How Universities Shut Down Discussion Of Sexual Violence On Campus

Image courtesy of SIVxUofT and Ellie Ade Kur
The University of Toronto’s shameful handling of an awareness campaign tells you everything about how schools handle assault reports.

I n the early morning of March 16, 2017, students at the University of Toronto woke up to a campus blanketed with black and white posters. Each sheet of paper featured, in bold serif font, one of 50 quotes from a different survivor of sexual assault, violence, or harassment. The quotes described the survivors’ struggles trying to report their experience to the school.

“The sexual harassment office said they couldn’t take my report seriously because I’m a sex worker.”

“When my professor sexually assaulted me, the administration assigned him to a new department.”

“My rapist was fired from his Student Life position following the attack. He was rehired to a different division of Student Life shortly after.”

“My crisis counsellor won’t respond to my emails.”

“When I asked the University why they’d rehired my rapist…after finding him responsible they said, ‘As far as we’re concerned the case is closed.’”

“My College told me if I spoke about my rape they’d punish me for ‘retaliation.’”

“UofT threatened to remove me from my PhD program for reporting my stalker. They said my presence put my colleagues at risk.”

Each quote alone could, perhaps, be explained away: a difficult but ultimately fair response to he-said she-said, or a poorly trained counsellor. But as a group they tell a damning story of indifference, or callousness, or ignorance, or worse; a troubling pattern in the handling of survivors and victims of sexual assault.

“Report if you want, but you’ll probably be disappointed.”

Graduate student Ellie Ade Kur, co-founder of the University of Toronto chapter of Silence is Violence and co-creator of the campaign, believes that the university has a vested interest in keeping reports of sexual assault low — not by reducing the incidents themselves, but by discouraging victims who report. Another organizer and survivor, Mira El Hussein, agrees: “No university wants to be the one with a rape scandal.”

‘No university wants to be the one with a rape scandal.’

If the goal is to suppress reports, it’s working. Between 2009 and 2013, U of T received only 37 official reports of sexual assault or violence. With over 75,000 students — it’s Canada’s largest collegiate post-secondary institution — this works out to about 0.8975 reports for every 10,000 students. The following year, there were 137 informal complaints, and 22 formal ones, out of the increased student body of 85,000.

Every major study has put the rate of sexual assault and violence on campus from numbers ranging from 1 in 6 to 1 in 4. Study after study shows that this rate is the same, again and again, across provinces, and throughout the U.S. Either U of T is an anomaly, miraculously free of the campus assault problems that plague every other school, or the administration is quashing reports. Ade Kur and Hussein are pretty sure which one it is.

“You got an apology, what more do you want?”

In the final days of Tamsyn Riddle’s freshman year, she was raped at an on-campus party. When her friend heard, she shared that she also had been assaulted by the same person, a mutual acquaintance in their shared residence. They decided to report their assaults to the university, together, hoping to find protection for themselves and others on campus. Instead, they found the experience of making a report confusing and disorienting.

Riddle describes receiving contradictory and upsetting advice. One member of the administration discouraged her from going to the police, while another counsellor pressured her to go after she’d decided not to. One told her that her college took assault seriously, but another had no recommendation for her panic attacks besides a meditation app. An investigator interrupted a family dinner with a call to ask about the angle of penetration. The only academic accommodations offered to her were delayed exams.

She was still expected to attend classes with her rapist.

The only academic accommodations offered to her were delayed exams. She was still expected to attend classes with her rapist.

Riddle is now pursuing a human rights complaint based on the handling of her assault by the administration. U of T Director of Media Relations Althea Blackburn said that no one was available to comment on the details of this or any other case, nor to answer hypothetical questions on what procedures might be used in the future for handling disclosures.

When I spoke to human rights lawyer Alison McEwan of Nelligan O’Brien Payne, who does not represent anyone involved with the case, she explained that universities and colleges need policies that get ahead of scandals.

“For example, you need policy that assigns one person to be the point of access for the victim,” said McEwan. “Too many well-meaning people is still too many people. You re-traumatize the person when they have to repeat the story; you make it more difficult for them to retell the story in a believable way. And you add the possibility that one of those too many people says the wrong thing, negatively affecting someone who has already had their trust shattered.”

Riddle’s lawyer, Emily Shepard of the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, said, “This isn’t a new issue to us. We get about 1,000 calls a year about sexual harassment and assault, and that’s only what is reported to us.” She continued, “This happens on campus, it happens everywhere.”

At the end of the 17-month reporting process, Riddle discovered that the investigation was over, without a hearing, and with sanctions negotiated between the university and her rapist’s lawyers. Punishments included eating at a different dining hall and resigning from most of the clubs he was in, save for soccer, which was his favorite. There was little to no enforcement of these penalties.

She asked why he wouldn’t be expelled. In response, “The assistant provost at my college said they reserved that for serial rapists.” The provost was aware that the man who assaulted Riddle had also assaulted her friend, as they had reported at the same time, but apparently the provost was using the term “serial rapist” to mean something more severe than what they had experienced.

“It made me feel like they didn’t think he did anything wrong,” Riddle told me. “That they didn’t take my rape seriously.”

Image courtesy of SIVxUofT and Ellie Ade Kur

“My crisis counsellor won’t respond to my emails.”

