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Another emergency phone isn’t going to fix this

Content warning: References to sexual- and gender-based violence

             The Student Voices on Sexual Violence Survey conducted across Ontario’s post-secondary student population in 2018 yielded disappointing results. Amongst the most startling findings were that, of the 117,148 survey respondents, 23.0% experienced sexual assault and 63.2% experienced sexual harassment since the start of the 2017-2018 academic year.[1] Students across the province were rightfully disturbed by these statistics and continued to demand changes to their respective institutions’ sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) policies. In response to the survey results, for example, OUSA and its member student associations reaffirmed their commitment to addressing SGBV through policy and funding. This included advocating for additional provincial funding through the Campus Safety Grant – which was met with a six million dollars commitment from the government.[2] The conversation on our campuses turned to how to translate this new-found attention and funding from the broader post-secondary education community into tangible action and safer campuses. Yet discussions on solutions have continued to fall short.

 

           One narrative in conversations on how to address SGBV affecting our campuses focuses on changes to campus environmental design but ignores the myriad cultural, attitudinal, and systemic issues that perpetuate SGBV. Proponents of this thinking advocate for infrastructural changes such as the installation of more emergency phones to our campus grounds. Certainly, emergency phones on campus are integral to student safety and accessibility and are an essential component of a holistic approach to SGBV prevention and response, especially for students with disabilities. Alone, however, the installation of emergency phones and other changes to our campuses’ environmental designs are insufficient to meaningfully address SGBV.

           Consider Western University: scattered across Western’s campus are 24 emergency phones.[3] In 2018, these phones were active a total of 22 times, 21 of which were accidental and one of which was an equipment test.[4] A year later, in 2019, the phones were active 31 times; 30 times were accidental, and once was to request medical assistance.[5] Evidently, emergency phones are used infrequently in the context of SGBV reporting at Western. On a campus spanning just under 656 acres (including affiliate university colleges),[6] however, where there is approximately one emergency phone for every 27 acres of land, perhaps emergency phones are used infrequently due to how sporadic and hard-to-come-by they are.

            By contrast, Queen’s University has approximately 200 emergency phones on their campus of 99 acres.[7] This means that Queen’s has an average of one emergency phone every 2.0 acres. Still, in 2019, their Campus Security and Emergency Service only responded to a total of 5 instances of alleged SGBV, and not one of these cases became known via use of an emergency phone.[8] For comparison, in the same year, the emergency phones at Queen’s were activated 222 times by accident and 75 times by mischievous individuals.[9] Evidently, regardless of the number and density of emergency phones on campus, they are not a tool commonly used by students to seek help in response to instances of SGBV.

            Effective environmental design is an essential component of any safe campus’ violence prevention and response mechanisms. However, focusing the conversation on how to adequately address SGBV on our campuses around environmental design distracts from more pressing considerations: systemic prevention and response. With respect to prevention, universities and governments must recognize that, while immediate response is a necessary component of any effective policy addressing SGVB, systemic prevention should also play a central role. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this necessitates promoting social norms that protect against violence, teaching skills to prevent gender-based violence, providing opportunities to empower and support girls, women, and non-binary students, creating protective environments, and supporting survivors to lessen harms.[10] Prevention measures are expensive and our governments and universities must be willing to make the required investments. They also require policy intervention; for example, our provincial government must advance legislation to make high-risk locations such as bars safer. How these policies should manifest isn’t the subject of this blog, but it bears stating that these policies should be based on data, research, and student voices.

            To discuss systemic response, let’s return to Western for a moment. In the Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey, 32.4% of respondents from Western experienced sexual assault and 71.6% experienced sexual harassment in 2017-2018. Yet, in the 2018-2019 academic year, the Gender-based Violence & Survivor Support Case Manager only responded to 73 instances of SGBV.[11] It is important to acknowledge that Western has no centralized reporting mechanism, so this number likely underrepresents the total number of cases addressed by campus-affiliated resources. In spite of this, assuming the Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey statistics were still applicable in the 2018-2019 school year, SGBV is still grossly underreported to Western University officials. This issue isn’t unique to Western, however. In the aforementioned survey, 30.8% of respondents from Queen’s reported experiencing sexual assault and 71.4% reported experiencing sexual harassment.[12] Yet, between 2009 and 2019, Queen’s’ Campus Security and Emergency Service was alerted to an average of only five instances of SGBV per year.[13] Queen’s, too, lacks a centralized database on SGBV, but these numbers still indicate the widespread nature of underreporting.

            There may be several reasons for this discrepancy between violence occurring and violence being reported to the university. Foremost, survivors may not trust their campus security or university policies to mitigate harm and support them. Per Julia Pereira, OUSA President and Wilfrid Laurier University Students' Union VP University Affairs, “Some university campuses lack sexual violence policies that are trauma-informed and survivor-centric, which may be why survivors of SGBV may not feel comfortable disclosing to campus security or university administration.”[14] Our universities’ responses to SGBV must allow the survivor to freely decide how they wish to respond to a given incident.

            Similarly, many survivors do not feel as though their universities possess the relevant services to support them. Many universities lack centralized reporting mechanisms which makes gathering data to inform policy difficult and, when policies are written, they often overlook queer students and other underrepresented groups. In addition, mental health and wellness supports for students both on- and off-campus across the province are overburdened while simultaneously understaffed and underfunded. Our universities must invest in relevant support services, initiatives to combat pervasive rape culture, and tools for first responders to respond to disclosures. Until survivors feel comfortable coming forward and feel as though their universities are there to support them, SGBV will continue to hurt Ontario’s students.               

