Ontario universities and colleges could face tough new requirements to adopt policies aimed at preventing and responding to incidents of campus sexual violence as a result of an action plan recently unveiled by the provincial government. Experts cautioned that the effectiveness of the proposed requirements will depend on how they are implemented and enforced.
The Ontario government unveiled in early March the broad brushstrokes of a strategy to combat sexual violence and harassment in the workplace and on campuses. Among other things, the action plan calls for legislation that would require colleges and universities to work with students to develop formal, stand-alone sexual assault policies and to review and renew those policies every four years. Institutions would need to have clearly stated complaints procedures and response protocols in place, effective training and prevention programs, and support services for survivors of sexual assault available around the clock. They would also be required to track and report publicly all incidents of sexual violence on their campuses.
“We want to improve safety on our campuses where assault and harassment are too prevalent and often go unreported and unchecked,” said Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne in unveiling the strategy, entitled “It’s Never Okay.” According to the document, one in three women will experience some form of sexual assault in her lifetime; rates of sexual assault are five times higher for women under the age of 35.
The 13-point plan also includes:
- provisions for a public education and awareness campaign that encourages bystander intervention;
- changes to criminal prosecution procedures;
- changes to the health and physical education curriculum for elementary and high school students to include discussions about consent;
- more training for front-line workers;
- increased funding for community-based sexual assault centres.
The government has committed $41 million over three years to implement the changes; legislation is expected to be introduced in the fall.
The measures are “certainly a step in the right direction,” said Elizabeth Sheehy, law professor at the University of Ottawa. “It’s very encouraging.” But she said details of how the proposed legislation will be implemented remain unclear. For example, will universities be required to use a standard method for tracking and reporting sexual assaults? Will they be required to have sexual assault centres on campus to provide the 24/7 support called for under the plan?
It’s also unclear whether universities would face penalties if they fail to comply with the proposed rules. In the United States, universities that don’t comply with federal crime-disclosure and anti-discrimination laws can face hefty fines and even a loss of funding, she noted. If Ontario followed suit, “that would be huge,” said Professor Sheehy.
Still, she commended Ontario for taking the lead. She said the plan would likely put pressure on other provinces to follow suit and might inspire students to continue agitating for change. “Students are finding their voice all over the country,” she said. “It’s very inspiring to see.”
Charlene Senn, professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Windsor, welcomed measures that will require universities to adopt and regularly review stand-alone sexual violence policies and protocols, something that few institutions currently do. But she cautioned schools to avoid implementing policies without seeking input from experts in the field. “What I’m concerned about is that people will rush to put in place policies and not use best practices,” she said.
Asking universities to better track and report incidents of sexual assault is a good idea, but, she said, universities and others have to recognize that high numbers of incidents could mean that an institution is doing a good job of tracking data or that women feel more at ease reporting there. Moreover, funding will be needed to implement the training and prevention strategies called for under the plan and appropriate training will be needed for those tasked with doing so. Without those steps, she said, “we are not going to make it a safer place for survivors to report.”
The Council of Ontario Universities and Colleges Ontario, which represent the province’s postsecondary institutions, pledged to comply with the requirements. Colleges Ontario has unveiled a sexual assault policy that sets out reporting standards and processes for dealing with complaints and investigations that will soon be implemented at all of the province’s 24 colleges.
Universities in other regions of Canada are also taking action following extensive media coverage of the issue in recent months, including a CBC investigation highlighting inaccuracies in how universities keep track of sexual assaults.
The Association of Atlantic Universities has created a working group to improve sexual assault policies at the region’s postsecondary institutions. The seven-member group includes representatives from universities, colleges and students. To start, it plans to hold a one-day workshop in late June for administrators and student leaders that will examine prevention strategies, reporting protocols and counselling services, among other things, said Peter Halpin, AAU executive director.
In Quebec, the Bureau de coopération interuniversitaire, which represents the province’s universities, also has created a working group to come up with recommendations and best practices aimed at preventing sexual violence.