Staying Safe at College and University: Reporting Sexual Assault

Staying Safe at College and University: Reporting Sexual Assault

Attending a post-secondary institution can be one of the most exciting, rewarding, and memorable periods in a person’s life. Unfortunately, it also has the potential to be memorable for all the wrong reasons.

A 2018 survey of more than 160,000 Ontario university students revealed 23% of respondents reported a non-consensual sexual experience. In 2020, Statistics Canada reported that 7 in 10 post-secondary students had “witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours in a postsecondary setting” during the previous year and that one in ten (11%) students who identified as women reported experiencing a sexual assault in a post-secondary setting in the previous year. Other research has estimated that one in five women will experience a sexual assault during their time in post-secondary education.

Despite the shockingly high prevalence of sexual assaults among students at college or university, only a small minority of sexual assault survivors (6 to 10%) choose to speak about the incident with someone associated with the school (a professor, peer support group, student service) or its administration.

There are many reasons why someone may not want to report an assault. Some survivors and victims of sexual assault cite a mistrust of how the school would handle the situation. These fears are not unfounded: there are many highly publicized cases of post-secondary schools covering up reports of sexual assaults or being unsupportive of survivors.

In this blog post, we outline some research about when and where sexual assaults are more likely to occur in post-secondary settings. We explain how colleges and universities promote safety or take action when an assault is reported, and we conclude with some information about a survivor's legal rights.

Attitudes About Unwanted Sexual Behaviour in Post-Secondary Environments.

For students attending post-secondary institutions, witnessing sexualized behaviour is common. When this behaviour — both wanted and unwanted — is pervasive in such an environment, it “can be indicative of a larger culture in which sexualized behaviours create an atmosphere of fear, disrespect, and inequality based on gender and sexuality—all of which can have negative consequences for those at whom these behaviours are directed, and for others.”

The way people view sexual behaviour influences their reactions towards it. This includes their thoughts on appropriateness and consent. These perceptions are influenced by personal experiences and observations.

Statistics Canada’s Survey on Individual Safety in the Postsecondary Student Population (SISPSP) determined that a significant number of respondents displayed beliefs and attitudes based on myths about sexual behaviour or which were dismissive of people who objected to certain behaviours.

There were also notable differences along gender lines. For example, students who identified as men were approximately twice as likely as those who identified as women to agree or strongly agree with statements such as “people get too offended by sexual comments, jokes or gestures,” (40% to 22%) and “accusations of sexual assault are often used by one person as a way to get back at the other person” (23% to 12%).

Negative and disrespectful environments can increase the likelihood of sexual violence and sexual misconduct and discourage survivors from reporting it. This is because they fear punishment, exclusion, blame, or shame.

Where, When, How and With Whom Are Sexual Assaults in Post-Secondary Environments Most Likely To Occur?

Sexual assaults can happen at any time and in any place. However, research suggests that sexual assaults within post-secondary frequently share some common characteristics:

  • Many on-campus assaults occur within what experts refer to as the “Red Zone”: the first two months of the school year, especially within the first two weeks which include orientation and welcome weeks
  • Four out of five survivors knew the person committing the sexual assault
  • One in three survivors were either unable to consent at all, or did not provide consent to a certain sexual act after previously consenting to a different type of sexual activity
  • Other people were present and/or witnessed the incident in about two-thirds of incidents involving unwanted sexual touching, and one-third of incidents where a survivor could not consent to sexual activity due to being intoxicated, drugged, manipulated or forced in another non-physical way
  • Eight in 10 women and seven in ten men who reported being sexually assaulted said at least one such assault occurred off-campus
  • Most on-campus sexual assaults occur in non-residential locations, often on-campus restaurants or bars
  • The vast majority of sexual assault perpetrators are other students. However, in cases where the perpetrator had formal power over the survivor, women were more likely than men to be sexually assaulted
  • Among sexual assault survivors who identify as women, 9 in 10 reported the perpetrator was a man.
  • Among sexual assault survivors who identify as men, 6 in 10 reported the perpetrator was a woman and 1 in 10 reported the perpetrators involved a combination of women and men.

What Responsibilities Do Post-Secondary Institutions Have?