           As well, survivors may not be reporting instances of SGBV to their universities because the harm does not occur on campus. Per the Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey, 79.8% of sexual assault in 2018-2019 occurred off-campus and 55.9% of sexual harassment occurred off-campus.[15] Nonetheless, universities have a responsibility to address off-campus instances of SGBV affecting their students because, per the same survey, those who caused harm were often affiliated with the survivors’ respective university.[16] Survivors may not feel safe on campus knowing that the individual who harmed them is studying on the same grounds, living in the same residence, and attending the same classes as they are. In turn, with respect to approach, our universities must adopt policies that are survivor-centric and trauma-informed, and these policies should apply even when instances of SGBV occur off-campus and involve individuals affiliated with the campus community.

            Make no mistake: environmental design approaches, such as emergency phones, do provide tangible benefits to feelings of safety and security on campus. But the appropriate response to SGBV affecting our campuses should not be limited to this avenue; it should also address our systemic response and prevention mechanisms. At the end of the day, the conversation on how to address SGBV must be exactly that: a conversation. Voices of students from all backgrounds are essential to creating safer post-secondary experiences for all; this means we must do a better job at encouraging those of diverse sexual and gender identities, races, abilities, socioeconomic statuses, and heritages to share their perspectives. Shared above are my thoughts. Make your thoughts heard, too.

 

The author would like to thank Eva Alie, Faculty Councillor at the University Students’ Council of Western University, for her contributions to this piece.

[1] Council of Ontario Universities, “Student Voices on Sexual Violence: Overview of Selected Survey Results from the University Sector,” in Ontario’s Universities, February 27, 2020, https://ontariosuniversities.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/COU-Student-Voices-Survey-Results_Overview-Feb-27-2020-FINAL.pdf.

[2] Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association, “Student Voices on Sexual Violence Release Data Results,” in WUSA, February 29, 2020, https://wusa.ca/news-updates/student-voices-sexual-violence-release-data-results.

[3] Jean-Claude Aubin (Inspector – Operations Leader, Campus Community Police Service, Western University), e-mail correspondence to author, June 25, 2020.

[4] Jean-Claude Aubin (Inspector – Operations Leader, Campus Community Police Service, Western University), e-mail correspondence to author, May 28, 2020.

[5] Jean-Claude Aubin (Inspector – Operations Leader, Campus Community Police Service, Western University), e-mail correspondence to author, May 28, 2020.

[6] Brent Shae (Director, Campus Community Police Service & Fire Safety / Emergency

Management, Western University), e-mail correspondence to author, June 25, 2020.

[7] Murray Skeggs (Manager, Security Risk and Training, Queen's University Campus Security and Emergency Services), e-mail correspondence to author, May 27, 2020.

[8] Murray Skeggs (Manager, Security Risk and Training, Queen's University Campus Security and Emergency Services), e-mail correspondence to author, May 27, 2020.

[9] Campus Security and Emergency Services, “2019 Statistics,” in Queens’s University, accessed June 5, 2020, https://www.queensu.ca/security/incidents/statistics.

[10] Kathleen C. Basile et al., “STOP SV: A Technical Package to Prevent Sexual Violence,” in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016, https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/sv-prevention-technical-package.pdf.

[11] Health and Wellness at Western University, “Western's Gender-Based Violence Board Report,” in Western University, 2019, https://studentexperience.uwo.ca/docs/GBSVBoardReportFinal.pdf.

[12] Council of Ontario Universities, Student Voices on Sexual Violence.

[13] Campus Security and Emergency Services, “Comparable Statistics,” in Queen's University, accessed June 5, 2020, https://www.queensu.ca/security/incidents/comparable-statistics.

[14] Julia Pereira, correspondence to author, May 28, 2020.

[15] Council of Ontario Universities, Student Voices on Sexual Violence.

[16] Council of Ontario Universities, Student Voices on Sexual Violence.

 

Bibliography 

Basile, Kathleen C., Sarah DeGue, Kathryn Jones, Kimberley Freire, Jenny Dills, Sharon G. Smith, and Jerris L. Raiford. “STOP SV: A Technical Package to Prevent Sexual Violence.” In Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2016. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/sv-prevention-technical-package.pdf.

Campus Security and Emergency Services. “2019 Statistics.” In Queens’s University. Accessed June 5, 2020. https://www.queensu.ca/security/incidents/statistics.

Campus Security and Emergency Services. “Comparable Statistics.” In Queen's University. Accessed June 5, 2020. https://www.queensu.ca/security/incidents/comparable-statistics.

Council of Ontario Universities. “Student Voices on Sexual Violence: Overview of Selected Survey Results from the University Sector.” In Ontario’s Universities. February 27, 2020. https://ontariosuniversities.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/COU-Student-Voices-Survey-Results_Overview-Feb-27-2020-FINAL.pdf.

Health and Wellness at Western University. “Western's Gender-Based Violence Board Report.” In Western University. 2019. https://studentexperience.uwo.ca/docs/GBSVBoardReportFinal.pdf.

Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association. “Student Voices on Sexual Violence Release Data Results.” In WUSA. February 29, 2020. https://wusa.ca/news-updates/student-voices-sexual-violence-release-data-results.