After a two-year effort, the University of Prince Edward Island has adopted a sexual violence policy that will allow students, faculty and staff to report sexual assaults through a confidential process.
According to the policy, administration of the university can carry out an internal investigation of incidents of sexual violence. These investigations would be independent of any investigation by law enforcement and would remain confidential.
Jackie Podger, the university’s vice-president of administration and finance, said the sexual violence policy will also serve as a public education tool. The policy formally defines terms such as “rape culture” (“a culture which normalizes, trivializes, and excuses sexual violence”) and “consent” as part of official university regulation.
Podger said universities in Canada have been increasingly adopting similar policies in recent years.
“Sexual assaults were occurring and have been occurring on campuses and universities felt that they really needed a policy to reinforce how they were going to deal with these sexual violence episodes,” she said.
The university now defines sexual violence as “any sexual act, or an act targeting a person’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression, whether the act is physical or psychological in nature, which is committed, threatened or attempted against a person without that person’s consent.”
Under this definition, sexual harassment, as well as sexual assault, would be considered sexual violence.
Consequences for faculty and staff who are found to have carried out an incident of sexual violence can vary, depending upon whether the employee is unionized, what policies exist in their collective agreement and the exact circumstances of the incident.
Consequences for students found to have committed an incident of sexual violence can also vary widely but could include suspension or even expulsion.
Podger said the number of sexual assaults reported at UPEI in recent years have been “on the low side.”
The university recently hired a new coordinator to implement the policy and to oversee campus wide training on how to respond to complaints of sexual violence.
The UPEI Student Union, which helped develop the policy, issued a statement applauding its approval by the university’s board of governors.
The union said it was pleased to see a defined guide of how to disclose or report sexual violence. But the union also suggested the policy could also include anonymous complaint options, the establishment of an independent appeal committee and further sensitivity training for all staff involved in the complaint process.
The union also criticized the university administration for approving the policy during a confidential, in-camera meeting.
“The motion to approve the policy was moved in-camera, which the UPEISU feels demonstrates a lack of transparency on the part of the university,” read the statement.
Podger said the meeting was held in-camera to allow the university’s human resources personnel to freely discuss the ramifications of the policy with the university board.
"The board is the ultimate authority who passes these policies, so they need to understand all parts of the policies and agree to them," Podger said.
Holland College adopted its own sexual assault policy in January of 2017. According to Brian Lambert, the quality coordinator for the college, it was adopted after the Ontario government began mandating public colleges to develop sexual assault policies.