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At UFV, unreliable support and a culture of silence for students who report sexual assault

There is nothing simple about surviving sexual violence, nothing simple about speaking about it. Articles, interviews, panels, reports, policies try to explain it and deal with it, they try to teach words to make it understandable — because everyone knows, but not everyone truly tries to understand sexual violence, question their role in it.

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By Michael Scoular (The Cascade) – Email

Photo Credit Mitch Huttema

There is nothing simple about surviving sexual violence, nothing simple about speaking about it. Articles, interviews, panels, reports, policies try to explain it and deal with it, they try to teach words to make it understandable — because everyone knows, but not everyone truly tries to understand sexual violence, question their role in it.

Erin* was, as she walked toward administrative offices on a Monday morning, sure of the role she was responsible for: she was going to report a case of sexual harassment and sexual assault — though at this point, she was not thinking of cases or policies or procedures; she was a witness, she was going to find a way to speak out, she was not going to allow what happened to her and a friend happen again.

Like many first-year students, the list of administrators, staff, and faculty Erin knew at all, let alone well enough to confide in, was short. But she knew a departmental staff member, someone she had talked to before about what she wanted to do, where she was going: while Erin wasn’t completely sure whether she wanted a degree in science or to complete a trades program, she knew she planned to study at UFV. An academic scholarship had helped with tuition, and based on her first completed semester’s grades, Erin knew she belonged at university. Erin talked to the staff member one-on-one, no audio recorder, no preparation besides the idea that she would say everything, as it happened, in order. When she finished, the staff member talked to the head of the department, whose office was nearby. The department head asked for a summary, a written list of the main points that would be brought forward in a formal complaint — a list that would then be delivered to the Student Services office at UFV, where it changed from an account, a request to be heard, into a case to be investigated.

“I was maybe a little too trusting,” Erin says.

Academic studies, enrollment numbers, and polls all reflect the same thing: no matter how they are portrayed in the media, no matter how many mistakes they may make, universities are respected, they convey authority on the people that work for them, they are still keepers of knowledge. This is part of the reason UCFV applied for university status late last decade — the name means something. But at UFV, while staff and administration undergo workplace training and are made aware of policies, first-hand awareness of and experience talking to students who share stories of sexual violence is low.

When the CBC started conducting a national survey of colleges and universities, asking them for the number of sexual assault findings, UFV reported zero. When they asked for an updated number last month, after Erin’s case had been completed, the number was still zero — zero for the past six years. Kyle Baillie, the director of Student Life (a departmental name), says that is because the CBC asked for “findings,” which UFV took to mean not formal complaints from students, but substantiated cases.

“A low number or a zero could mean a lower rate of sexual assault at that institution, but it can also mean a school is not doing enough to encourage reporting,” writes CBC reporter Lori Ward. The CBC has previously reported that while a university with a higher rate of reported sexual assaults may look bad, what it often suggests is a place where students feel comfortable enough to bring those complaints forward. At UFV, where not many students live in residence, campuses are relatively small, and controversy rarely attracts public interest, it is easy to think sexual assault doesn’t happen here. Yet the province of Ontario’s 2015 action plan to stop sexual violence and harassment includes these statistics: “In Canada, out of every 1000 sexual assaults, only 33 are reported to police and only three lead to conviction.” The lack of trust in officially reporting assaults that already exists, when combined with a university where sexual assault does not appear, to the average student, to be anywhere on the institution’s radar, naturally results in a place where the numbers and the stories do not line up.

Erin didn’t know all this. For one thing, she was reporting sexual violence to an authority, and she was able to do so almost immediately after it happened. Her mind, still processing the immediate effects of trauma, was on how to be as clear as possible about what happened.

SidebarWhile complaint documents and media reports summarize accounts into charges, infractions, single points on a list, Erin was remembering, repeating what happened in detail that would fill pages. The students Erin named in the formal complaint and the specific details of Erin’s allegations can’t be printed here out of respect for confidentiality. All the students Erin named declined to be interviewed for this article. While each report of sexualized violence is unique, there is an overall consistent narrative that is impossible to avoid — you’ve either heard it first-hand from friends or family members who are comfortable talking about it; second-hand, from radio programs, social media, newspapers; or in the kind of overheard stories that, by the time they reach us, have acquired the tone of dread. In this case, the story was complicated by the fact the assault and harassment happened off-campus. Most students, over the course of their degree or certificate, will travel or meet off-campus for academic or extracurricular reasons — group projects, research tours, field assignments, conferences, festivals, visits to archives and other universities. While on one of these, Erin alleges that she was repeatedly groped and verbally harassed by multiple male students, and that her friend Claire* was, in addition to these same attacks, raped.

