Universities reevaluate sexual harassment policies

Universities in Halifax are tailoring their sexual harassment policies based on student needs

Dalhousie University received 39 sexual harassment complaints last year. It's launching a website called Get Consent to try to combat the problem. (Photo: Phoebe Powell).

Some universities in the Halifax Regional Municipality are developing new education campaigns intended to bring attention to the issue of sexual harassment on campus.

Schools such as Dalhousie and Mount Saint Vincent are creating new sexual harassment programs and altering existing policies to more effectively address the needs of students. 

They worry that sexual harassment on campus could be underreported, because students are not given enough education as to what qualifies as sexual harassment or assault.

This fall, Dalhousie’s Office of Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention created the Get Consent website. It was designed to reach a broad audience within the university community and to educate students on Dalhousie’s harassment policies.

Definitions

Sexual Harassment: Any unwanted comment, gesture, or action of a sexual nature, including unwanted attention, demands, jokes and insults.

Sexual Assault: Any form of sexual contact without voluntary consent, including kissing, fondling, intercourse and oral sex.

Consent: A voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. Consent is not given if it is given by someone else, if the person is incapable of consenting (i.e. drunk, asleep), if it is an abuse of power or authority, or if the person changes his or her mind.

(Source: University of Alberta’s Sexual Assault Centre)

“The big problem we’ve had in harassment education is reaching the whole student population. It’s a large campus and it’s hard to reach out to everyone,” said Gaye Wishart, Dalhousie’s harassment prevention officer.

“Education of students is very important. We want to be proactive and educate to avoid harassment, rather than be reactive, and deal with issues after they’ve already taken place.”

Dalhousie adapted Get Consent from a similar site created for the University of Toronto’s sexual harassment prevention campaign. Wishart, one of the creators of Get Consent, said she took the basic features of U of T’s Ask First campaign, and tweaked the program to suit Halifax.

Last year, Dalhousie received 39 sexual harassment complaints, Wishart said. Of the 39, four were formal complaints that the university evaluated through internal investigations. Two formal complaints resulted in the university taking disciplinary action against the accused students.

Simplifying policies

Mount Saint Vincent University has chosen to scrap its existing sexual harassment policy. The school is now developing a new policy.

Advisers have drafted a copy of a new harassment and fair treatment policy, and the university’s president is now reviewing it. Francine McIntyre, MSVU’s sexual harassment adviser, estimates the new policy will be in place in early 2009.

The current sexual harassment policy at MSVU was drafted in 1991. It is separate from the university’s fair treatment policy, and McIntyre said this separation creates complications.

Sexual harassment often relates to issues of race and disability, said McIntyre. Under the current system at MSVU, students who feel their complaints reflect both harassment and discrimination must file separate complaints to different departments.

MSVU’s new policy will bring harassment and discrimination together, categorized as harassment and fair treatment.  The new draft is also meant to make the university’s policies on harassment more accessible to students.

McIntyre believes the existing policy is useful for instances of sexual assault, because it calls for a formal investigation of complaints.  But McIntyre estimated that 99 per cent of the complaints she received in recent years were resolved informally, often through mediation.

“The procedures associated with the current policy are really archaic and are not user-friendly. I think it makes the policy really inaccessible to students who need to use it,” McIntyre said.

She hopes the new policy will encourage students to explore all their options when dealing with sexual harassment.

Difficulty reaching all students

Some post-secondary schools that do not receive many sexual harassment complaints are choosing to continue using their existing policies.

Nova Scotia Community College has harassment committees at each of its 13 campuses.  Committee members are trained to provide educational training to students and staff.  These training sessions teach students about the specific polices at NSCC. They also offer advice on action students can take if they feel they have been sexually harassed.

Sarah Manning, who oversees harassment policies and procedures at the college, says it is important that the message about harassment reaches all students.  NSCC's student handbook brings the school's policy to student’s attention but the college is also drafting a discrimination and harassment brochure to get the word out to students.  NSCC is also developing a website that would have all the college’s policies and tips on harassment in one general area. 

Manning says the school needs to get student’s attention and spark their interest for education to take place. For this to happen, she says educators need new ways of talking with students about sexual harassment. 

The University of King’s College has not received a formal harassment complaint in the past two years. The school employs an outside sexual harassment officer who works on contract.

King’s tries to provide harassment education to incoming students during frosh week, said sexual harassment officer Rosemary Nichols. Nichols trains frosh leaders in the summer, so they are available to help first-year students with concerns about sexual harassment.

King’s also provides residence dons with harassment awareness training, though Nichols is not involved with the program.

Like King’s, Saint Mary’s University (SMU) focuses its harassment education on residence advisers, orientation leaders and first-year students.

Bridget Brownlow, SMU’s conflict resolution adviser, said the school is not currently developing specific new strategies.

Harassment on the rise in Nova Scotia

Though Dalhousie was the only university willing to disclose the number of harassment complaints it received, representatives from all five schools said the problem of harassment is not increasing on campus.

The most recent data available from the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission is from 2002 to 2003. In that year, the province received eight formal sexual harassment complaints. The previous year there had been five.

Wishart is worried that without improvements to harassment education programs, university campuses could see an increase in the number of sexual harassment cases being reported.

Kaley Kennedy, the Nova Scotia representative of the Canadian Federation of Students, says issues of sexual harassment and assault cannot simply be dealt with through education.

“What about things like adequate lighting on campus at night? Or training bar staff at campus bars so they are able to identify issues of harassment and assault?” Kennedy asked.

“University policy makers are overlooking the more practical solutions to preventing harassment and assault. These could all help prevent problems from occurring in the first place.”

 

 

Updates

Wording in paragraphs 18 through 20 revised November 6, 2008.

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