CAUS calls for cohesive sexual violence policies on campus
By Ryleigh Stangness, Staff Writer
The Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS), which represents over 100,000 undergraduate students at Alberta’s five publicly-funded universities, has released an “in-depth research paper exploring campus sexual violence at Alberta’s post-secondary institutions. It’s the first of its kind in Alberta to be written by student leaders that is research-intensive and focuses on recommendations for the Government of Alberta’s consideration.”
Shayla Breen, SAMRU president and sitting representative of MRU for CAUS, has been an integral part of this initiative over the span of several years. Breen says this paper is a continuation of the work of many that has been done through advocacy and research for many years.
CAUS made five main recommendations from their research based on anecdotal information, consultation work and statistics from the National College Health assessment survey, and faculty research on sexual violence on campus to understand the student impact.
“What this means for MRU students is that we take their concerns very seriously,” says Breen. “It’s a step in the direction of accountability from institutions, and acknowledgement of the fact that this is an issue on our campus and post-secondary campuses across Alberta and Canada. It is also a commitment to the advocacy work that we’re doing here in order to change the culture at MRU and hopefully secure funding for MRU to create a safer campus community.”
The paper emphasizes a three-pronged approach, says Breen. The first focus is the policy and the development of a good foundation and structure. The second emphasis of the paper is the need for a systemic culture shift, education and training.
According to the published policy paper, “While experiences of sexual violence happen at an individual level, the problem is systemic. Further, broader systemic issues such as racism, sexism and homophobia all play a role in enabling perpetrators, upholding rape culture and marginalizing and silencing survivors. It is against this backdrop that this research paper will explore the issue.”
Policies need to reflect a change in narrative to combat rape culture and myths, says Breen, adding this could look like breaking down statements such as “What were they wearing?” or “Were they drinking?” and reappropriating the blame to the perpetrators and not the victim.
Other elements include education surrounding consent and what that means, or what it means to be a bystander, says Breen.
The third focus of the paper is timely and adequate support services, whether that is accessing a counsellor, dropping a class, having someone to help a student navigate the policy or access external resources, explains Breen.
Breen says MRU is not unique in its lack of current resources for response to sexual violence, adding it’s an issue for students.
“When we think about sexual violence, it’s a different type of trauma and it’s a type of trauma that needs to be dealt with by someone who has certain skills in that area. While we do have things like counselling services and peer support networks, there is a special type of training and education an individual needs to have, in our point of view, to handle, support and deal with campus sexual violence.”
CAUS is imploring the government for more funding to increase these resources including hiring positions and training staff to respond to disclosures.
“Currently, we partner with Calgary Communities Against Sexual Assault (CASSA) and they come to campus once a week to meet with students. However, the waitlist to see that counsellor from CASSA can be up to a couple months at a time, depending on the time of the year,” says Breen.
A great asset to MRU’s resources is Cari Ionson. She is the Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator and is the only designated person on campus for responding to disclosures of sexual violence. Ionson invites anyone who has been impacted — recently or historically — by sexual, dating or domestic violence, to come to her office located at NC201. Ionson wears many hats, and her role varies on the needs of students from supporting those victimized by sexual violence support to safety planning and educating around campus on concepts such as consent.
Ionson is there to support and educate not only 11,000 students, but over 900 faculty and staff as well. Hence, Breen emphasizes a desperate need for funding to create more positions to support Ionson.
Breen says that at the time the current MRU policy was written, MRU did well with the resources it had, especially in comparison to other policies in Alberta. MRU, she says, built a strong foundation but it’s just not meeting student needs.
“I think there are a lot of gaps in [the policy] and a lot of loopholes, especially when we start digging down into the procedures that really leave students marginalized and leave students on the outskirts of the policy,” Breen says.
What does that mean for students who fall through the cracks and don’t have access to resources to things like CASSA or specifically trained counsellors in a timely manner?
Breen explains a lack of resources for students in the past has meant the rise of mental health concerns, dropping classes or unjustly halting their education altogether.
“We know students have dropped out of Mount Royal because of the trauma they have faced on campus and so it is pretty high risk stakes when we think about it and the lack of access to resources,” says Breen.
However, this is a problem across many Alberta campuses. CAUS writes that one of the main issues is there is “no minimum standard” or “stand alone policy to inform” campuses. Overall, the policy report claims, “the [Government of Alberta] lags in terms of campus-specific policy and actions.”
“It is time it’s updated and it’s time that students are given a better sense of safety but also accountability,” Breen says.
CAUS has already presented these recommendations to the Alberta Ministry of Advanced Education and the Ministry of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women and they were very receptive to the recommendations in the paper. Conversations are pointing towards legislating policy needs, according to Breen.
“These are great starting points of a conversation, but I think the biggest push for us is going to be the push for funding,” says Breen.
“One of the biggest challenges is this government was elected on the platform of fiscal restraint, and looking at the Mckinnon Report and the last provincial budget that was tabled and approved, I think the province has sent a very clear message that universities need to be less reliant on government funds and more reliant on tuition and internal revenue generation,” Breen says.
While CAUS continues to advocate for more funding, they are doing what they can working with the ministry to legislate changes, and focusing on education and culture shifts to form what they describe as a hollistic approach to addressing sexual violence on campus.