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Sexual assault on campus

A Metro special focus

Canada is far behind the U.S. when it comes to combating campus sexual assault

Canada is far from the only nation struggling to recognize and combat campus sexual assault.

In 2014, the U.S. launched the “It’s On Us” campaign to raise awareness about sexual assault, for which Vice-President Joe Biden has become a strident spokesperson.


In 2014, the U.S. launched the “It’s On Us” campaign to raise awareness about sexual assault, for which Vice-President Joe Biden has become a strident spokesperson.

In 1985, the year I was born, the feminist Ms. Magazine published a groundbreaking national survey of campus rape in the U.S.

There has since been research in New Zealand, Canada and the U.K. — and Australia is about to embark on a landmark 40-school study.

So: The struggle to admit to, get a clear picture of and eliminate campus sexual assault is as old as I am; and Canada is by no means alone.

In fact, in terms of government regulation and accountability, we’re stuck somewhere in between the more advanced U.S. and the lagging U.K.

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In the American system, education falls under federal jurisdiction. That has been key to a far more aggressive and proactive stance on campus-sexual assault. President Barack Obama’s high-profile focus is only the latest chapter.
In 1990, the U.S. passed the Clery Act, which made it mandatory for universities to report sexual assaults, to have a dedicated policy and to offer supports for survivors. There was also Title IX, an amendment to education laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of sex. It was first passed in 1972 and began to be applied to sexual assault and harassment in the 1980s, beginning with a policy memorandum from the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education. That led to sexual-assault-survivor lawsuits against schools.

But then came Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District. The 1998 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which centred on sexual misconduct between a teacher and student at a Texas high school, but which also applied to post-secondary institutions, held that schools were only liable for sexual assaults and harassment if they did not act after learning of them.

The ruling had a chilling effect on the lawsuits, and a period of inertia and apathy followed, said Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor and leading advocate on campus sexual assault. Schools “became much more worried about being sued by these alleged perpetrators,” she said.

In 2011, the Obama administration released its 19-page “Dear Colleague” letter — a directive from the U.S. Department of Education — that called sexual violence discriminatory and a crime and explicitly stated universities’ requirements to deal with it.

“It was pretty minimal,” Dauber said. “It was, ‘Stop violating civil rights.... You have to have a prompt and equitable resolution of complaints, and you have to tell the victim the outcome.’”

After the letter, students began filing complaints to the Office for Civil Rights. In May of 2014, the agency had more than 50 open files against schools, including Harvard and Princeton.

That same year, Obama launched the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and the “It’s On Us” campaign to raise awareness about sexual assault, for which Vice-President Joe Biden has become a strident spokesperson.

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In the U.K., thanks to guidance over two decades old, some universities have avoided any kind of reporting or disciplinary policies around sexual assault. And there is no national legislation mandating either.

In 1994, Graham Zellick, then president of Queen Mary and Westfield College, led a task force on university disciplinary practices. The resulting report bluntly advised against investigating sexual assault: “Internal action for rape and sexual assault is out of the question,” read the so-called Zellick guidelines, unless there’s a guilty criminal verdict.

But a recent legal brief has challenged the stasis. Independently commissioned by the advocacy group End Violence Against Women Coalition and released in January of 2015 by human-rights lawyer Louise Whitfield, the brief argues schools that follow the Zellick guidelines “are failing to protect women students and are very likely to be in breach of the law.”

“That legal opinion really did focus minds,” said Rachel Krys, co-director of EVAWC. “Women’s human rights — and we have rights to equality and not be discriminated against — all of those were being ignored.”

Recent media investigations found one in three university women faced sexual harassment or assault and that schools had uneven or absent policies for tracking assaults.

In September 2015, amid mounting pressure, the U.K. business secretary ordered schools to investigate so-called “lad culture” on campuses. Universities U.K., the body representing executive heads, in March announced “an overwhelming need” to revise the Zellick rules. And this fall, it’s expected to release its report and possibly a new set of stricter guidelines for schools.

“I don’t think universities want to get this wrong,” Krys said. “I think they want to just know what they have to do.”

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Though the U.K., U.S. and Canada have different legal systems, different legislation and different accountability mechanisms surrounding sexual assault on campus, the countries share one overarching similarity: institutional failure.

Survivors of sexual assault from schools in all three countries echo each other: The school dragged its heels, the school gave an excuse not to investigate and the school didn’t tell the survivor the outcome of an investigation.
This means that legislation in and of itself isn’t enough. Even in the face of laws, schools can and will fail to comply. And it shows the effects of systems with plenty of carrots and no meaningful sticks. No American school has ever lost federal funding over sexual-assault cases.

“Relying on human decency in this area is not the way to go,” Dauber said.

More to come in Metro's series on campus sexual assaults

Monday| Uniting to fight against campus sexual assault

Tuesday | A federal vacuum

Wednesday | The U.S. and U.K. example

The U.S.'s federal anti-discrimination laws and directives from the White House combine to create more rigorous requirements for American post-secondary schools to protect students. Meanwhile, in the U.K., the government is only beginning to look at a national directive on how schools should handle sexual violence.

Thursday | Dearth of data

There is no national database on campus sexual violence. We don't know how big the problem is because no one is incentivized to find out.

Friday | The way ahead

We have a problem; we need a plan.

Join the fight: Canada needs a national plan for campus sexual assault. Tell your story and pressure your MP on social media using the hashtag #safercampusnow

More on Metronews.ca