The university has made great strides this year in formalizing its first official sexual violence policy. A document that was two years in the making, it offers thorough and fair definitions of consent, sexual assault and sexual violence, outlines clear processes for disclosing and reporting on campus, and showcases the variety of support services available for students who have experienced sexual violence. For all intents and purposes, the policy is robust, comprehensive, and marks a significant step in the right direction by the university administration.
Where the policy gets murky, however, is when it comes to matters of publicly reporting assaults to the community as juxtaposed to the survivor’s right to confidentiality.
The university has made a clear commitment to uphold the confidentiality of any individual who chooses to disclose or report an incident of sexual violence, to the extent that Jacqueline De Leebeeck, director of student life, would not release this year’s rate of sexual assaults on the grounds that there had been “too few to disclose without violating student confidentiality.”
At the same time, the StFX sexual violence policy holds that the university “is committed to providing timely and appropriate information to the University community about sexual violence on campus in support of public safety, awareness, and openness, including, but not limited to, public safety bulletins and biannual sexual assault reports” (p. 4).
While the university has (evidently) not yet disclosed this year’s statistics, Bob Hale, head of student services, has confirmed that the university will disclose the number of reports of sexual violence received by the Student Conduct Office by the end of the academic year. Hale clarified that this report would consist of the number of official reports as filed for investigative purposes rather than the total number of disclosures that may have been made to RAs, the Health and Counselling Centre, or any authority other than the conduct office.
According to Hale, the university is not required to report any incidents of sexualized violence to the campus community, although he claimed that they would publish a safety bulletin with details of an assault in the event that the community’s safety could be in jeopardy. The mostly likely scenario in which the university would report publicly would be if the identity of a perpetrator was unknown.
There seems to be something inherently contradictory about these two standpoints. While student confidentiality is of the utmost importance, particularly on a campus of this size, it needs to be weighed in accordance with the public safety concerns that accompany high rates of sexualized violence.
Based on De Leebeeck’s response, the administration seems to be of the mind that even to report the occurrence of a sexual assault amounts to revictimization. I do not doubt the university’s intent to address sexualized violence appropriately and responsibly, and again, student safety and security are obviously a priority, but this approach seems to run the risk of using confidentiality as a means to deflect the obligation to report.
StFX has a lacklustre history of transparency when reporting. A 2015 CBC report found that whereas StFX had initially reported 4 cases of sexual assault over a five year period, a Freedom of Information filing revealed another 17 cases that had gone unmentioned.
Moreover, while Hale claims that the university would report to the community if its safety were jeopardized, I cannot recall a single circumstance where a safety bulletin has been more specific than a warning to “be safe and look out for one another” or to “keep far away from shrubbery or bushes.” One might argue against reporting sexual assault on the grounds that it would cause panic, but reminders to be vigilant and travel in pairs arguably do the same. More problematically, they reinforce an inaccurate narrative about sexual assault and fail to place the burden of responsibility on the potential perpetrator.
I can also say without a doubt that despite the university’s best efforts, there are still people on this campus who would be surprised to hear that sexual assault takes place in Antigonish on a regular basis. Whereas the occasional email might state that “sexual violence is real” or that “sexual violence happens at StFX,” the failure to respond to incidents of sexual assault influences a widespread impression that “it doesn’t happen here,” or if it does, that the university will not openly recognize its existence.
This concern is especially valid in light of charges filed against Behrang Foroughi, a former faculty member accused of sexually assaulting a colleague, and the Coady Institute’s use of Roger MacLellan’s taxi service. StFX is not immune from the pervasiveness of sexualized violence, and pretending to be otherwise serves to undermine its efforts to overcome this culture.
I would challenge the university to consider the potential consequences of staying quiet about cases of sexualized violence on campus. A Sipping the Tea presentation in frosh week and the availability of BITB and positive space training are simply insufficient in reaching an entire campus of individuals with very different understandings of sexualized violence.
We need to strike a balance regarding the obligation to report, one that respects people’s privacy while simultaneously being accountable to the broader community. The proposed biannual reports present a good opportunity for improvement, but as of right now they are no guarantee. A monthly report would do more to emphasize the significance of the issue, plus I would argue for the inclusion of disclosures to the Health Centre in any public report.
My particular view, however, is largely beside the point. It is more important that we stay cognizant of the fact that we have a right to know what is happening on our campus, especially as it pertains to such a widespread and toxic culture of violence, and a right to demand the university’s accountability in addressing this broader culture. Surely this is not an insensitive ask.