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Ending sexual violence on campus

Rape chants and allegations of sexual assault spur universities to think hard about how they’re handling violence against women.


The 2013 academic year got off to a troublesome start. It was early September and frosh week had just begun at campuses across the country. At Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, student leaders led several hundred first-year students in an acrostic chant that went like this: “Y is for your sister, O is for oh so tight; U is for underage, N is for no consent, G is for grab that ass.” Days later came reports of a similar cheer, this time at the University of British Columbia, a school that was in the midst of coping with a series of frightening sexual assaults.

Then, in early 2014, allegations surfaced that several members of the University of Ottawa’s men’s hockey team had sexually assaulted a woman while away at a tournament at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. The incident came to light only when a third party contacted the University of Ottawa, something the coach and the players had neglected to do. Meanwhile in the United States, the federal Department of Education continued its investigation into a growing list of institutions for failing to respond to students’ allegations of sexual assault.

Stung by embarrassing headlines and unwanted media attention, many universities took pains to tone down frosh week activities this year. Still, questionable chants at Université Laval and facilitators at Carleton University wearing shirts proclaiming “F*** Safe Space” caused an outcry again in the media, from the public and from the universities themselves.

For universities, the issue of campus sexual assault poses difficult challenges. As the report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault notes, if a school draws attention to the problem and encourages victims to report, it can look like a dangerous place; if it ignores the issue, it can look safer. “Add to this the competition for top students or a coveted spot on a college rankings list and a school might think it can outshine its neighbor by keeping its problems in the shadows.” But mounting pressure from students and closer public scrutiny has forced universities in both Canada and the United States to rethink how they handle sexual assault.

In a landmark report for the U.S. Department of Justice in 2000, researchers Bonnie Fisher, Francis Cullen and Michael Turner estimated that over the course of a college career, between one-fifth and one-quarter of women will be victims of rape or attempted rape. These rates are higher than those for women in the general population. The report surveyed more than 4,000 college women and found that most rapes and attempted rapes occur when the victim is alone with the offender, usually a boyfriend, former partner, classmate or acquaintance. Most take place in the victim’s residence or off-campus living quarters; fewer than five percent are reported to police.

Kari Sampsel, medical director of the Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program at the Ottawa Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, analyzed 204 cases of sexual assault reported to the hospital in 2013. (Under Canada’s Criminal Code, the term “sexual assault” encompasses a range of crimes, from unwanted sexual touching to rape involving force.) About one-quarter of the victims had been at mass gatherings when the assault occurred, most commonly New Year’s Eve celebrations, Canada Day, Halloween and frosh week events. Of those, 90 percent said they had voluntarily consumed drugs or alcohol and 60 percent thought they had been drugged.  A third of the victims knew their assailant. “Stuff happens in dorm rooms for sure,” says Dr. Sampsel, but the hospital sees a significant number of patients who wake up in a field or stairwell without clothes or any recollection of how they got there. “That is a very common refrain,” she says.

The most at risk are first-year students. “They are younger, they’re less experienced. They probably have less experience with alcohol, they want to be accepted,” said David Lisak, a prominent sexual assault researcher, in a 2010 interview with National Public Radio. He said perpetrators have little need for knives or guns: “The basic weapon is alcohol.”

In a study published in 2002, Dr. Lisak (who’s also a retired professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston) and Paul Miller, a psychologist, surveyed more than 1,800 males over seven years at a mid-sized American university. Of those, 120 admitted to committing rape or attempted rape, crimes which hadn’t been reported. More than 80 percent of the confessed rapists said they’d assaulted women who were incapacitated because of alcohol or drugs. Almost two-thirds reported committing more than one rape, either against several victims or more than once against the same victim. The findings led Dr. Lisak and Dr. Miller to conclude that a relatively small proportion of men are responsible for a large number of rapes. And the reason they get away with it is because they target victims within their social spheres.

