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McGill students seek formal sexual assault policy

McGill students seek formal sexual assault policy
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Students at McGill University have sent a clear message to university officials that their recent attempts to address the issue of sexual assault on campus have been far too feeble.

Despite McGill’s recent steps to deal with sexual assault, a group of students has sent a letter to the administration — along with a proposal for a sexual assault policy — with an admonition that without a formal policy, the university’s commitment to the issue remains “an empty promise.”

Saying their open letter to Principal Suzanne Fortier, deputy provost Ollivier Dyens and dean of students Andr Costopoulos “is a call to action,” the eight McGill student associations who signed the letter said it is clear “rape culture and sexual assault on our campus warrant a stronger response.”

The issues have been in the spotlight at McGill since the university’s controversial handling of an allegation of sexual assault last year involving three members of its football team. There was an outcry when the university’s response was viewed as dismissive, which prompted McGill to subsequently implement some measures to address the concerns of students.

But it hasn’t been enough to calm some of the outrage on campus.

“McGill has made statements saying that they’re going to do more to support survivors on campus and address issues of rape culture, and we hope that this policy will encourage and help them live up to these promises,” said one of the groups involved, the Union for Gender Empowerment (UGE).

In the letter that went out last Friday, the groups take the administration to task for not doing enough consultation with relevant campus groups and for the direction the university has taken with its pledge to hire a liaison to oversee what it has labelled “harm reduction.”

“The signing parties are displeased with the McGill administration proceeding with the hiring of the coordinator position without adequate consultation of the student body,” say the groups. “We call upon you to carefully consider our recommendations regarding (the new position).”

They recommend a “sexual assault response coordinator” whose priority would be dealing with sexual assault, but whose position may also include the element of harm reduction. “The name of this position must explicitly reflect a commitment to actively addressing issues of sexual assault and combating rape culture on campus,” the students outline in their proposed policy.

“It’s really important the administration takes action, and quickly,” said Brooke Nancekivell, a student representative from the Quebec Public Interest Research Group at McGill, one of the eight groups that signed the letter. “So much more needs to be done.”

The other groups are: the Students’ Society of McGill University Executive, the Sexual Assault Centre of the SSMU, UGE, Queer McGill, the SSMU Equity Committee, the Feminist Collective at McGill Law and Women and the Criminal Law.

Costopoulos said in an interview he wasn’t surprised with the students’ action and acknowledged that “more consultation could always be done,” while adding that the university did make a very “good faith” effort to consult and did hold its first Forum on Consent last month.

Many elements of the policy the students proposed are already in place in other university policies or protocols, he said — but he does believe it would be beneficial to group them together. In fact, he’s already met with the students once recently and plans to meet again next week to go over the policy.

He couldn’t say when the university and students may have a finished policy, but vowed to work through the summer together to try to have a draft by the fall.

With sexual assault rising fastest among girls aged 13 to 18, said Anuradha Dugal, the director of violence prevention for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, universities should definitely have sexual assault policies in place.

She didn’t know how many universities in Canada have such a policy, but believes “it will always make a difference on campus. It sends a message that sexual assault is taken seriously and it’s important for women who have been victimized.”

Unfortunately, she said, a couple of universities in Canada recently had to close sexual assault centres because of a lack of funding.

In Montreal, McGill and Concordia University have dedicated sexual assault centres, although the Universit de Montréal and Universit du Québec Montréal provide counselling services. While universities seem prepared to deal with sexual harassment, it is trickier with sexual assault because it is a criminal offence.

Nancekivell said the students proposed a policy because they want the university to be proactive.

“We need to go much further than having forums,” she said. “We are hoping to gain broader community support and get everyone working actively towards this goal. We are urging the administration to adopt our proposals and accept our input in developing a sexual assault policy.”

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE SEXUAL ASSAULT POLICY PROPOSED BY McGILL STUDENTS:

As sexual assault occurs disproportionately on university campuses, it is imperative that McGill promptly address its lack of a sexual assault policy and of institutionalized survivor services.

Develop a pro-survivor sexual assault policy that takes a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to the problem of sexual assault and rape culture on campus.

Hire a sexual assault response coordinator who will provide safety measures and support for survivors, and advocate for them, as well as be responsible for policy development and campaigns targeting rape culture on campus.
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