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Ontario's reforms won't solve campus sex assault, according to scathing new report obtained by Metro

Publicly appointed investigators have dealt a scathing rebuke to the province's widely lauded new law, which other provinces have sought to emulate

A student wears a “No means no” badge at a rally at Saint Mary’s University in 2013. A new report has aimed scathing rebukes at government reforms aimed at curbing rape culture at Canadian universities


A student wears a “No means no” badge at a rally at Saint Mary’s University in 2013. A new report has aimed scathing rebukes at government reforms aimed at curbing rape culture at Canadian universities

If you had any doubt that Canadian universities are woefully ill-equipped and objectively ineffective at dealing with sexual violence, we now have research to prove it.

It’s a fact that media investigations have revealed in recent years that sexual violence advocates and survivors know all too well.

And it’s now borne out by the most comprehensive report on experiences of campus sexual violence completed in this country.

“The Response to Sexual Violence at Ontario University Campuses,” a scathing, 56-page research report, has been obtained by Metro. The result of an independent investigation funded by the Ontario government, it calls for a “massive change” in how schools handle sexual violence, says principal investigator Dawn Moore, an associate professor of law at Carleton.

The report singles out five distinct, broad areas of concern and makes 18 specific recommendations to fix them, including the creation of anonymous sexual-violence reporting systems on campuses and an independent, community-based oversight body to review universities’ responses to sexual violence.

Perhaps most troubling for governments seeking to legislate change, the report suggests that Ontario’s Bill 32, the widely lauded sexual assault policy that has formed the basis of similar bills in B.C. and Manitoba, will direct schools to focus resources in the wrong places.

The five major findings:

1. There are pervasive rape myths on campuses, and staff often blame victims or discount their stories. The common university “risk-management approach” frames survivors as a problem to be solved

2. Survivor-centred policies, while intended to give victims of sexual violence agency, actually function to silence and minimize rape on campus

3.  “Institutional silos” at schools create a “frustrating bureaucratic nightmare” for survivors and, at worst, “justify inaction by respective units throughout the university”

4. A broad lack of education for students and training for staff on healthy sexuality and sexual violence perpetuates rape myths

5. Survivor resources are both difficult to access and poorly staffed.

Over four months, from this past March to June, the research team completed an extensive review of existing literature, and noted a disturbing lack of comprehensive campus sexual-violence studies in Canada. They conducted site-specific research at three universities — Carleton, Lakehead, and Waterloo — where they interviewed sexual-assault survivors, administrators and service providers, campus security and police, and students. What surfaced was an insidious and widespread systematic failure to make campuses safer and support those who are harmed by sexual violence.

“A defining feature of university responses to sexual violence is the absence of formal reports,” the researchers concluded — a fact that administrators attribute to the wishes of survivors who prefer “informal remedies.” Not only do those remedies often prove lacking, but the lack of formal reports deliver a silencing effect, giving schools an excuse not to collect data that would more accurately represent the prevalence of sexual violence.

When survivors do report, they feel “bounced around” between “sexual assault centres, equity offices, health and counselling, academic support services, deans and VP students as well as campus security,” none of which “appear to be in conversation with each other, even when it was about individual cases,” the report concludes. The researchers found no system to monitor disclosures of sexual violence, and no system for consistent information sharing at any of the schools. In effect, no one is tracking perpetrators.

Better reporting is a cornerstone of the Ontario Liberals’ new bill on sexual violence on campus, and then B.C.’s and Manitoba’s. But while the report certainly calls for a more streamlined process, it also suggests universities should “move beyond” this effort and “concentrate more on service provision, informal remedies and the prevention of sexual assault.”

Since so few survivors want to make formal reports, schools have a better shot at serving them via counselling and health services, academic help and safety plans that help survivors avoid their abusers, researchers concluded.

Dawn Moore, the principal investigator, said she’s cautiously optimistic the report will be translated into on-the-ground changes, and she cited this particular cultural moment around sexual assault: “In the 20 years I worked on violence against women, this is the first moment in history where I’ve felt like maybe we have a chance,” she said.

To that end, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, which is reviewing the report, told Metro, “This research may help us identify gaps and potential best practices and support the development of tools to improve police responses and investigations across the province.”

At the highest level, Moore said, she hopes the report forces “universities to stop thinking about sexual violence as a risk to be managed.”

And at the very least, it’s given lie to years of lip service that universities are doing all they can to help survivors of sexual violence, and end campus rape.

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