VANCOUVER – One year after a bill came into effect requiring British Columbia universities to have sexual assault policies, the supports available at different schools still vary widely and students are urging the province to fill a funding gap.
A student at the University of British Columbia can walk into a Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office that is open five days a week and staffed by five people. But no such office exists for students at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, a smaller institution with campuses across Metro Vancouver.
“I think resources are the biggest reason for the disparity,” said Caitlin McCutchen, a Kwantlen student and chairwoman of the Alliance of B.C. Students, which recently assessed implementation of the policies in a report. “Perhaps if the government had attached some funding (to the bill), or had attached more laid-out principles or guidelines, that could’ve helped other universities that didn’t necessarily have the resources.”
The Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy Act was passed in the spring of 2016 after numerous complaints from students that universities were responding poorly to the issue. The province gave public post-secondary institutions a year to create sexual assault policies and have them in place by May 19, 2017.
The bill was a good start but fell short of substantively addressing sexual violence on campus, said McCutchen. It required colleges and universities to have a policy, but it didn’t define what a good policy would look like or come with any dedicated funding.
In contrast, Ontario launched “It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Violence and Harassment” in 2015, which dedicated $41 million over three years to address sexual violence and harassment, including at universities. Quebec recently committed $23 million to fight sexual violence on campuses.
Melanie Mark, B.C.’s advanced education minister, declined an interview but said in an email statement that her ministry asked students, faculty and staff for input on the policies and received around 370 responses. An analysis is being finalized with recommendations for next steps, she said.
“Some of the initial themes were around the need to address this issue in K-12, more awareness through initial student orientations, and better co-ordination of training and workshops for staff and students,” she said. “I remain committed to working with our post-secondary partners to ensure campuses and classrooms are safe.”
Kwantlen has launched a number of new initiatives since its policy was approved last year, including education and awareness training, said Jane Fee, vice-provost of students. It’s also hiring a new administrative position to support ongoing training, she added.
The University of B.C.’s budget this year for sexual violence offices on its Vancouver and Okanagan campuses, as well as a director of investigations who oversees both locations, is nearly $1.8 million. The director hires external investigators to handle reports according to specific timelines.
The university’s student union, the Alma Mater Society, said it was highly impressed by the people working in the sexual violence and investigations offices. But UBC is “failing” to clearly convey the details of the policy and must raise greater awareness of campus resources, said president Marium Hamid.
Louise Cowin, the university’s vice-president of students, said the school has been working to raise awareness about the sexual violence office, including through more streamlined email communications and physical and digital signage.
Simon Fraser University also has a centralized office responsible for sexual violence. It opened a few months ago to an overall positive reaction from students, said Martin Wyant, CEO of the Simon Fraser Student Society.
The office, with a $340,000 budget and four employees, provides a “one-stop” location for support, education and information about reporting options, said director CJ Rowe.
“I think in the past there’s been quite a lot of confusion as to who to go to,” said Rowe.
The University of the Fraser Valley hired a manager of student wellness and development to oversee sexualized violence initiatives, while the University of Northern British Columbia assembled a response and support team made up of members of various departments.
At the University of Victoria, a sexualized violence prevention and education co-ordinator works in the equity and human rights office. The co-ordinator has worked to build programming and educate the campus community, said Kenya Rogers, a volunteer with the school’s student-led Anti-Violence Project.
“But she’s just one person,” said Rogers, adding she’d like to see a stand-alone office like those at Simon Fraser and UBC. “So much more could be done if there were more resources dedicated to the work.”
Cassbreea Dewis, director of the equity and human rights office at the University of Victoria, said other employees also do intake for sexual violence reports and support the co-ordinator with her work. But she said an annual review is underway and additional resources might be added.
There is a need for universities to have some consistency between their policies, she said.
“Our student will go to UBC for law school, or somebody will transfer here, so to ensure that we all have some shared approaches is really key.”