There are inevitable questions that follow any invocation of sexual assault — how did it happen? What was each student’s behaviour like? What evidence is there? Was alcohol involved? Why did Erin wait until the Monday after to tell anyone? What’s the relation between broad statistics and UFV if there’s just one story?

The short answer is, while readers always become investigators of a kind when looking at stories that involve allegations and crimes, this is an article about what happened at UFV in response to a complaint, and how that affected students, and so we will not be going through exhibits, testimonies, and interrogations and reaching a verdict. If you want a printed story of surviving sexual violence and experiencing police investigations and criminal court, there are many stories out there. But there aren’t any about how UFV is or isn’t prepared to help students who want to be heard.

Erin was not sure how to feel as she left the offices at UFV. “They implied that they would take care of the situation and take care of us and everything was going to be okay,” she says. She hadn’t expected words of support — she was expecting neutrality at best — but she was given the names of counsellors ready to help her recover, she was told the matter would be taken very seriously, and, after Claire shared her account, the male students she named were suspended and banned from campus. Early Sunday morning, before they returned to Abbotsford, Erin says one of the male students pleaded with her not to report anything — now, it felt to her like justice was going to be seen through.

This is not the first time a student has felt this way. There is no way of knowing how many students, exactly, have, but when it comes to documents at UFV that aren’t sealed away and unviewable due to confidentiality, the oldest story on record dates back to the November 14, 1996 issue of The Cascade. Written by Taryn Thomson, here is the story, reprinted in an abridged version:

“At first they thought it was just them. They didn’t want to rock the boat. “Teamwork” in the Social Work program is vital. They wanted to keep the team together. But after months of being followed in their cars, after resistance to many unwanted advances, after flinching from hands that had no business rubbing backs, after being called incessantly at home, and after being shown offensive drawings of naked women, 14 female students had withstood enough.

After getting virtually no support from their own department, the women went to the student union, who suggested they file a formal sexual harassment complaint. An external investigator found that of the eight women who ended up making formal complaints, seven had definite sexual harassment charges to lay. [UFV president] Peter Jones had the final say, however, and he decided the following:

1) The person guilty of harassment should have a formal record on their school file, but this record may be removed once the guilty person finishes his degree.

2) The guilty person may want to take a year off (which the person did).

3) The guilty person must undergo some education about sexual harassment.

Why is UCFV protecting this man? Why do serious complaints by seven women result only in a slap-on-the-wrist for the offender? This man is going to be a social worker … if he is allowed to continue on the path to being a social worker, I want there to be a clear and permanent record on his file that tells everyone what he has been found guilty of.

One woman I spoke to said that having to do a seminar in front of the class when the main in question was in the room reduced her to tears. He made her so uncomfortable that she could not get on with the task at hand. And next September, this main will be back in the social work program, working toward his degree. Justice? I think not.”

The next step in Erin’s case followed this account exactly: the appointment of an external investigator, which is based on a set of procedures followed by administration when students make complaints. When a student makes a complaint, it begins a process that, depending on where you ask, can take anywhere from 18 to 45 days. The process follows this order: an investigation, a hearing, a decision meeting, and then a chance to appeal. All complaints are handled by the office of Jody Gordon, the vice-president in charge of the student services portfolio at UFV, and decisions typically fall to her. In Erin’s case, Gordon was not able to disclose who the investigator was, beyond that it was someone external to the university.

“I can delegate some aspects of my authority for that policy,” Gordon says. “So in some cases, Kyle [Baillie] is the investigator, and he is reporting information back to me. Or in other cases, he then appoints an investigator. Sometimes our head of security is the investigator, and then we’ve [also] had outside people hired to be the investigator.” Gordon makes sure that the same person isn’t handling two steps in the process between the investigation, the decision, and an appeal, but the decision is always made by either Gordon or Baillie. Students are given documents to prepare them for the process, and can seek additional support from the Student Union Society’s vice-president external, but there is no ombudsman at UFV, no sexual assault centre, and students are not allowed to have legal counsel when they are interviewed by an investigator — these proceedings aren’t legally binding.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a substantial amount of catching-up to do for complainants: reading and understanding policies, an interview process, the burden of proof required for a case to be proved. On that last note, UFV looks for a balance of probabilities, which is used in most civil cases — the complaint needs to be more likely true than not — rather than proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  Gordon notes that UFV’s policies are not intended to replace the judiciary process. “Outcomes for complaints are based on whether or not the policy has been violated, not whether or not a criminal code offense has occurred,” she writes in an email.