Less than a decade ago, only 9 out of 78 Canadian universities had stand-alone sexual assault policies. In a 2016 article exploring Ontario’s recently implemented Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act (Supporting Survivors and Challenging Sexual Violence and Harassment), Carleton University professor Dawn Moore suggested post-secondary institutions had been loath to report incidents involving their campus community before being required by statute:

“As we witness the increasing corporatization of universities and colleges, this reticence is unsurprising. Institutional reluctance to take stock of rates of sexual violence on campus is a risk management strategy that also bleeds into concerns about marketing, funding, and donations:

People are worried about creating a system that would make it easier for students to report sexual violence. No institution wants to be known as a so-called “rape campus.” Such a label would not only force an institution to take responsibility for and actively manage the risks its members face—it also looks bad from the point of view of potential donors and recruits.”

The Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act required that all government-funded post-secondary institutions:

  • Develop (with input from students) sexual violence policies that adhere to statutory regulations, including a process for responding to sexual violence involving students.
  • Review these policies at least once every three years.

Post-secondary institutions were also mandated to collect and provide certain information to the Minister of Colleges and Universities. This information includes:

  • The number of times supports, services and accommodation relating to sexual violence are requested and obtained by students enrolled at the college or university, and information about the supports, services and accommodation.
  • Any initiatives and programs established by the college or university to promote awareness of the supports and services available to students.
  • The number of incidents and complaints of sexual violence reported by students, and information about such incidents and complaints.
  • The implementation and effectiveness of the policy.

While mandating these institutions to develop and implement sexual violence policies and collect information about complaints is a step forward from non-existent policies, critics have suggested the absence of province-wide minimum standards and broad input from experts, frontline workers and survivors will lead to a patchwork of policies that may not be trauma- informed.

For example, threats of discipline and questions about a survivor’s sexuality or sexual history tantamount to implicit or even explicit victim shaming suppressed reporting.

It is unconscionable that some members of post-secondary administrations who were receiving disclosures and complaints did not have the training and resources to handle these situations in ways that would not further harm a survivor who chose to come forward. Nevertheless, this was occurring — in 2021, the provincial government updated its regulations to ensure complainants would no longer face potential discipline under drug or underage alcohol use policies for coming forward, nor be asked questions about their sexual history.

Moreover, prohibitions on information sharing (even aggregate data) within many of these policies make it difficult, if not impossible, for complainants to know if post-secondary institutions are following through on their reports and investigations.

In sum, the previous reluctance among post-secondary institutions to encourage and report disclosures, the continued sense among members of the campus community that many institutions only pay “lip service” to prevention and education, and campus cultures which are dismissive of notions of unwanted sexualized behaviour all combine to dissuade many survivors from reporting incidents to these institutions, despite provincial legislation mandating sexual violence policies.

What Alternatives Do Post-Secondary Sexual Assault Survivors Have?

Student groups and their supporters are still working to create a culture of consent on campuses nationwide. This type of culture will not only help to prevent sexual assaults and unwanted sexualized behaviour, but foster conditions that could make survivors feel safer if they choose to report an incident to their school.

Whether sexual violence occurs in a post-secondary environment or elsewhere, survivors must be empowered to take control in the aftermath of an assault. A trauma-informed perspective would provide support for survivors while removing any pressure on them to follow a specific path or timeline following these assaults.

As sexual abuse and sexual assault lawyers with a practice focused on sexual assault cases, we welcome an opportunity to speak with survivors about their legal rights and the legal remedies available to them whenever they are ready. From making a police report, to reporting an incident to a post-secondary institution, to filing a complaint with a professional regulatory body, to making a civil claim for damages, there are many ways for survivors to seek a sense of justice for the harm done to them.

In a civil lawsuit, for example, a survivor may be able to seek damages from a post-secondary institution if its negligent actions or inaction caused or contributed to a situation where a sexual assault took place.

If you or a loved one has experienced a sexual assault while in a post-secondary school environment (both on- and off-campus) and you need independent legal information or advice, please contact our sexual assault legal team at Jellinek Ellis Gluckstein Lawyers to discuss your sexual assault claim, for a no cost, no obligation initial consultation. With great empathy and sensitivity, we will listen to your story, answer your questions, and outline your options.


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