It’s been three years since Jean Strong was sexually assaulted twice in the same semester, and a year since she walked into a Thompson Rivers University counsellor’s office to report it, only to be told she should transfer schools.
In a blog post last year about her experience, she talked about how she had been looking for help to report the attacks to the authorities, but got the entirely unexpected reaction.
“It was suggested I transfer to Queen’s or Carleton — any university that was not TRU,” the now-22-year-old wrote.
That blog post got picked up by the media in Kamloops, and it prompted a discussion in B.C. on the need for universities to develop sexual assault policies that are separate from other misconduct policies.
She and BC Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver ended up working together on Bill 23, called the Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy Act, which passed last March.
Universities have been toiling on their new rules since then, with an aim to implement them in the spring.
Disclosing, reporting should be tracked: Strong
UBC has been under fire multiple times for its handling of sexual assault reporting, including being accused of failing to act for years on allegations against a male PhD student in the history department, which has led to a human rights complaint.
Its draft policy includes accommodations for students who report an assault like changing their classes or their parking spot.
“I think its important that those are outlined specifically in the policy because otherwise victims or survivors might not think to ask for them,” Strong said.
Sara-Jane Findlay, UBC’s policy committee co-chair, said the new framework aims to give victims the choice between disclosing and reporting their assaults.
Disclosing means to tell a faculty member, student, or staff member, while reporting includes an official report with a statement of allegations potentially involving the police, as well as potential disciplinary action by the school.
“We’ll be setting up a central office to provide support, response, and prevention and education work,” Findlay said. “It’s hoped that through that one place of entry, people will feel more comfortable about coming and disclosing to the institution.
“But we recognize people disclose at different times to different people and there has to be the freedom for people to disclose where, when, to whom, and how much they want.”
Strong said she hopes universities will track both so that they are as accountable as possible.
SFU’s draft policy says the school will address incidents that only occur on its campuses or at sponsored events.
“It excludes a lot of places where a lot of assaults might occur,” Strong said, like at a club or bar. “Just because it didn’t happen at a university-sponsored event doesn’t make it less of an assault or less of a responsibility for the university.”
Sukhi Brar is the president of the student union at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, where students are helping to draft that school’s policy.
“Even where we’re at right now, with people talking on this committee about this issue, it’s already bringing about change and it’s already creating the kind of conversation that I think is needed on campus,” she said.
The student group is also looking to create a women’s centre and pride centre.
Advocating for change a healing process
Strong described her year of advocating for reform on sexual assault reporting as empowering.
“After coming forward and having opportunities to push for change and speak to so many amazing girls who have been through the same thing and try to be a voice for them, I absolutely feel empowered,” she said, adding that it’s helped her to understand what happened, and how she reacted.
She still sometimes wonders what if TRU’s response to her reporting had been different? Would she have pursued criminal charges?
Strong briefly spoke to a police officer she met while attending a consultation on TRU’s policy last year, and talked about it, but ultimately decided against it.
She said it comes back to her experience at the time.
“I think that could have been different if the university had responded differently.”
January happens to be Sexual Assault Awareness Month at UBC.
Denim Day, on Jan. 19, invites people to wear denim in support of a woman in an Italian court whose rape allegations were deemed inadmissible in 1998 because the judge said her jeans were so tight, she’d had to have helped take them off and therefore give consent.