommendations and accompanying action items.

13 recommendations

The first recommendation is to have the Office of Safety & High Risk (OSHR) oversee the reporting process of sexual violence and sexual harassment incidents. At present, the Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre (SVPSC) oversees this process and provides supports for survivors. The team recommends this separation in an effort to narrow the centre’s focus to supporting survivors. 

The action item of the second recommendation asks the university to collect data from reports received in order to “increase institutional accountability.”

The team also recommends the creation of a document seperate from the Student’s Guide to the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment for faculty and staff, as well as a review of the student guide. 

In the fourth and fifth recommendations, the team proposes increasing training and education programs and incentivizing participation in these programs. Further on the topic of education, the team calls for the university to “explicitly address the issue of power dynamics and retaliation in Policy and other related policies and guidelines.”

The seventh recommendation calls for the establishment of formal supports for respondents — individuals accused of sexual violence or harassment. 

As part of the final recommendation, the team announced that U of T is implementing the Association of American Universities’ (AAU) recommendation to place safeguards in the faculty and staff hiring process to ensure no newly hired employees were previously “engaged in sexual harassment or misconduct.” Specifically, the university will contact prior employers before it completes the hiring process.

Other recommendations include considering methods of “improving timeliness” and increasing transparency for complainants — individuals that have reported an experience of sexual violence or harassment — during the complaint process.

Student advocacy and response

Johnston and Burgess presented the review for a third time at the Academic Board meeting on May 26. In response to the review, Micah Kalisch, founder and director of the PEARS Project, and Omar Gharbiyeh, president of the UTSU, spoke at this meeting as well.

On May 25, PEARS held a town hall meeting to gauge student response to the review and its 13 recommendations. Informed by the discussion at the town hall, Kalisch addressed recommendations one and seven and Gharbiyeh addressed recommendations two, nine, and 11 at the Academic Board meeting.

In an interview with The Varsity, Kalisch elaborated on the findings from the town hall and their speech at the Academic Board meeting. 

“It’s hard to speak on [the review] because these are preliminary recommendations that are very, very vague. It’s hard to also really get a comprehensive understanding of what they actually mean and what they’re going to look like,” remarked Kalisch. They continued, “[The review team] didn’t really expand on any of these recommendations; they sort of just read what was on the slideshow.”

Despite the vague language, Kalisch found a number of issues with the recommendations. 

On the recommendation to have the OSHR manage the reporting process for incidents of sexual violence and sexual harassment, Kalisch commented, “The process is all ready so convoluted and confusing and inconsistent… creating a separate avenue for reporting is only going to further complicate things.” 

Based on the feedback PEARS received at the town hall, Kalisch emphasized that, rather than having students go back and forth between the OSHR and the SVPSC, the university should work to improve the SVPSC. 

Kalisch also expressed concern with the seventh recommendation: “To [establish separate formal supports for respondents] says that the university believes the respondents more than they believe survivors, and is prioritizing people who have been accused of sexual violence over survivors.” They did not understand the need to create supports specifically for respondents when there are supports available to all U of T students, staff, and faculty through the Health and Wellness Centre

In their statement to the Academic Board, Kalisch said, “Fair and due process is important, but a centre with the focus of supporting survivors should not also be supporting the individuals who have harmed them.”

Kalisch pointed to the second action item in the seventh recommendation as particularly worrisome. The action item recommends that supports be put in place for staff, faculty, and librarian respondents within the Employee and Family Assistance Plan (EFAP). Kalisch referred to what a student at the town hall had said: “To put something like this in the [EFAP], it makes it sound as routine and regular as something like dental care.” 

Kalisch was disappointed with the consultation process, particularly in that survivors who participated were not given any sort of compensation. “The PEARS Project, which has… minimal funding and less capacity… in our research work, we were able to apply for and receive funding to ensure that any survivor who participated could receive some sort of financial compensation for their time and emotional labour,” said Kalisch. 

In his statement at the Academic Board meeting, Gharbiyeh spoke on behalf of the UTSU on recommendations two, nine, and 11. Regarding the second recommendation — increasing institutional accountability — Gharbiyeh noted that the action item to collect data from reported cases is “distressingly unclear [on] how this information will be used and how it will foster increased accountability.” He continued, “If it remains the purview of the administration, with no public accessibility, then it remains trapped in the administrative vacuum we have previously identified.”

On recommendation nine — to “explore mechanisms for improving timeliness of the process and mitigating institutional delays” — Gharbiyeh felt that the chosen language suggests “an insufficient recognition of the problem at hand.” He understood the use of “explore” to imply a “non-committal” attitude. Additionally, this recommendation lists no action items.

Gharbiyeh also discussed the gap between what recommendation 11 proposes and its accompanying action items: “The recommendation itself calls for the University to “explicitly address the issue of power dynamics,” and yet this issue remains entirely absent from the corresponding action items listed below.” The action items do not “explicitly” prohibit intimate relations between students and faculty. 

In an email to The Varsity, UTMSU President Maëlis Barre shared the union’s response to the 13 recommendations. Echoing Kalisch’s concerns regarding the first recommendation, the UTMSU believes that separating the reporting process from the SVPSC will “further complicate and harden the process for survivors seeking support and looking to report an instance of sexual violence or harassement.” 

Maintaining a similar line of reasoning as Kalisch, the union “stands against [the seventh] recommendation.”   

On recommendation 13, the UTMSU acknowledged that it is “helpful,” but highlighted that the “AAU only encompasses North American universities.” Citing the allegations against Andy Orchard — formerly the provost of Trinity College, who has since worked at the University of Oxford — the union wrote that “the scope of such processes should be expanded to include universities from all around the world.” 

Any revisions to the current policy, as informed by the 13 recommendations from the review, are anticipated to be presented in Cycle 1 of the 2022–2023 governance cycle.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence or harassment at U of T:

  • 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