My first foray into university sexual assault policies came two years ago when I read about two frosh “rape chant” incidents at St. Mary’s University and the University of British Columbia. Both involved a disgusting display of insolence towards consent that endangered many. At UBC, a number of student leaders resigned their posts, frosh events were cancelled (and subsequently changed) and promises were made to keep this from happening again.
But UBC is back in the spotlight in a bad way – a CBC Fifth Estate investigation revealed that UBC took too long to deal with a student who was the subject of sexual assault and harassment complaints from at least six women. The allegations range from inappropriate touching to sexual assault. The accused, 28-year-old PhD student Dmitry Mordvinov, was expelled mid-November, according to a Nov. 20 CBC report.
“We will begin a discussion with our students, faculty and staff on a separate sexual assault policy that will enable the university to take action in a more timely and effective manner,” said UBC President Martha Piper in reaction to the Fifth Estate report.
UBC’s reactive proposal for a sexual assault policy is not unlike TRU’s. In this university’s case, its development of a sexual assault policy came just after Jean Strong published the story of how she was treated by the university – merely told to transfer to another school when reporting her sexual assault in 2012. The reason I say that TRU’s response was also reactive is that there was no word on the policy’s development prior to her story (and subsequent tour of local news media).
There’s a certain anxiety present whenever numbers are brought up around sexual assault. It’s understandable; quantifying a problem is useful, but it creates a certain vulnerability. Take TRU’s number, for example: two. That’s the number of sexual assault incidents reported to the university from 2010 to November 2014. Certainly, there have been more assaults than that, however. Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes.
At any rate, we’re headed in the right direction, but TRU and others on the sexual assault policy task force must keep something in mind moving forward: no one is asking for TRU to take responsibility for every sexual assault on campus. The goal is not to see TRU’s number of reported sexual assaults go up. The goal is to have a university that is proactive and supportive of its students when they are at their most vulnerable.
Dean of Students Christine Adam does seem to understand this, but still hesitates when discussing the number of sexual assaults on campus.
During an interview at Radio NL last week, Adam had this to say when asked about where sexual assault occurs: “Our students live all over the city – and so things like sexual assault or other activities in their lives could happen anywhere. Students, regardless of where things happen, it still has an impact on their academic lives and we want to ensure they can pursue academic success without fear and with an opportunity to recover from harm.”
I’m sure universities are also worried about the negative publicity a high number of reported sexual assaults can bring, but really, there are positive PR opportunities available here, too. What if we were the university that turned no one away and went the extra mile in supporting victims? I would rather be asking questions about how many students have been helped than how many students have been assaulted. I suspect those involved in the task force feel the same way – but they must confront the problem without the inhibitions brought by fear of a tarnished public image, or else they’ll relive the scandal that UBC brought upon itself.