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Campus safety, sexual violence and the University

Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr

“It is the goal of the University of Toronto to do everything possible to create an environment where students, staff and faculty can feel safe to learn, work and live.”

Those are the words that greet visitors to the University of Toronto’s safety website, and U of T stands behind them, says Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr

One particular aspect of campus safety that concerns Regehr is the prevention of and response to sexual violence. 

(Visit safety.utoronto.ca for more information on programs and services.)

A presidential and provostial committee on sexual violence is soliciting feedback from students, faculty and staff across the University as it works to develop recommendations on preventing and responding to sexual violence. (You can find a confidential, anonymous survey here.)

Regehr sat down recently with U of T News writer Terry Lavender to discuss the University’s sexual violence supports and programs.

Can you tell us something about your own interest and expertise in this area?
The issue of sexual violence is one that I have been deeply interested in for many years. In the 1980s I was the director of one of the three hospital-based sexual assault care centres in Toronto, and consulted to a newly developed one in Parry Sound. As part of that, I was engaged not only with services for victims of violence, but also preventative education. I produced the film called "Lindsay's story: education for date rape prevention” which was used by public health offices in high schools across the country. I was also a social worker on the forensic unit of the former Clarke Institute, now CAMH [Centre for Addiction and Mental Health], where I worked on the sex offender treatment program. In that work, I conducted assessments for the courts of both those who were accused of sexual violence and those who were victims of sexual violence.

My academic research over the last number of years has also included issues of sexual violence, looking at the experience of victims of sexual violence in the court system, and looking at issues of recovery from rape trauma. Sexual violence continues to be an issue that is deeply disturbing and is horrifying for those who have been through the experience.

What specifically is the University of Toronto doing?
We have five components that we’ve focussed on over the years. The first component is preventative education. A second component is crisis services for those who have been recently assaulted. We have risk management services so if there is any ongoing risk to either a particular victim or people in general in our community, we can address that risk. We have counselling services that we provide both here on campus and through links that we have with community agencies. We also have a process for investigating and adjudicating reports of sexual violence that come forward if the accused is a member of our community.

Find more information on programs and services

Many of U of T’s students are away from home, experiencing the freedom and responsibilities of adulthood for the first time. How do the University’s sexual violence initiatives take this into account?
It begins with a good orientation and a positive environment. Our Orientation leaders and our residence dons are well-trained in these kinds of issues. But prevention doesn’t end with Orientation. The preventative education programs here at U of T focus on a large number of issues, such as respect for one another, which is required of all members of our community. Students also learn how to pay attention to personal feelings of discomfort, so each person, as they’re in a situation that’s unfamiliar, can learn to respect their own feelings of discomfort and act upon them if possible. 

We also work to build community, so that if any member of our community thinks that another member of the community is at risk for whatever reason, they are able to help one another. 

What is U of T doing in general to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for students, faculty, staff and visitors?
The education and outreach that we provide is certainly an important part of building a strong, healthy community. We couple this with a variety of safety programs, for example, the WalkSafer, Scarborough Patrol, and WalkSmart programs assist students, staff and faculty to safely navigate our campuses and the closest transit stops after-hours. We have our campus police who are on regular patrol and are able to assist should people make reports of any kind of suspicious activity. 

Our residence dons and our deans of students are trained in responding to sexual violence. We also are continuing to speak with faculty and teaching staff so we all know how to recognize safety needs and refer students and colleagues to the appropriate services. 

There’s growing consensus that sexual violence is a community concern, not just an individual one. Is U of T doing anything regarding bystander awareness? 
There are a lot of programs in this area that come out of our health promotion service teams on all three campuses. We have educators who facilitate workshops on bystander training and building healthy relationships – how to help friends who might be in relationships that are unsettling or unsafe. We have Special Police Constables who do outreach and work with the Community Safety Office on bystander training. We try to engage the community so that they know how to recognize when something isn’t right and what resources they can access in the situation. We also have the Ask First campaign; this is mainly directed towards first-year students who are in Orientation, but it’s also provided to students throughout the year.

What about campus communities that might have particular needs and concerns, such as the LGBTQ community, international students or the disabled?
We have various equity offices around the university that provide specialized service so people who choose to go to specialized services can do so. Certainly, the work that we do in Orientation and other places addresses some of the challenges that individuals from different communities might be facing and the perceptions that they might have that are based on their own experiences of exclusion. 

Are you working with colleagues from other colleges and universities on this issue?
Absolutely. We have three representatives on the Council of Ontario Universities sexual assault working group – myself, Andrea Carter [director of high risk] and [Trinity College Provost] Mayo Moran. We’re working across the sector on how we can learn best practices from one another and provide advice to one another when one organization has an approach that’s better. It is an opportunity to learn from one another and to support students across all institutions. 

Is there anything further you’d like to say about U of T’s supports for victims of sexual violence?
Anyone who is a member of our community who has experienced violence, including sexual violence, should be aware that there are many avenues for them to receive support. People can disclose their needs to any number of people including the various specialized support services that we have and these services will assist in addressing what supports are required.

I think it is important to draw a distinction between disclosure and reporting. We recognize that if someone has experienced sexual violence, telling another person can be at times, overwhelming. It can often feel like you lose what little control you may have. There is a difference between reporting and disclosing. People have the choice about whether to report or disclose. When people disclose that they’ve been assaulted, they’re looking for support and they’re looking for someone to help them think through the various options they have. When they report, that sets in motion a process where they are looking to have some sort of action taken. 

Here at the University, people can report to our campus police, and to the metro police. They can also report to many other members of our community who may involve the formal reporting mechanisms. When someone reports, that’s starting a process where an investigation may take place. 

If the individual is looking for support, and they don’t want to become involved in a process where there’s an investigation, then they are welcome and encouraged to come forward as well. There are confidential supportive offices that can take disclosures (such as the Community Safety Office, counsellors, and health professionals). While a disclosure will not lead to an investigation the victim will be informed of their options and ways in which they can be supported (such as accommodations, housing needs, and counselling resources). Our goal is that whomever a victim discloses to will be helpful, and, if a victim chooses to report, then we will provide support as they go through that process of investigation.