Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence and harassment. 

On September 9, the Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response, for Survivors Project (PEARS) — a student-led initiative supporting survivors of sexual assault — and the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students held an event to spread awareness about the ‘red zone.’ The organizers invited people to cover the sidewalk outside Sidney Smith Hall in chalk messages of affirmation for survivors. 

In statements to The Varsity, co-founder of the PEARS Project Micah Kalisch and University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) President Omar Gharbiyeh shared their ongoing sexual violence advocacy efforts, citing various concerns with U of T’s most recent review of its sexual violence policy. 

In an email to The Varsity, Vice-Provost Sandy Welsh affirmed that the university is continually adapting its approach to sexual violence prevention. She added that the university took measures to better prepare staff to support students during orientation week.   

Red zone

The term ‘red zone’ refers to the first six to eight weeks of classes, during which over 50 per cent of sexual assault cases occur on campus. In an August 31 Instagram post, PEARS shared a list of safety tips and resources for students and provided information on the red zone. According to the post, sexual violence is heightened on campus during this period in part because of Greek Life rushing and the abundance of student parties.

In a statement to The Varsity, PEARS administrators Kalisch and Bec Brydon emphasized that these incidents are in no way the victim’s fault. “No student should feel like they are responsible for avoiding sexual violence,” they wrote.

Kalisch and Brydon further wrote, “Many young students are in a new environment… oftentimes they may be alone if they haven’t met new people yet. These factors can produce a type of vulnerability that perpetrators seek to exploit.”

They added that the education high schools provides on sexual safety may be lacking: “This often leaves people unsure of their rights such as the right to consent.” 

In 2021, a series of sexual assaults occurred during orientation week at Western University. An investigation at Western concluded that the number of sexual assaults that happened on campus during the orientation week were unknown, because the university’s reporting procedures were difficult to navigate. 

Rape culture at U of T

A 2020 report from Statistics Canada found that one in 10 students who identify as women have been sexually assaulted in postsecondary settings. Regarding U of T’s response to on-campus sexual violence, Kalisch and Brydon believe that the university is doing the “bare minimum” and has commented very little on how it can protect students on its campus. 

“Their recent policy review for the sexual violence policy failed to incorporate survivor-centric practices and engage with the community in a meaningful and accessible way,” wrote Kalisch and Brydon. On behalf of the PEARS Project, Kalisch had previously voiced their concerns with the recommendations to have the Office of Safety & High Risk process sexual assault reports. 

The Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre formerly oversaw the processing of reports, but the review recommended that the centre devote all of its resources to providing supports to survivors. 

“The process is already so convoluted and confusing and inconsistent… creating a separate avenue for reporting is only going to further complicate things,” said Kalisch in a previous interview with The Varsity.

In an interview with The Varsity at the “Chalk is Cheap” event, Kalisch said that U of T’s efforts to support sexual assault survivors have been “dangerously inadequate.”

Kalisch told The Varsity that PEARS administration met with representatives from the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre (SVPSC) in the summer, where SVPSC admitted that the training they offer to orientation leaders is “not up to par.” However, as Kalisch said, there have been no major changes to the training plan. 

In an email to The Varsity, Gharbiyeh discussed the union’s efforts to address the red zone and support students. He wrote, “We worked closely with The PEARS Project throughout orientation week to ensure that our events had a team of peer supporters present at all times.” 

Gharbiyeh also announced that the union is planning to create informational posts on the red zone and organize peer support programs. 

Gharbiyeh added that the union will be advocating for changes in the university’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment. “Though [the policy review’s] recommendations have already been approved, there is still space for us to advocate for moving it in the direction we would like to see,” Gharbiyeh wrote. 

This summer, the PEARS Project released a preliminary report about the SVPSC’s efficacy in supporting sexual assault survivors at U of T. The report is based on the responses to an anonymous survey that PEARS released in November 2021. Of the 88 respondents, only six said that they would contact the SVPSC if they experienced gender-based violence. Among those who had accessed the centre in the past, 93.33 per cent said they would not use it again.

Referring to the allegations of sexual harassment against Andy Orchard and the conversation around red zone after the Western incidents, Kalisch said, “It’s really disappointing to see that the university has still not stepped it up and is choosing to just really fall behind when it comes to supporting survivors.”

Supports at U of T

In a statement to The Varsity, Welsh wrote, “We are incredibly grateful for the work of student advocates and researchers who continue to raise awareness of [the red zone] and demand safer campuses for all.”

Welsh affirmed that, in preparation for on-campus orientations, the university undertook various steps to “raise awareness of services and supports, and reinforce a culture of consent on campus.”

“Staff in U of T’s residences received training [ahead of orientation week in September] to ensure they are well equipped to offer education and support to students living in residence, and respond to disclosure of sexual violence,” wrote Welsh.

Additionally, Welsh explained that the university has taken steps to address the community feedback it received following the recent review of the sexual violence policy.

In an effort to expand tri-campus sexual violence and sexual harassment prevention education, Welsh announced that the SVPSC recently hired an Assistant Director, Education and Communication, “who will oversee the centre’s tri-campus educational curriculum.” 

— With files from Jadine Ngan.

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