For University of Windsor student Kate du Toit, the assault happened long before she arrived on campus, when she was 15 years old. The evening started like a typical night out for a teenage girl. She and a group of friends used fake IDs to sneak into a club. She’d had a few drinks and was standing outside the bar when four men approached her. They started talking to her and one of them took her purse.

“We’re only going to give it back to you if you come with us,” she remembers one of them said. “My mom’s iPod was in the purse so that was my major concern, getting that back.”

What happened next changed the course of her young life. They took her to a house in an off-campus student-housing district near University of Windsor, a house she still passes regularly. One of the men left; the three others led her to a bedroom, locked the door and took turns sexually assaulting her. “I was screaming and crying,” she says. A neighbour or housemate – she isn’t sure who he was – heard the noise, knocked on the door and put a stop to the ordeal. He helped her into a cab and she went home alone. The next day she took a morning-after pill purchased from a drugstore and didn’t tell anyone about the incident for four years.

“At the time I felt a lot of shame and guilt,” says Ms. du Toit, now 20 and in her final year at U of Windsor. “I was 15 and downtown and in a skimpy outfit. There were so many rules I was breaking. So I told myself, I invited this.”

She became anorexic and developed other behavioural problems. “It was basically four years of me spiraling downwards,” she says, until one day, unable to bear it alone any longer, she told her parents. They contacted the city’s sexual assault crisis centre and with the support of her parents and counsellors Ms. du Toit started her recovery. Now she’s trying to help other victims of sexual assault. She’s an advocate for an on-campus sexual assault centre and is taking part in the university’s bystander intervention initiative, a program designed to teach students how to spot risky situations and coercive behaviours and to step in before an assault occurs.

U of Windsor was one of the first universities in Canada to adopt the highly acclaimed intervention program originally developed by the University of New Hampshire. It teaches students to rethink supposedly normal dating practices that could put women at risk and dispels myths about rape, like whether flirting or revealing outfits are contributing factors, says Anne Forrest, director of U of Windsor’s women’s studies program. It doesn’t treat men as potential perpetrators but as allies of survivors of violence. And it gives students the know-how to respond to situations safely and effectively – that doesn’t mean “getting into fisticuffs,” adds Charlene Senn, professor of psychology and women’s studies, who introduced the program along with Dr. Forrest. An effective response can be as simple as spilling a drink on the aggressor or turning on the lights.

Dr. Forrest and Dr. Senn created two undergraduate courses in the faculty of arts and social sciences to train workshop facilitators because the university didn’t have the funds to pay for them. Students must apply for one of the 50 spots, half of them reserved for men. In the first year, 160 people applied but then registrations tailed off, so the professors arranged to have the courses cross-listed in the university calendar to make them more visible. Recruiting men remains a challenge, and they have appealed to male faculty members to help spread the word.

Once trained, the student facilitators work in pairs – one female and one male – to deliver workshops to the broader student body. Since the program was introduced in 2010, about 60 facilitators have been trained and 800 students have taken a workshop. This year, students in the introductory business course and all incoming law students will be required to take the workshop, and the program is being expanded.

While programs like the bystander initiative are taking root, Canadian universities for the most part still lack the sexual assault policies that are mandated in the U.S. by the federal Violence Against Women Act, Title IX amendments and other regulations, says Dr. Senn. The Ontario government published a resource guide for the province’s colleges and universities in early 2013 that recommended measures to help prevent sexual assaults and a response protocol for what to do when they occur. It isn’t clear how many institutions have implemented the measures.

York University has appointed a working group to develop policies on sexual assault awareness, prevention and response as well as disciplinary procedures based on the Ontario resource guide. York was one of the first universities to conduct a campus safety audit. It has adopted a safety app, downloaded by more than 12,000 users so far, that provides a direct-dial option for campus security, 911, the sexual assault support line and other services. It introduced a certification and training program for campus security officers and it is developing a bystander program.

The changes followed a harrowing event that took place at York during frosh week seven years ago. Early one September morning, two men, former York students, went into a residence building and walked from floor to floor, entering several unlocked rooms. Daniel Katsnelson raped a 17-year-old first-year student. Then he took photos with his cell phone while Justin Connort sexually assaulted her. Mr. Katsnelson raped a second woman that night while Mr. Connort watched.

