OPINION: Cone of silence on sex assault at schools

by | Apr 8, 2016 | Editorial, Opinion

Humber Et Cetera Editorial

In September 2015, a female student at Manitoba’s Brandon University was asked to sign a contract, after she was sexually assaulted in a residence on campus.

This “behavioural contract,” signed following reports of sexual violence, specifies that students involved in the situation cannot talk about the case with anyone other than a university counsellor.

“We recognize that the transition to post-secondary education can be difficult and that you are still developing as a young adult,” the contract reads. If the terms of the contract are broken, students may face suspension and/or expulsion.

This contract, which effectively acts as a gag order, contributes to a culture of silence and victim shaming. “This ‘gag order’ treats survivors and perpetrators as equals in the ‘incident,’ and it treats the person who reports sexual assault in a disciplinary manner,” Dr. Corinne Mason, co-ordinator for the school’s Gender and Women Studies program, said in a statement Monday.

For a school to dictate to a student how they are supposed to respond to a sexual assault is grossly inappropriate.

If they are brave enough to come forward after the assault, they should be able to consult whomever they wish.

Naturally, universities are focused on protecting their image and reputation. Yet this concern should not come above something as serious as sexual violence.

The school maintains that it takes sexual violence, assault and harassment very seriously, and all victims are encouraged to go to the police.

The school acknowledged that there was a mistake made in imposing the contract, Brandon University president Gervan Fearon said in a news conference on Tuesday afternoon. “I think at this point, we are saying that it was inappropriate for us to use it,” Fearon said.

“We learn from errors, and we go forward with improvements.” The school intends to have a new version of their policy in place for September 2016.

Yes, the school administration eventually admitted their mistake, but not before the document sparked an outcry.

The contract was made public this week on a website called We Believe Survivors, a student-led campus group.  The group was formed just 10 days before, after Jian Ghomeshi’s acquittal on sex assault charges.

Given that universities are our institutions of highest learning, shouldn’t they know better? Certainly one would expect a higher standard of care.

This is not an isolated case, as a culture of silencing victims is present at a number of other university campuses. A 2014 Toronto Star investigation found that only nine of 78 universities across Canada, including three in Ontario, had a separate policy regarding sexual violence. Many victims felt abandoned by their school, the investigation found. By now, one would think that there would be a clear, fair and consistent approach to this issue.

Funnily enough, the very same day that We Believe Survivors leaked the Brandon contract, the University of Toronto announced that it is looking to create a stand-alone sexual assault policy.

Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centres will be opened on all three U of T campuses by January 2017.

This past March, a student at the University of Victoria was also silenced. The school hired an independent investigator after she alleged that she was sexually assaulted.

A letter attached to the investigator’s report warned her to stay quiet about the findings, and to discuss it only with her family, lawyer, counsellor and police. Failure to maintain confidentiality may result in disciplinary action.

Around this same time, a Brock University student was urged to keep quiet after a male professor had given her alcohol and tried to sexually assault her in his office. The university later regretted “the emotional trauma this incident has caused to the complainant, Brock staff were supportive and responsive as soon as they learned of the complaint.”

Many universities are scrambling to react only after allegations of sexual assault come to light.

Such is the case at McGill University, when three members of the football team were involved in a sex assault controversy.

The athletes were charged in April 2012, after an incident that allegedly occurred in September 2011.

At the University of British Columbia, a grad student was expelled after complaints of harassment and sexual assault by at least six women. The expulsion did not come until a year and a half after the complaints began.

Brandon University, as well as other post-secondary institutions in Canada, need to have concrete ways of dealing with the issue of sexual violence, rather than silencing the victims in an attempt to make it disappear.

Youth and students are among the most vulnerable in society, and they should not be the ones who need to protect themselves from the institutions to which they belong.