News / Halifax

'We want to give them a voice:' Dalhousie law students advocate for fellow students in complaints process

The group works to inform and advocate for those students unsure of how to navigate the many policies at Dalhousie.

Kym Sweeney, founder and chair of the Student Advocacy Society at Dalhousie University.

Jeff Harper/Metro

Kym Sweeney, founder and chair of the Student Advocacy Society at Dalhousie University.

Dalhousie University law students are helping others on campus deal with harassment and discrimination by giving them “a voice” in the complaint process.

The Student Advocacy Society (SAS) was formed this fall with 33 volunteer law students after an independent task force led by Constance Backhouse released a report on misogyny, sexism and homophobia in the dentistry school related to the 2014 Facebook group scandal.

“There’s a lack of trust between students and university administration and student services, even before dentistry brought all this into the public eye,” SAS founder and chair Kym Sweeny said Thursday.

“It was very important that it be students supporting students.”

As of Monday, all volunteers will be trained in advocacy skills, anti-oppression and Dalhousie’s student code of conduct and sexual harassment policies, Sweeny said, so they can fully inform students about their rights and options when they come to them with gender, sexual, racial or any other complaints.

Navigating formal or informal avenues can be intimidating, Sweeny said, so SAS acts as an advocate building bridges between the complainant and service providers like the school’s Office of Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention or Dalhousie Security.

Sweeny said security is moving towards a trauma-based approach and other improvements, which is “awesome” since they play a role in informal processes like escorting students to class, and working with them to ensure they can avoid who they’re in conflict with.

The main issue isn’t a lack of policies, Sweeny said, but the language they’re written in seems inaccessible to many students.

“We want to give them a voice” Sweeny said.

Sweeny said it’s important to note complaints can range from sexual assault, an international student experiencing racial discrimination, inappropriate comments from instructors, or other issues people often assume are “not that big.”

Although Sweeny said she is proud of the work they've done, and feedback has been “overwhelming and positive,” some staff may try their best but Dalhousie on the whole hasn’t done “as much as they could or should” in reacting to the Backhouse report.

“It’s unfortunate that the burden to keep students safe and supported constantly seems to fall on students,” Sweeny said, also referring to the student-run Sexual Assault & Harassment Phone Line.

As well as continuing to work with South House on some cases, Sweeny said SAS will merge with another law student advocacy group next year that deals with academic complaints, so students can have one stop for any issue.

Those looking to meet with a SAS member can email or go to the South House on Seymour Street. 

University wants to hear about gaps, work with students: spokesman   

Dalhousie is committed to providing a campus free from discrimination and harassment but applauds any efforts for students to support one another, says a university spokesman.

When asked about the Student Advocacy Society being created to fill a perceived gap in the complaints process, Brian Leadbetter said they want to hear from anyone who has suggestions on how the process can be improved, and have the right services in place to help.

“Anyone can anonymously seek the advice and assistance of the advisors within that office,” Leadbetter said about the Office of Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention.

The school is also in the midst of a review of their sexual assault policy, which was part of the Backhouse report, and other initiatives to improve access to mental health resources as well as consent culture have been rolled out, Leadbetter added.

“If there are any identified gaps then we certainly want to hear about that from those students and work ... with them,” Leadbetter said.

An update on how Dalhousie is progressing with the Backhouse recommendations is due this spring, he added.

More on