TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

TW: This article discusses sexual violence and may not be suitable for all readers. The term “survivor” is used throughout the article to refer to those who have experienced sexual violence, though we acknowledge that some individuals have a preference for different terms. 

 

The opinions expressed in this piece are the authors’ own. 

 

In May of 2019, Queen’s announced a new sexual violence policy in response to the Student Voices on Sexual Violence Survey, which found that Queen’s ranks fourth in the province for sexual violence on campus and second for sexual harassment. This new policy mandated that any employee of the university who was not a healthcare provider was required to report any incident of sexual violence disclosed to them by a student to the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Centre (SVPR). Employees who received a disclosure were required to send the student’s full name, student number, and email to the SVPRC as well as answer any further questions the SVPRC had about the disclosure. Essentially, this policy meant that any conversation between a student and university employee where an instance of sexual violence was disclosed could not be kept private, regardless of the survivor’s wishes. The SVPR would then follow up with the student via email to share resources. A formal investigation would not be launched unless the student wished to do so, which led many to question what the actual purpose of the mandatory disclosure was. 

 

Almost immediately following the release of this policy, students and university employees began to voice concerns; saying that the policy would only further discourage survivors from coming forward. Research has supported these concerns, showing these types of mandatory disclosure policies are often implemented with little evidence to suggest that they will be effective and, if anything, have primarily negative effects on survivors’ likelihood of coming forward. In the context of our own area of expertise, the Canadian Armed Forces’ “Duty to Report Policy” was a failure, which the Office of the Auditor General found led to underreporting, among other negative consequences. Both of the reports cited here were published over a year before Queen’s launched its mandatory disclosure policy, which leads one to wonder what precedents and rationale were used in drafting the former policy. 

 

On July 21, the SVPR released an amended policy along with a rationale on the changes made. The policy update includes some positive changes. In particular, Section 9.1 states that survivors will not be cited for student drug or alcohol use violations if these took place during the incident of sexual violence. This is an important stipulation because it centres the discussion around appropriate response measures, as opposed to punishing students for the circumstances they were in at the time the violence occurred. The policy also provides further confidentiality compared to past iterations and offers survivors further autonomy over what information is necessary to disclose.

 

The policy still mandates a form of disclosure by staff and faculty. However, the process is slightly more secure as only the date of the disclosure and the resources given to the survivor need to be shared with the SVPR. The stated rationale is that faculty and staff can receive guidance from the SVPR on how to respond to students, but there is currently no policy on how faculty and staff should go about following up with students in a way that protects their disclosure. As discussed above, automatic triggers – such as immediate data collection – following a disclosure often discourages survivors from coming forward. 

 

There is also no discussion on where students, faculty, and staff can access resources external to the SVPR on how to empathetically and helpfully respond to disclosures. Students on the receiving end of disclosures are not discussed at all, as the policy is meant to be a guideline for faculty and staff. However the Queen’s and Kingston communities have multiple resources which students, faculty, and staff can access, including SACK, Kingston Interval House, the SHRC, and EQuIP, along with many student clubs and organisations which support marginalised groups, who are often more likely to be survivors of sexual violence. It is important to acknowledge this student labour, which provides invaluable support, but is often unpaid and underappreciated. Furthermore, the updated policy does not address concerns of some staff who may be more likely to receive disclosures than others; those in particular departments, or women and other minority groups on campus whom students might be most comfortable confiding in. 

 

The policy also states that confidentiality may not be maintained if there are reasonable grounds to believe that someone at the university, including the individual who made the disclosure, is at risk. It is easy to see that any situation could fall within “reasonable grounds” to breach confidentiality, as any assault that takes place within the university community is likely to provide SVPR with reason to believe there will be future assaults of the same nature. This seems to be a loophole that is not consistent with the survivor-centered approach that the SVPR argues is already in place. 

 

Finally, the updated policy states that, “each employee is strongly encouraged to complete training appropriate to their role within the university.” Training for employees is not mandatory, meaning there is no check in place to motivate reluctant staff members – those who perhaps require the training the most – to do it. Furthermore, it is unclear whether employees who are paid an hourly wage, such as TAs, will be compensated for attending training. The SVPR has said that they are working on implementing mandatory training, however leaving the details of such an important element out of a policy that has been under revision for so long makes the policy feel as if it is only partly complete and performative. That being said, mandatory training has the potential to lead to backlash against survivors, such as the backlash to the military’s Operation Honour. Sexual misconduct response training must always include education around how we can reduce rape culture and toxic masculinity on campus. This should include inclusive programs, which not only target women, and non-binary folks, but also  give men the tools to confront their friends and take sexual violence seriously. When mandatory training is implemented, it is important that it’s execution be well thought out to avoid backlash. 

 

In 2020, confidentiality and privacy statements need to be clear on the protection of data. The SVPR will be communicating with students and staff via email around disclosures, but does not outline how this data will be protected, how it will be used, or how long it will be retained. The current policy claims that when a disclosure is made,staff and faculty must: “Notify the SVPR that a Disclosure has been made via secure electronic means as approved by Queen’s Information Security Officer.” However, the “secure means” refers to the use of a Queen’s email address – a method that is not reliably secure. For example, in situations where abuse is ongoing, it is quite possible that an abuser may have access to a student’s email and will be able to see communications with the SVPR, potentially worsening the abuse. Furthermore, many students have push notifications to their email enabled on their phones, or keep their email open and in view of others in public places such as the library or lecture halls. Receiving an email from the SVPR in view of others could create an uncomfortable, anxiety-producing situation for survivors. Queen’s and the SVPR should work on a comprehensive privacy policy for data collection in order to assure students, staff, and faculty that their rights to privacy and confidentiality are being respected. 

 

It is clear that data collection is important to the SVPR and that data on cases of sexual violence enables the university to gain an understanding of the environment at Queen’s and build targeted survivor-centric policy. However, students are entitled to be wary of their information being part of such datasets and may have disclosed their experience to a staff or faculty member, as opposed to the SVPR, specifically for this reason.

 

The SVPR has listened to staff and students and updated elements of its policy. However, for substantive change to occur at Queen’s, the SVPR must not only engage with the Queen’s community, but with the research on how sexual violence is perpetuated in modern institutions. In 2020, there needs to be specific focus on data protection, privacy, and survivor-centric approaches. Creating a progressive and transformative sexual violence policy, which empowers survivors is possible; but it will take a lot more work to get there.

 

HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: https://transformharm.org/students-push-for-restorative-approaches-to-campus-sexual-assault/

 

Anna McAlpine and Bibi Imre-Millei both research sexual violence and harassment policy in the context of the Canadian Armed Forces at Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy. 

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