U of T launches review of sexual violence and sexual harassment policy

Sexual violence prevention and support centre
(Photo by David Lee)

The University of Toronto is launching a review of its sexual violence policy, as well as the supports that are available to students and other community members.

Carried out every three years, the review looks for ways to improve the current policy and strengthen supports and services with input from students, staff, faculty and librarians.

The review comes at a time when regulatory amendments by the Ontario government require universities and colleges to update sexual violence and harassment policies. The amendments ensure individuals who report sexual violence do not face action for violations of university policies related to drug and alcohol use at the time the incident took place, and that students who disclose or report sexual violence are not asked irrelevant questions about their sexual history or sexual expression.

Technical changes to reflect the amendments are now proceeding through U of T’s governance process while its more extensive review gets underway.

The university is seeking the views of community members on a range of questions, including topics like how to address concerns of sexual violence or harassment when no formal report has been made.

“We have a collective responsibility to eliminate sexual harassment and violence in all its forms,” says U of T President Meric Gertler.

“U of T is committed to supporting survivors and will do its part to make the university safe for learning, research and all other activities. This policy review is an opportunity to continue improving the work we do.”

Professor Linda Johnston, dean of the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, and Allison Burgess, director of the Sexual & Gender Diversity Office, will co-chair the consultation phase, which runs through February 2022. That includes reaching out to student groups and other stakeholder groups for feedback. Review recommendations and any resulting policy changes will be presented to the university’s governing bodies in late spring.

All members of the university community are invited to submit their feedback on the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, the Student’s Companion to the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, and the supports and services available to the U of T community, including the Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre, through the  consultation website.

“We know this is an important issue for our community, and we want to hear from them,” says Trevor Young, acting vice-president and provost. “We hope that by working together, we can address this critical issue and offer people the services and supports they need.” 

Sandy Welsh, U of T’s vice-provost, students, adds that conducting regular reviews of the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment is a key part of U of T’s commitment to making our campuses safe and supporting survivors.

“We are always looking for ways to reduce the barriers to disclosing, reporting and accessing supports,” Welsh says.

The tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre (SVPSC) plays a key role in addressing sexual violence and sexual harassment at U of T – from helping community members access counselling and academic accommodations to referrals and legal and financial aid. It also carries out proactive education and outreach to promote a culture of consent and care.

The SVPSC works with community members affected by sexual violence to support their needs and help them understand their options. That can include guiding and supporting survivors through a robust formal reporting process that may involve an independent internal investigation, disciplinary action and measures to protect complainants.

Established in 2017 as part of the university’s Action Plan on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence, the SVPC ensures all members of the U of T community have access to services, supports and accommodations. The centre’s work is heavily informed by community feedback as well as independent initiatives such as the Ontario government’s Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey, which more than 20,000 U of T students participated in.

Any member of the U of T community who discloses an experience of sexual violence to the centre can expect a range of support and services, said Angela Treglia, the centre’s director.

“The Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre is the first place to go to receive support services and accommodations related to sexual violence,” Treglia said. “We know that there are a lot of different resources and processes available, and sometimes that can feel overwhelming.

“That’s why we provide a single point of contact to help co-ordinate and manage all the different access points that someone may want to reach out to. Our team helps co-ordinate various supports to address unique needs someone may have.”

Treglia said supports available are trauma-informed and confidential, and the exact nature of services can vary based on what’s most important and helpful to the individual.

In addition to disclosing experiences of sexual violence and seeking supports, individuals who have experienced sexual violence can also choose to file a formal report with the support of the centre.

The reports are submitted to the Office of Safety and High Risk, which carries out assessments and implements fair processes in keeping with the university’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment. At the conclusion of an investigation, relevant decision-makers in university administration can take appropriate action to address the matter – including disciplinary action.

However, the SVPSC does not itself carry out investigations or take disciplinary action.  

“Our role, first and foremost, is to provide support,” Treglia said. “That includes helping individuals understand the various steps in the reporting process and connecting them with a front-line worker who can be with them as they go through the process, if they choose to make a report.”

As for the provincial announcement, Treglia said U of T’s policy makes it clear that investigators must act in a timely, fair, impartial and professional manner.

“This means not asking irrelevant questions, such as about one’s sexual history or sexual expression,” she says. “An individual’s sexual history is not an indicator of consent.”

As well, students who bring forward a report won’t be disciplined for violations of university policies related to drug and alcohol use at the time the sexual violence took place.

“We understand that a fear around ‘getting in trouble’ may prevent someone from seeking help or reporting an incident,” Treglia says. “That’s why it’s so important for survivors to know they won’t be subjected to any penalties related to substance use.

“Sexual violence is never a survivor’s fault.”

One of the centre’s key mandates is education. It offers workshops, training modules and educational programs to individuals, student groups, units and departments across U of T’s three campuses.

Many of the workshops focus on themes around consent, rejection resilience and communicating boundaries. “So, understanding our responsibilities related to consent, how we practise consent, what are the challenges to practising consent and how we overcome these,” Treglia said, noting that consent applies not only to intimate sexual contact but also in everyday interactions with friends, colleagues and family.

One of the centre’s most popular workshops is “Skills for Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence: Using a Trauma-Informed Approach.” Available to faculty, staff and administrators, the workshop aims to equip people with the knowledge and tools they need to effectively manage a disclosure of sexual assault and support individuals in a non-judgmental manner.

“We know that the way someone responds to an individual disclosing an incident of sexual violence can impact whether the individual feels supported on their path of recovery and healing, or whether they feel like ‘I can’t share or talk about this with anyone ever again,’” says Treglia. “So, we want to make sure that friends, faculty and colleagues in these positions are prepared to receive disclosures and respond to them in a supportive, non-judgmental way.”

The centre also provides training on the university’s sexual violence policy and the reporting process, and runs healing-based and survivor-focused programs that include themes such as self-compassion and intersections between sexual violence and other forms of violence and harm – often in collaboration with other offices across the university.

Much of the centre’s programming was moved online during the pandemic, which has helped improve access.

“Moving forward,” Treglia says, “we’re going to be looking at some sort of hybrid model of providing services and supports to take advantage of what we’ve learned from this experience.”

Treglia says that as the university embarks on another academic year, she wants members of the community to know that we all need to take care of each other and the SVPSC is here for them.

“No one ever deserves to be subjected to sexual violence, sexual harassment or other forms of harm,” she says. “We want you to know that you’re not alone. We’re here for you and we’re here to make sure you get the best support available.”

The Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre (SVPSC) serves students, staff, and faculty at the University of Toronto who are affected by sexual violence and harassment.

If you are in crisis or immediate danger, call 911.

Consultations are available by phone, e-mail, and video conferencing. Email svpscentre@utoronto.ca or call 416-978-2266 to set up an appointment. 

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault or harassment, 24/7 crisis support is also available from these community resources.