Community involvement and government leadership in challenging sexual violence on campus

The involvement of community-based organizations such as METRAC was key to the creation of Ontario’s new action plan on sexual violence.

Governments rarely make drastic changes without strong, unified, and relentless pressure from community members, activists, organizations, and allies. Large-scale change to end violence and harassment against women is happening in Ontario because Premier Kathleen Wynne and her team took directions from community-based organizations and groups leading this work on campuses.

METRAC: Action on Violence (METRAC) was involved in early identification of the need for ongoing education to prevent sexual violence on campus. The agency called for training to equip students, faculty, and administrators with the knowledge to better understand the dynamics of sexual violence. It pointed to gaps in policies for handling sexual assault across institutions, with an emphasis on standalone policies. METRAC drew attention to the need for procedural fairness in adjudication processes for sexual assault complainants and respondents. Taken together, METRAC’s work was one catalyst that led to the government’s action plan recommendations for safer campuses, through championing women’s safety on campuses for over 30 years. Similarly, students’ voices were heard clearly through the safer campuses demands, thanks to the Canadian Federation of Students, which has been doing this work since the early 1980s through their “No Means No” campaign.

A provincial action plan to challenge sexual violence

In March 2015, the Government of Ontario released It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment. The action plan is a multi-faceted, long-term strategy comprising several commitments, including raising public awareness and shifting attitudes and behaviours through delivery of a multimedia public education and awareness campaign. Another commitment seeks to improve service responses to survivors of sexual violence and harassment through new training for health, education, justice, and community service professionals.

The action plan aims to systematically change laws, policies, and practices across broad sector lines in order to improve the experiences of survivors, encourage more survivors to report, and strengthen the criminal justice system’s response to sexual violence. As a preventative measure, the action plan updates the health and physical education curriculum for schools, integrating the root causes of gender inequality and including concepts of healthy relationships and consent.

The action plan also puts forward a specific strategy for safer university and college campuses in Ontario. When the details of this section of the action plan were revealed, campus communities and external partners breathed a sigh of relief. Decades of advocacy work had finally paid off. At last, it was hoped, the government, which is responsible for the administration of postsecondary education, understood the gravity of the situation. As outlined by Lichty and colleagues in their 2008 work on institutional responses to sexual violence, North American research suggests that between 15 per cent and 25 per cent of college- and university-aged women will experience some form of sexual assault during their academic career.

A confluence of factors on Canadian campuses creates an environment in which sexual and gender-based violence are ubiquitous, resulting in too many students having to navigate their studies after experiencing this violence and while dealing with an ever-present rape culture. The action plan details four specific provisions that will begin to address this issue:

  • Standalone institutional sexual violence policies, developed in consultation with students and mandated by law;
  • Clear complaint procedures and response protocols, training and prevention initiatives, and 24/7 support services for survivors;
  • Public reporting by universities and colleges on sexual violence incidences and prevention initiatives; and
  • Education and awareness campaigns on sexual violence, and appropriate supports and resources in the first few weeks of classes and throughout the year.

A significant first step in achieving the goals set out by the action plan was the development of Bill 132, the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act (Supporting Survivors and Challenging Sexual Violence and Harassment), which became law in early September 2016. The Bill amended various statutes related to sexual violence. Of particular interest was Schedule 3, which amended the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities Act, codifying into law many of the provisions outlined in the safer campuses section of the action plan.

Ontario is the first province in Canada to put forward a concrete plan calling for systemic change in how we address sexual and gender-based violence within public institutions. While there has been some movement in other provinces (including British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Alberta) to pass similar legislation, and the federal government has announced the beginning stages of its own Federal Strategy on Gender-Based Violence, Ontario remains the only province with an action plan that demonstrates a real commitment to implementation.