Erin was given a document to prepare her for the interview process: a four-page, single-spaced, bullet-point list of things to be aware of during a 90-minute interview. Erin says her interview went an hour longer than that, and, coming a week after her initial complaint, she was feeling fatigue and stress along with the trauma of her experience.

“I looked at it, but it didn’t really prepare me for the interview,” she says. “I wasn’t given the questions [ahead of time], and there was a lot of things I had to sign even though it was a non-legal document. It went by so fast, and I was so tired and so run-down by saying the story over and over again.”

One of the document’s instructions was to not share the story — in order to preserve confidentiality. “It is expected that the details of the student conduct investigation will be kept private and confidential among those directly involved in the case or investigating/managing the case,” it reads. “Participants in a conduct investigation are asked not to discuss the case with other students, instructors or colleagues. Breaches of confidentiality may be considered an act of misconduct, and may result in disciplinary action.”

There is an allowance for talking to a support person, but Erin found that the restrictive language put her in a difficult bind.

Photo Credit Mitch HuttemaTalking to people about it: difficult. Not talking to people about it: in a way, worse. At this point, Erin had told her parents, her boyfriend, her best friend, and the university. The list specifically restricts talking to instructors, but Erin was falling behind in her classes — writing papers about fungi and sourcing bibliographies seemed pointless and impossible to place as a priority while she tried to make sense of what was happening — and telling instructors the truth seemed more appropriate than not.

And the list also includes the restriction of other students: some of Erin’s friends from her graduating class at high school had begun attending UFV at the same time she started. A contact from the university checked in with Erin daily, to make sure she was doing relatively okay, but over time, the tone of communication changed, then stopped abruptly.

“I was texting [the contact], but then he started questioning whether I was telling people or not,” she says. “Then the school just stopped contacting me. It was two weeks of — “oh my gosh” — being concerned and giving support, and then after that I was left on my own.”

During the weeks that followed, Erin grew more suspicious of the process and support she had been given. When she compared her interview experience with Claire’s, she observed that the questions they were both asked seemed to focus on their behaviour, and appeared to contrast their version of events with more benign explanations taken from interviews already conducted with the male students. Erin also learned that her contact at the university was no longer working in the same position, and no update or explanation had been given directly to her. Finally, Claire told Erin that she had seen the other students back on campus — their ban had been lifted without anyone notifying Erin. At this point, Erin had dropped her courses to try to recover — the semester was lost, education-wise — but she was still on campus to meet with her counsellor, to see friends, and to use the campus library and gym.

“I was thinking, the decision’s already been made, you let them back on campus and you’re still waiting a month to tell us what’s going on [at a decision meeting],” Erin says. “They didn’t notify me or keep tabs on what’s going on.”The decision meeting was called over two months after the formal complaint process was started by Erin. In it, Erin learned that most of the complaints of harassment were not substantiated because of “insufficient information.” Some, however, were, including two instances of “assault or unauthorized physical force or contact.” For this, the students received a written reprimand. For Erin, who wanted the male students’ actions to have larger consequences that would prevent them from walking free — there is the possibility one or more of them might become teachers or mentors in the community — this was devastating.

“I’ve never felt so silenced, I felt so small, like I didn’t have an impact. I wasn’t involved, I didn’t know what was going on,” Erin says. The experience was bad enough, she adds, that neither she nor Claire have any interest in spending more time on the appeal process or going to the police, where the process might be more rigorous, but would have to start from scratch — “She doesn’t trust the school, she’s just trying to forget about it,” Erin says. “I don’t think they quite get the impact that this had on us.”

Constable Ian MacDonald, the public information officer with the Abbotsford Police department, acknowledges that there isn’t a high conviction rate for sexual assault cases, and that for many the attention of a criminal trial isn’t something they will want to go through — or will benefit from. But he says that the APD does have a different philosophy when people come forward with stories of sexual violence.

“I try to line up as much as I possibly can with victims,” he says. “First and foremost, we like to say as a police department, ‘We believe you.’ There will always be somebody out there who will be a disbeliever. But we have to begin at a point where we believe.”

MacDonald adds that, as it is not the only way for people to heal or to create change in their community when it comes to sexual assault, coming forward to authorities is not something people should feel pressure to do.

“If taking them through a court case is not what they want, and having to see their accuser isn’t what they want, and they don’t want to go through that, it doesn’t make them a coward,” he says. “It doesn’t mean they’re serving a far inferior purpose, it’s called choice, and because the wrong happened to them, they should have that.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

With files from Megan Lambert and Katie Stobbart.

Photo Credit Mitch Huttema

A way forward?

