Content warning: mentions of sexual assault
Narrowing guidance on reports and allegations of sexual assault provoke universities to come to terms with how they handle such claims. McGill University has been at the forefront of discussions concerning sexual assault for the past decade. From MTL Blog to students’ accounts in various publications, it has become clear that students who bear the trauma of sexual violence have long been discouraged by inadequate responses from their schools, who repeatedly reinforce the sentiment: We see you; we know you are suffering. But nothing wrong occurred.
While sexual harassment is pervasive in the world of higher education, a lack of active leadership and a culture of silence continue to plague the McGill community in particular. Still, many universities have maintained that they possess both the resources and the ability to change the violence plaguing their campuses. McGill released its updated Policy Against Sexual Violence in March 2019, claiming to be committed to “creating and sustaining a safe environment through proactive, visible, accessible and effective approaches.” Similarly, McGill’s commitment to altering this pervasive issue led to the introduction of It Takes All of Us in 2019, a mandatory online consent education program for students, teaching staff, and administrators.
We see you; we know you are suffering. But nothing wrong occurred.
The modules contain introductions to various topics concerning sexual behaviours, such as consent, bystander intervention, and how one can support survivors. As I was trying to understand the university’s thinking process, I became curious as to what my fellow students thought of these implementations. I began to ask the McGill community the question of “what needs to be done, on behalf of the University, to better protect survivors?”. Ella Novitsky, a U0 Student, believes that there is “a culture of lacking accountability” at McGill: “a consistent aspect of the McGill administration is a stunning lack of transparency. We are not told about decisions or policies until after they are implemented. Our consent module was treated as an assignment rather than as an important commitment.”
The more the University confidently affirmed its ability to implement effective policies, the more curious I became. What would it take for a student like myself to file a sexual assault report with my university? Let me break down what I have gathered from analyzing this policy, and the potential flaws attached to each step.
Our consent module was treated as an assignment rather than as an important commitment.”
First, a designated “Special Investigator” will ask me to set out my report in sufficient detail: “the act(s) in question that the Survivor experienced as Sexual Violence, the identity of the Respondent (if known), information about the incident (e.g., time(s), location(s)), and any additional relevant information” (ss.12).
The vague and subjective definition of “sufficient” immediately brings up a glaring issue: what I, as a survivor, think is sufficient may not be enough for this Special Investigator. If you do not think I have a “good-enough” story for you, what happens to my report? The policy fails to address what would happen in this scenario. Investigators claiming a case of sexual assault as not being important enough to address is unfortunately a very true and sad reality. Concerning the sexual assault case which made headlines on campus this year, the independent investigator hired by the university allegedly dismissed the complaint put forward after hearing from numerous witnesses.
McGill’s policy also states that following the report, the Special Investigator may recommend mediation as a voluntary option at the time my report is filed. This would essentially provide me with an “easier option” in dealing with legal processes. In response to McGill’s reporting process, Lavinia Auhoma, U0 argues that “solely redirecting students to seek out sexual assault services, instead of taking action or speaking out, is almost like a smokescreen. Putting the onus on victims like this is not only traumatic, but irresponsible of an institution of this caliber.”
With these steps in place, the “Trauma-Informed Investigation Techniques” (ss.7) will commence. These so-called “trauma-informed” techniques require me to submit to live and direct cross-examination (ss.12).
The policy also states that if I choose to withdraw my report, the Special Investigator still has the right to proceed with an investigation (ss.15)—meaning that my story can be told without my consent. It can be argued that continuing the investigation is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if other students are being endangered by the accused. However, it is significant that ignoring consent is what caused an individual to be accused in the first place. This part of the policy is particularly damaging because withdrawing from an investigation is not a process done out of fear of one’s testimony not being sufficient, but rather the opposite. A UK study reports that one in four complaints are withdrawn by survivors because they felt that the criminal justice system process would be too distressing. One in five victims withdrew complaints, at least in part, due to disclosure and privacy concerns. Nearly 13 percent expressed fear about whether their mental health would be negatively impacted because of their involvement with the criminal justice system.
The policy stresses that throughout this report, “Procedural Fairness” will be met. This procedural fairness is defined as merely the right for the perpetrator or survivor to be given sufficient notice of interviews or meetings where the survivor is expected to present evidence and compare perspectives on the facts or evidence gathered as part of the process (ss. 7g).
Throughout the reporting process, as a person making a claim, I must gauge the interest of the Special Investigator and convince them as to why I am worthy of having my assaulter removed. My assaulter may sit across from me and deny every fact I relay as I painfully relive my trauma. I am expected to defend myself and my right to bodily autonomy to strangers skeptical of my story, who are holding my health in their hands.
The policy states that if sufficient evidence is found that sexual violence has occurred, the matter will be referred to a disciplinary authority (ss.34). While it sounds comforting to hear a seemingly omnipotent “disciplinary authority” will take concrete action on my case, many of these decisions go through an even lengthier game of cat-and-mouse trying to deem what is “just punishment” for the perpetrator. Just punishment comes in various forms on each side of the spectrum: it can be ensuring public protection and reparations or the interpretation of punishment as hard treatment (expulsion from university or associations, taking a criminal legal pursuit, etc).
Not only must I, as the survivor putting in the complaint, have to face investigative authorities for weeks on end for a crime I did not deserve to suffer, but I must then produce a written statement, reliving all my trauma, and submit this to the disciplinary authority to convince them as to why my assaulter should be considered for punishment (ss. 38a).
When there is complete evidence and testimony that an assailant should be punished, the final decision is picked between one of four options: an admonishment, a reprimand, a conduct probation and associated conditions (e.g., cease and desist communication), a suspension, or an expulsion (ss. 39). If the disciplinary authority chooses one of the three options other than expulsion, the survivor must live with the knowledge that their assaulter is still on campus.
While these policies can be seen as discouraging, it is important to note that this article was not intended to dissuade people from going through the reporting process. Voices need to be heard in order for things to change. I want to show the community what exactly needs to be altered for the safety of student’s; this piece was never made with the intention that one should not bother making a complaint. Still, established betrayals posed towards survivors must no longer be tolerated. A university that will try to achieve more than the bare minimum is something I can only hope for; every student deserves to feel safe, whether living in residence or off-campus. Survivors need to be confident they will receive the support and care they deserve.
Revising an archaic policy is not enough. What should we demand? I argue that once a complaint is made, the accused should be immediately removed from student residence if living in such an environment. U0 student Claire Tees similarly expressed that “McGill needs to prove me wrong, show me that the trauma of survivors is taken as seriously as the University claims by taking substantial action against the predators living on campus in the present and the future.” Tees suggests that a mandatory course, FYS, or frosh programming (that goes beyond “It Takes All of Us) should be taught to all students. I also believe that sexual assault policies should be revised yearly, as the current policy is not scheduled to be reviewed until March 2022. Updating policies and protocols to ensure they remain effective and in line with other existing policies is key. McGill needs to help build the confidence of survivors in the justice system and prove to us we can have faith in the university.