“September 7, 2007 has changed my life forever,” said one of the women in a victim-impact statement filed at the sentence hearing for Mr. Katsnelson in 2010. She was still suffering from panic and anxiety attacks, nightmares and flashbacks two-and-a-half years after the incident, she told the court. “I’m still afraid of the dark. I am still haunted by what happened.”

The vulnerability of the young women who were attacked that night was not unique, the judge wrote in his ruling. “It is shared by thousands of 17- and 18-year-olds who leave home every year to attend colleges and universities across the country. … It is very much in the public interest that college and university campuses be places of safety and that they be perceived to be places of safety.” He sentenced Mr. Katsnelson to eight years in prison.

York isn’t the only university taking action after frightening or disturbing incidents:

  • The University of British Columbia set up a task force following six assaults that took place on its campus between April and October last year. It recently announced that it will improve campus lighting, increase bike patrols and introduce other safety measures. The assailant, thought to be someone unknown to the victims, still hasn’t been found.
  • McGill University held a forum about informed consent in February and is developing a sexual assault policy after widespread student criticism of McGill’s handling of an alleged sexual assault of a Concordia University student involving three McGill football players in 2011. The men were charged and the case is before the courts. The forum in February aimed to debunk myths about consent and address ways that McGill and Montreal can create a safer space for discussions on topics like consent, rape culture and sexual assault.
  • At St. Francis Xavier University, a student-led initiative funded by the federal government conducted a campus health survey and safety audit and implemented a bystander program, with student athletes and coaches playing a prominent role. Twelve high-profile athletes volunteered to participate in the school’s Take the Pledge awareness campaign, including football receiver Donald Tabor, who appears in an ad saying: “Perpetrating or simply permitting violence against women is cowardly and unacceptable.”
  • In June, a task force of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada provided an online resource for university presidents, calling on leaders to use orientation-week activities as an opportunity to talk to students about what constitutes appropriate behaviour and to spell out the institution’s policies on how it prevents and responds to sexual assault.
  • Saint Mary’s University is implementing 20 recommendations by a president’s task force established after last year’s rape chant.

As juvenile and innocuous as the chant may have seemed, it was “indicative of a rape culture,” a culture that exists not just at Saint Mary’s but on all campuses, said the Saint Mary’s task force. Wayne MacKay, chair of the task force and a law professor at Dalhousie University, said the chant is “symptomatic of deeper problems in terms of how women are viewed.”

During the hearings, Professor MacKay was surprised to discover how many young people – men and women alike – didn’t understand the meaning of consent. “Defining what is consensual and what is not is really the critical foundation on which everything is built. We can and need to educate everybody on campus so that there is no real doubt about this,” he said.

The use of alcohol clouds the issue and is a significant risk factor for sexual violence on campus, the task force found, prompting criticism from people who argued that talking about alcohol use amounts to blaming the victim. Perhaps that’s true, concedes Professor MacKay, but there is little doubt that alcohol is a major factor in terms of individuals recognizing whether there is consent and in reading the signals correctly.

Moreover, he says that a “hypersexualized culture” among youth complicates matters further. That was clarified for Professor MacKay when he headed the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying, established by the province in May 2011 after teenager Rehtaeh Parsons killed herself when photos of her alleged assault circulated online.

The Saint Mary’s task force report concluded: “A hypersexualized culture, alcohol use, a hook-up culture, the persistence of rape myths and a lack of appropriate educational preparation all contribute to this confusion and uncertainty.” It also pointed a finger at campus athletic culture and said it isn’t just students who are at risk: three faculty members also reported to the task force that they were victims of sexual assault.

The task force concluded that universities can and should play a role in changing attitudes and behaviours. It recommended that Saint Mary’s develop a code of conduct and redesign orientation week activities, placing less emphasis on partying and drinking. The university, it said, should identify a sexual violence response team and properly train team members, adopt education campaigns to increase students’ understanding of consent, address alcohol and drug use, and implement a bystander program – measures the university has announced it will begin implementing during this academic year. Finally, the report called on the university to conduct effective investigation and adjudication of sexual assault cases.

