Low rates of sexual assault in university records highlight problems with reporting

The unfortunate truth about sexual violence is that it is something that many women face in their lifetimes, with an especially worrisome frequency at universities. Over the past couple of years, the media has been flooded with stories about the problem of sexual assault on university campuses. However, across Canada, there is a disconnect between sexual violence occurrences on university campuses and the number actually recorded by schools.

A recent CBC article revealed that sexual assault reporting at Canadian universities is much lower than in the surrounding cities. In a survey conducted at the University of Ottawa, 44 per cent of female students encountered some sort of sexual violence on campus, and yet, the school only has 10 official reports. Sexual violence on campuses is a very prominent issue, yet university reports of sexual assault remain suspiciously low.

In the United States, there is a law requiring universities to make sexual assault records public, unlike in Canada, where no such law exists. McGill University currently has no records available for sexual violence from the past five years, according to the data collected by the CBC. Without any law forcing records to be publicized, it is easy for the truth about the prevalence of sexual assault on university campuses to be misconstrued.

Many Canadian universities shy away from discussing sexual assault to protect their image. This can be extremely discouraging to students, who may think they should not report sexual violence to their university if the school may be hesitant to take disciplinary actions. It can take a very long time for a sexual assault case to be investigated, processed, and handled by the police—even then the case may be dismissed for lack of evidence. Students may therefore want to be able to report injustices to their universities, so that they don’t have to go to the police. Going through the university can be a lot quicker and less painful for survivors than having to be dragged through the criminal justice system.

Without any law forcing records to be publicized, it is easy for the truth about the prevalence of sexual assault on university campuses to be misconstrued.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) was recently interviewed about sexual assault reporting on their campus. The number they have on record from the past five years is about a quarter of the size of that the RCMP has on record, which has a branch located on the UBC campus. With one in four women on average experiencing sexual assault in their lifetimes, it is nearly impossible for university numbers to be that low. “It makes me wonder who students have been trusting in telling and who is collecting the numbers,” said one concerned student and survivor of sexual assault from UBC in an interview with the CBC. Universities need to improve how they are handling and processing these reports given to them.

There also seems to be a lack of support on campus when it comes to helping survivors of sexual assault. Something as simple as where exactly one should report an act of sexual violence is unclear at many universities. From there, students can feel uncomfortable expressing what has happened to them, and it is the job of the schools to give as much non-judgmental support as possible. Students should not have to go searching for help; when an incident like sexual violence occurs, the school should be right there, ready to assist.

Recently, there has been a proposal drafted on how to expand McGill University’s policy on sexual violence on campus. It addresses how to treat the survivor in the case, and is careful to use the word ‘survivor’ as opposed to ‘victim’ to empower the student affected. The drafted sexual assault policy also discusses how to prevent these acts of sexual violence from occurring in the future. Implementing more awareness on campus and creating an organization whose sole purpose is to deal first-hand with all issues concerning sexual violence on campus are included as important steps for the university to undertake to encourage students to report sexual assaults. Information and resources —such as discussions on topics like consent, prevention of sexual assault, and reporting—will be made easily accessible. The sexual assault policy also advocates for the training of members of the McGill community to carry out peer and professional support services. This proposal is a definite step in the right direction, as it addresses many of the key components that universities need to have on their campuses in order to better handle sexual violence incidents.

To begin tackling the issue of sexual assault on campuses, universities need be more supportive and open to their students to make them feel safe and secure if they ever need help. Students who are survivors of sexual violence have already encountered enough pain; schools should not be adding to the difficulty of the situation. It is the job of universities to work as hard as they can to encourage students to report these incidences and make them feel they are not alone.

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