It was this story, and others like it, that inspired Silence is Violence to spend a cold March night hanging posters. By the end of the group’s four hours on campus, they had placed over 1,200. Even on a campus as big as University of Toronto, that’s a lot. When they were finished the grounds resembled what might happen if you left a stamp collection alone with a toddler.

Together the posters formed a mosaic suggesting something very wrong at all levels of the university.

The effect was powerful, if short-lived. When campaign co-organizer Ade Kur arrived on campus a few hours later, around 8:00 am, she saw workers removing the posters from a street lamp post.

“I came to campus and saw these crews just scraping our posters away,” she said. Dozens of various posters litter U of T at any given time, from ads for male models to book sale flyers. At the same time SIV’s posters were removed, student government posters from a recent election went untouched.

Ade Kur asked the removal crew if they were focusing on the posters SIV had put up mere hours earlier. “He just shrugged and said ‘The university only hired us to take these ones down.’ I couldn’t believe it. Normally, the university would have more tact than that.”

The posters formed a mosaic suggesting something very wrong at all levels of the University.

By the end of the day, most were down. Posters on the well-trafficked paths leading to the dean’s and provost’s offices were among those removed first. Those on prestigious Trinity College were removed promptly as well.

In some places the wheat paste adhesive used to attach the posters didn’t easily scrape off. In these cases screwdrivers and box cutters were used to scrape them away, leaving ugly marks of half-removed paper. In other areas, maybe to protect heritage facades from further damage, the words were scratched away, leaving the posters but making the words unreadable. Posters placed on walls were removed, posters on public lampposts or bus shelters gone, posters on approved bulletin boards torn down.

Within a week, nearly all were removed, vandalized, or unreadable.

Every person I contacted on staff with the university put me in touch with media relations, where I got the boilerplate response: The posters “were removed in accordance with the Procedure on Distribution of Publications, Posters and Banners.” This seems disingenuous, not only because other posters were left up, but because according to the procedure, the posters were the right size, and ones that hung in appropriate spaces were still removed.

Posters were removed off campus as well, something that would be outside of the university’s purview. In an email, Blackburn-Evans claimed that “We don’t remove posters from city property.”

Workers remove the posters. Image courtesy of SIVxUofT and Ellie Ade Kur

“My college told me if I spoke about my rape they’d punish me for ‘retaliation’”

Universities are engaging in a fraught debate about free speech right now, struggling to manage the balance between making a space feel safe for students and allowing the free exchange of (sometimes radical) ideas. Often, this tension results in faculty and staff denigrating the very idea of student safety. Last year, the University of Chicago issued a welcome letter to incoming students that said “we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ … and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces.’” University of Texas at Austin professor Daniel Bonevac, an outspoken Trump supporter, has complained that he had to stop teaching a class due to the sensitivities of a minority of students.

Recently, U of T professor Jordan Peterson was in the news when videos he posted online drew attention to his refusal to change his use of pronouns to accommodate non-binary students. He now writes op-eds for daily papers about the dangers of PC culture, and in podcasts has called women’s studies the “knifepoint of fascism,” one that will lead the western world and free thinkers to a very non-metaphorical gulag. He received warnings from the administration, but as a tenured professor will keep his job teaching.

Universities struggle to manage the balance between making a space feel safe for students and allowing the free exchange of (sometimes radical) ideas.

Non-tenured professor Michael Rectenwald at NYU took a paid leave of absence after tweeting out his thoughts on PC culture and liberal snowflakes. He returned to the campus with a promotion.

Each of these statements emboldens a certain type of person. Following Peterson’s statements, SIV reports that assaults against trans and non-binary students on the U of T campus went up. When he denied racism existed against blacks, the campus became a less safe space for people of color, who also faced increase harassment and verbal assaults on campus. The loss of safety wasn’t theoretical. His words created consequences and they created actions, and those consequences physically hurt people.

And yet all of these professors were — at most — given warning and censured. They’re still teaching. Tenure allows academics to explore new ideas or complicated research — which sometimes means it professionally protects ideas or arguments one may find repellent.

But free speech protections can’t only go one way. If professors who scoff at the idea of student safety are protected, the students, too, must be allowed to say their piece. If they aren’t, it shows the “free speech” argument for what it is: a canard intended to reinforce the power hierarchy on campus, and control who is allowed to have a voice. When campuses defend professors’ freedom of speech, they must also make accommodations for students.

What exactly is at risk if we hear from survivors? If we report more often? Who is already safe on campus, who is protected, and who is under threat?

This isn’t what we see happening at the University of Toronto, or other campuses that discourage students from reporting sexual assault. If survivors on campus name their rapist, they are told that it counts as retaliation, and warned that they could suffer punishments. When students put up posters detailing their experiences, they’re summarily removed.

We cannot promise students safe experiences, but we can certainly tell them which experiences are valued. We may not be able to stop campus rapes, but we certainly could take them seriously when they happen. So why aren’t we? What exactly is at risk if we hear from survivors? If we report more often? Who is already safe on campus, who is protected, and who is under threat? And just who do posters, reports, and trigger warnings threaten?

Ade Kur feels that watching the posters be torn down, while initially deflating, was ultimately cathartic. “The glue we used meant they had to scrape and stab at these stories,” she said. “It was such ugly, brutal effort that it took to remove some of them. Normally the violence we experience is hidden, but this time it’s out in the open.”

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