METRAC’s contributions to the action plan

METRAC: Action on Violence is a small, not-for-profit organization with big ideas that has been operating out of downtown Toronto for more than 30 years. Originally formed as a committee charged with tackling the aftermath of an onslaught of sexual assault cases in Toronto, it grew into an organization devoted to working in partnership with communities, institutions, and individuals to end violence against women and youth through education, research, and policy. METRAC is best recognized for its safety audit work, which has won international acclaim and been adopted by many other organizations, such as UN-Habitat, in cities as far away as New Delhi. The safety audit process:

is an action tool to build safer neighbourhoods, schools, campuses, workplaces, transit systems, living spaces and public spaces. It combines best practices of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) with culturally competent community development approaches, Participatory Action Research and a gender-based violence analysis. It is a catalyst to reduce sexual violence, assault, harassment and discrimination against women, youth and others at high risk.

Early on, METRAC identified postsecondary campuses as spaces of interest for safety audits. Under the philosophy of “safer for women, safer for everyone,” it led many transformative initiatives and learning opportunities to improve campus environments. In 1989, the organization launched its campus safety audit process, which addresses sexual assault, harassment, and other forms of gender-based violence in public and private spaces between members and non-members of a campus community. The audit has been adapted and utilized across Canada to improve the safety track record of campuses, from those in urban centres, to rural areas, to distance/online learning programs. METRAC contributed heavily to the development of the Ontario Women’s Directorate’s Developing a Response to Sexual Violence: A Resource Guide for Ontario’s Colleges and Universities, in 2013, and the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario’s Campus Toolkit for Combatting Sexual Violence, which was also created in 2013.

METRAC works directly with campus stakeholders to identify needs, conduct safety assessments, review policies and practices, and subsequently publishes a thorough report that includes safety recommendations for the institution. After 25 years of conducting more than 20 campus safety audits, METRAC has developed promising policies and practices for university and college campuses working to prevent and respond to sexual violence and harassment. Notably, METRAC has observed a common lack of standalone sexual violence policies in postsecondary institutions.

In October 2014, METRAC conducted research and produced and released Sexual Assault Policies on Campus: A Discussion Paper. This research, which was academically reviewed by faculty members and graduate students across the province, highlights promising practices and challenges in institutional policies on sexual assault committed by and against students. It provides a “snapshot review” of policies from 15 postsecondary institutions across Canada. While cursory, the review suggested that some universities and colleges lacked comprehensive policies to deal with sexual assault. In fact, only three of the 15 institutions METRAC studied had a specific sexual violence policy. As well, many of the reviewed policies—specific or not—did not include a comprehensive definition of sexual assault. It was also found that several of the policies defined the rights of respondents more clearly than those of the survivor. The drafting process also demonstrated how successful partnerships between students, academics, community members, and a community-based organization such as METRAC can improve policies and programs for addressing sexual violence on campuses. The discussion paper was distributed to networks far and wide.

Shortly after it was published, the discussion paper was featured in the Toronto Star. On November 20, 2014, the newspaper published an investigative report on campus sexual violence policies, which identified that only nine out of more than 100 universities and colleges had specific policies to deal with sexual violence and sexual assault. The article referenced METRAC’s research and quoted its Executive Director, Wendy Komiotis: “Komiotis said the government has ‘a responsibility to create legislation’ that will result in comprehensive policies on sexual violence and then ensure that each school is complying with those standards.” Together, the Star’s report and METRAC’s paper laid a path for the Ontario government’s action plan to end sexual violence and harassment.

It was an opportune media climate, as a number of high-profile incidents and allegations of sexual violence and harassment were unfolding in the public eye. The focus on creating safer campuses was therefore very timely. Recognizing an advocacy opportunity, student groups redoubled their efforts to promote the work they had been doing for decades, and this spurred the government to action. The government hosted select consultations with campus stakeholders from November 2014 until early winter 2015. Directly after these consultations, it began crafting the action plan. METRAC was part of those consultations, reinforcing campus communities’ message that survivor-centric, standalone policies and prevention measures were good first steps in systemically addressing sexual violence on campus for all students, faculty, and administrative staff.