This last recommendation presents the biggest challenge for universities, as it requires them to strike a balance between accommodating the needs and rights of victims with those of alleged offenders. Last October, the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal published an anonymous letter from a student at Lakehead University who alleged she had been raped off-campus by a classmate. She wrote that when she sought accommodation from her program chair, it was denied.

“My only request was for [the chair] to tell me if I had any classes the following semester with [him],” she wrote. Her request to write final exams at a separate location was also turned down. “I was shocked,” she said. “How many others have tried to come to the faculty for answers or help and been turned away like this before me? How many others have been forced to sit in a classroom with the person who violated them?” After the letter was published, the president of Lakehead set up a task force. It recommended that Lakehead hire a human rights officer to deal with these kinds of issues and adopt a new sexual misconduct policy and protocol.

More recently, the University of Ottawa suspended its entire men’s hockey team for the 2014-15 season following the allegation of sexual assault in Thunder Bay, after an independent report found “an unhealthy climate surrounding the team,” said President Allan Rock. The decision to suspend the team was supported by many – but it also came under fire from people who felt the university hadn’t done enough and those who felt it had gone too far. In August, Thunder Bay police charged two of the players, the captain and assistant captain, with sexual assault.

The adjudication of student misconduct, including sexual assault complaints, differs from a criminal investigation or trial. It generally operates in Canada under a “balance of probabilities,” says Corinna Fitzgerald, member-at-large of the board of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services. That means an investigator must decide whether a claim is more likely to be true than not true, rather than proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Allegations of sexual assault can be very difficult to resolve because typically there are no witnesses and the incidents often involve alcohol and drugs. Gaye Wishart, adviser on harassment prevention and conflict management at Dalhousie University, says many students who come to see her don’t want to pursue criminal charges, so the university ends up issuing a no-contact order against the accused, making timetable changes and providing other accommodations.

Even so, most experts say universities need to do a better job tackling the issue, just as they have with mental health. But change will be difficult. “You are dealing with larger social problems,” says Professor MacKay, and these won’t be solved easily or independently. But, if institutions don’t make a better effort to respond “how can you have really effective learning in an unsafe, discriminatory, sexist kind of environment?” he asks.

“You can’t really. We have to find the means and the ways to do it.”

Progress in the U.S.

In the United States, numerous allegations of sexual assault on university campuses have dominated headlines in recent months and caught the attention of the U.S. government and the White House. Since May, the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice have begun investigating more than 60 institutions for failing to comply with Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, which prohibits sex discrimination in any federally funded educational institution. The law has evolved to include sexual assault as a form of harassment and requires universities to respond to a student’s allegations of assault.

The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault issued new guidelines in April to help colleges prevent and respond to sexual assaults and gave schools a toolkit to conduct campus safety surveys. It recommended that schools implement bystander intervention programs, adopt new reporting and confidentiality protocols, and draft or reevaluate existing sexual misconduct policies. The task force launched a new website,, that offers information on how to prevent and respond to campus sexual assault and how to file a Title IX complaint.

Under the 1990 campus crime reporting law known as the Clery Act, colleges and universities that receive federal student aid funds are required to collect and disclose campus crime statistics annually. The act was amended several times to beef up reporting requirements, most recently in June by the Obama administration. In July, a group of senators led by Claire McCaskill introduced legislation to further tighten disclosure rules and impose harsher penalties on institutions that don’t comply.

Rosanna Tamburri + Natalie Samson
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  1. Jeff Hickman / June 13, 2016 at 16:25

    An amendment to The Child and Family Services Act (CFSA), raising the age in the duty to report abuse to 19, will make it a legal requirement to report suspected cases to authorities. This may ensure those at a college party, for instance, are legally responsible to intervene if a young woman is being targeted. That will protect most of your first year students.

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