Legislation and student organization suggest different ways, better responses

Meanwhile, one student group at UFV is trying to take steps toward change on campus. Student groups spreading awareness about consent and advocating on behalf of survivors of sexual violence are nothing new at many universities in North America, but the Yes Means Yes club, which hosted its first event last month, is the only one of its kind at UFV. Mikayla Sherry, the club president, was direct when she talked about why the club needed to be founded. “We started it because our friend last year, she was sexually assaulted at UFV and, to put it pretty bluntly, the system here failed her,” Sherry said at the event, referring to a separate case from Erin’s. Sherry added that her friend dropped out of UFV due to the lack of support here.

The club is currently organizing events, panels, and is working with Student Life on a website that would compile information for students — currently there is no centralized page on the UFV site for students to know how to report a complaint of any kind. The page would also have a link so students can begin the process online.

More critically, the club is also trying to share ideas for how to improve the complaint process at UFV. This process is likely to change within the next year following premier Christy Clark’s announcement that she would support passing a bill that would require all universities and colleges in British Columbia to develop standalone policies for sexual assault — and also to work on preventing sexual violence through education and improved resources and support for survivors. The bill, which was introduced by Green Party representative Andrew Weaver, was based in part on similar provincial legislation introduced last year in Ontario. An action plan, titled, “It’s Never Okay,” was followed by an act, which was passed on March 8 of this year.

“Without a legislative requirement to develop a policy, we risk continuing the status quo where institutional optics are sometimes allowed to trump student safety,” Weaver said as he addressed Clark during Question Period.

Jody Gordon, the vice-president for student services, was part of a working group at the Ministry of Advanced Education, where sexual assault policies and practices were analyzed — this work existed separate from the new bill.

“Regardless of whether Bill M205 passes, it is important that we have stand-alone (visible/easily accessible) sexual assault protocols in place for prevention, awareness and response,” she writes in an email.

Kyle Baillie, the Student Life director, says he is currently waiting to see what the bill will actually look like when it is passed. Clark said that she would support the bill in some form.

“I’d certainly look forward to working with [Weaver] on finding a way that we can either pass this bill or amend it and pass a similar version to it in our legislature,” she said, before adding that she could not set an immediate timeline for when that could be expected to happen.

“I recognize, along with the member, that this is an urgent issue,” she added. “We will work with him on it on an urgent basis and try and get something passed with respect to changing policy as soon as we possibly can.” The provincial legislature remains in session this year until November 24.

“If the province decides to legislate something, you would hope that there would be resources to implement it, otherwise it would be challenging,” Baillie says. Baillie adds that different universities in B.C. have different resources available — where some campuses have police units or facilities with devoted resources for sexual assault survivors, UFV has nothing of the kind.

There are also some criticisms of the Ontario plans. Janet Morrison, the vice-provost for students at York University, writes in the Toronto Star that the emphasis on policy updates does not cover all student needs.

“Colleges and universities must be empowered to distinguish between a report of sexual violence — which is formal and involves an expectation that action will be taken against an alleged perpetrator — and a disclosure of sexual violence, in confidence, for the purpose of accessing resources,” she writes, adding that a focus on numerical reporting under the same, old system is not going to create a clearer picture of what students are experiencing, and how that can be fixed.

In the Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto, Ellie Adekur, a student organizer with a group called Silence Is Violence, says that mandating sexual assault policies with student input has, if anything, had a detrimental effect on students being able to create change.

“The university has continuously shut down different forms of student organizing that shed light on the realities of sexual violence on campus, and has worked to co-opt movements on campus by offloading surveying work onto students, and wrapping them up in committees that have no real decision-making authority at the university,” she said.

Baillie sees there being four key elements in the sexual assault response process that need to be addressed at any university: education, reporting information, complaint processing, and support afterwards. But Baillie also says UFV already fulfills those requirements.

“I think we address all of them with our current policies,” he says. “Depending on what the provincial government came forward with, there’s a very real possibility they could come forward and we could say, ‘We’ve got all of these.’”

Baillie also notes that the Student Non-Academic policy is up for review in December of this year. “We have a new draft of the non-academic policy that, I think, does some really good things,” he says. “But depending what the province says, we may have to rewrite it.”

Should the province pass Weaver’s bill this year, at UFV a new policy would go to the Board of Governors for approval — currently the goal is for the policy to be in effect for Winter 2017.

For the immediate future, Baillie has been invited to speak on a panel organized by the Yes Means Yes club, which will be held this Friday, April 8, at 2:30 p.m. in the Student Union Building.

With files from Sonja Klotz.

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