Following the launch of the plan, METRAC was invited to become a member of the permanent Violence Against Women Provincial Roundtable, along with 22 representatives from provincial organizations in the violence-against-women sector, as well as other sectors affected by sexual violence.

Is a provincial action plan necessary for preventing sexual violence on campuses?

As other provinces seek to develop their own action plans, METRAC has received several inquiries asking key questions, such as: Is a provincial, legislative framework for preventing sexual violence on campuses really necessary? Isn’t it possible to have institutions create their own standalone policies, and to trust that they will develop them in a timely manner?

METRAC has learned from years of experience that government intervention is necessary to prevent and respond to sexual violence on campuses. Establishing the legislative framework propels and maintains systemic change and standards across provincial postsecondary institutions. A government-led framework that is developed in partnership with communities, students, and institutional representatives recognizes that everyone has a role to play in ending sexual violence. It can address the particular vulnerabilities and risks of students as the primary targets and perpetrators of sexual violence, while enabling them to shape policy and laws that have a significant impact on their human rights, physical and mental health, and future success in education and employment. Government policy also sets institutional guidelines and the bare minimums needed to address sexual violence on campus to ensure that no postsecondary education institution falls short. It facilitates collaboration between institutions across the province to measure progress and effectiveness in reducing and ultimately ending sexual violence on campuses.

Provincial action plans are therefore an essential part of balancing interests and power between students and institutions, to ensure that all students have the freedom to pursue an education without fear or experiences of sexual violence. However, legislative frameworks are only as effective as the processes for developing, implementing, enforcing and monitoring related policies that arise from them on campuses.

As with any policy initiative, realistic budgets must be put in place for investing in effective processes of policy development and implementation. Often unrecognized is the pattern by which institutions turn to external community organizations devoted to violence prevention and response services, to seek their participation on policy development committees or to review policies, with little to no remuneration for their work. Although community organizations such as METRAC are thrilled to witness and be part of this progress, they often have scarce resources and deserve to be valued for their work, time, commitment, and expertise. This is especially true at a time when many community not-for-profit organizations are facing challenges in making ends meet as they fulfill their mandates to provide prevention programs, essential frontline services, and crisis support for survivors of sexual violence.

Accountability is an equally important factor for measuring the effective implementation of legislative reforms and outcomes. If there are no clear accountability mechanisms in place, how do we ensure transparency? How do we know what works and what doesn’t? How do we manage conflict when it arises? Already, we have witnessed several incidents in which institutional processes have been identified as flawed in one way or another. Some situations point to insufficient consultation, or the lack of student involvement in the process, while others suggest that the final policy does not reflect perspectives put forward by students during consultation, or that the policy is inadequate and fails to cover certain areas for greater protection. When such situations happen, to whom can campus communities turn? Whose mandate is it to enforce new legislative provisions? These are important questions that must be answered when considering the power imbalance around a table when campus stakeholders meet to work on a project. Some have argued that the creation of a separate accountability division within government is required to oversee institutional compliance and collect and report data.

What’s next?

With standalone policies rolling out on Ontario campuses in January 2017, the time is ripe to ask what’s next for continuing to address sexual violence on campuses. Policies are a great first step, but in order to be effective, they must be practically applied on a daily basis. They must also be monitored and updated to reflect trends and areas in need of improvement. As the flurry of policy development comes to a close in the province, institutions need to shift their attention to prevention and education, in order to address and eliminate the root causes of gender violence on campuses. It is time that this pervasive, anti-social culture is stopped in its tracks. A great opportunity for collaboration awaits students, faculty, staff, administration, and community partners alike to harmonize their efforts in deepening preventive responses to sexual violence. It is our hope that the Ontario provincial framework to end sexual violence will not only offer a model to be replicated, but also one to be improved upon across the country, so that the right to pursue postsecondary education without fear or without the experience of violence will be realized for all students. AM

Gabrielle Ross-Marquette is the Communications Coordinator at METRAC; Wendy Komiotis is METRAC’s Executive Director.