Simplify Sexual Harassment Procedure

Off the Board/Opinion by

Last week I wrote a Features article (“Sexual Harassment at McGill,” November 23) about sexual harassment at McGill. I expected it to be a straightforward assignment—resources for this type of thing should be easily accessible. But by the time I sat down to write the article, I was disturbed by what I had uncovered. To begin my research, I spoke with a young woman who had issued a complaint against a faculty member. The recovery process has taken years. She still hasn’t gotten justice or even seen the investigation file.

My first few stops were SACOMSS and the McGill Legal Information Clinic. Armed with a copy of the Sexual Harassment Policy and list of questions, I was prepared to translate hordes of legal jargon into colloquial language. Instead I found a constant pattern of redirection.

I went to the SACOMSS office without an appointment to discuss the services they offered, as most victims would. The volunteers at the time were perfectly polite, but said they had never fielded a call before. When I asked about the complaint process, they directed me to their advocacy group. They seemed to be there only for emotional support.

I called the group’s hotline number, and was told I should have sent an email instead. I repeatedly asked for a phone number—much like any victim would want—but instead was assured that my email would be answered quickly. I know that the McGill administration likes to do everything via email, but I had hoped for less red tape from a student service. I eventually did get a hold of someone, but for an organization that operates on the foundation of urgency and dispensing information, this redirection was unacceptable.

My next stop was the McGill Legal Information Clinic. I wasn’t hopeful, as the clinic is run by Law students who can’t guarantee client confidentiality. I was told at the front desk to consult McGill’s policy on sexual harassment, and that if a victim wants to pursue legal action, the clinic can direct him or her to a lawyer. Again, answers seemed elusive.

The harassment complaint process is like any other bureaucratic process: lots of forms, waiting, and ambiguous language. Some stipulations seem designed to deter investigations, such as time limitations and the fact that the provost can overrule the report. McGill staff investigates cases of harassment against members of the McGill community, so there’s always the potential for a conflict of interest. Justice can be attained within the system, and victims are encouraged to seek outside recourse if they’re unhappy with the results McGill’s process. But given how emotionally draining this process is, it’s unlikely that victims will want to speak up again.   

SACOMSS is a great organization that provides emotional support, but on its own it’s not enough. The university should work with SACOMSS and Mental Health Services to ensure that victims are receiving full support, and should allocate staff specifically for issues of assault or harassment both on and off campus.

There is a silver lining to all of this: when interviewed, Associate Provost Lydia White wanted feedback on the harassment complaint process. There are opportunities for change, but in a situation like this, no one realizes how deterring the current process can be until they’ve been through it themselves.