On a chilly winter morning, Ryerson University’s campus is dark and silent. First-year criminology student Elizabeth Plukhovska decided to take a shortcut to class and ducked into Kerr Hall to escape the cold. As she walked through the empty halls, she allowed herself a moment to hope that nothing happens to her.
“That’s the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt on campus,” Plukhovska said.
Although Plukhovska usually feels safe on campus, which she credits to her self-confidence, she said that there’s a constant fear of sexual harassment for many women, making safety a big issue. A recent poll of Toronto post-secondary students conducted by Ryerson’s School of Journalism and political science department suggests that campus security is a concern for 45 per cent of respondents. Last November, a Toronto Star investigation revealed that only nine out of 78 Canadian universities have a single policy regarding incidents of sexual assault.
In response to the Star story, Ryerson — one of the schools without a policy — initiated a review of how complaints of sexual assault are currently handled, in order to determine if the school deals with the issue adequately.
But Pascale Diverlus, vice-president of equity at the Ryerson Students’ Union, said that the lack of a single policy at Ryerson is very problematic and unsafe. Diverlus said it’s important that the review goes beyond establishing a procedure by implementing support for survivors and ways to educate the community about sexual assault.
“We need to talk about consent in a very complex way,” Diverlus said.
According to Heather Lane Vetere, the vice-provost of students who is spearheading the review, Ryerson has multiple policies and services, like the counseling centre and the Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Policy, that cover incidents of sexual assault. But she said because it’s not all written down clearly in one policy it’s difficult to understand and navigate the system.
“Recommendations that will be in the report will be to continue to do what we do now but do it better, and do more of it, and enhance it with additional supports,” Lane Vetere said.
The draft review, which Lane Vetere aims to have out by the end of March, will make recommendations about boosting support for victims and creating an extensive program of prevention, awareness, education, and training. Lane Vetere said she hopes the review will result in the creation of a single policy, which will be accessible and transparent for students.
“[We have] to ensure our response to sexual assault and our efforts at preventing sexual assault are as good as any in the province, and if we’re lucky, are a best practice for others to look at,” Lane Vetere said.
But Plukhovska remains skeptical, saying that if any new policy isn’t implemented properly, it won’t make any difference. Plukhovska said that awareness is crucial, and that professors should be required to discuss sexual assault policy in class like they do with plagiarism procedures.
“We’re an educational institution, it makes sense to educate people on the matter,” Plukhovska said.
Lane Vetere said she recognizes the need to ensure that the messages behind the policy stay continual. She wants to have annual campaigns and educational sessions and address the policy during orientation to guarantee that new students learn about it.
And while Lane Vetere said she doesn’t know if a policy will increase a sense of security on a campus that she already thinks is relatively safe, she hopes it will give students confidence that the university is taking a stance on sexual assaults.
“Hopefully we’ll make people feel like the institution cares about them,” she said.
by: Patricia Karounos