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Report on university campus sexual violence calls for culture change

Last Updated Dec 15, 2017 at 6:00 pm EDT

HALIFAX – A new report is calling on Nova Scotia’s 10 universities to set up additional programs to prevent sexual violence on campus, just weeks after high-profile sexual assault charges were laid at one school.

“Nova Scotia universities, like universities in other jurisdictions, have had incidents of sexual assaults,” said Dianne Taylor-Gearing, president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

“Sexual assault in any form, in any number, is simply unacceptable.”

The 72-page report released Friday explores the root causes of sexual violence, saying it is linked to issues such as gender inequality, confusion about consent, and a prevailing “rape culture” that still exists on campus.

The document defines rape culture as an environment where “male violence is legitimized and normalized in society through victim blaming, denial of sexual violence, stigmatization and the sexual objectification of women.”

Its findings focus on “shifting the culture in which sexual violence exists” and calls on universities to develop sexual violence prevention plans, consent education, training to respond to disclosures of sexual assault and bystander programs.

“The report is an up front and frank acknowledgment of sexual violence and the societal influences of power and privilege,” said committee co-chairwoman Ava Czapalay, who co-authored the study for the Council of Nova Scotia University Presidents.

“We appreciate that this is being released during a time when sexual harassment and sexual violence is being extensively reported in the media.”

Last month, two varsity football players at St. Francis Xavier University were charged with sexual assault with allegations against a third student surfacing earlier this month._

The report notes that university frosh weeks, which often include excessive alcohol consumption, misogynist attitudes and hyper-sexuality, send a message to students that sexual violence is accepted.

Peter Ricketts, president and vice chancellor of Acadia University, said the school included sexual violence education and awareness about responsible alcohol use in its orientation week this fall.

But he acknowledged that “it’s not enough” and that more needs to be done to prevent sexual violence.

The Wolfville, N.S., university is working on developing a stand-alone sexual violence policy, Ricketts said.

Advanced Education Minister Labi Kousoulis said half the province’s universities have already developed stand-alone sexual violence policies, while the other half are expected to comply by 2018.

He said the report, entitled Changing the Culture of Acceptance, should be required reading across the province.

“What really struck home to me is it spoke about an attitude change,” he said. “I felt it went beyond universities and that every Nova Scotian should read the report.”

The Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students said that although the report calls for changes students have long advocated for, there is no accountability to ensure the recommendations are implemented.

“Students are concerned there is no accountability if institutions fail to implement these recommendations,” said chairperson Aidan McNally. “This report does not include timelines, it does not include any recourse for institutions that fail to prioritize this work.”

She said the province should have mandated sexual violence policies with legislation, as in other provinces.

However, Students Nova Scotia called the report a “step in the right direction.”

“The survivor centered, intersectional approach of this report challenges institutions to ensure policies and procedures and to provide necessary supports for students,” said Annie Sirois, chairperson of StudentsNS, in an emailed statement.

“We believe that these recommendations form a strong first step to changing campus culture and preventing sexual violence.”

Johannah May Black with the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre and Sexual Assault Services Association said bystander training is key to preventing sexual violence.

Instead of putting the responsibility on young women to “watch out for each other,” she said bystander education training creates a culture where people will step in and help prevent sexual violence.

“It’s about stepping in when we see something, checking in with our friends, shutting down sexist or misogynist comments,” Black said. “It teaches people to stand up when they see something wrong and to intervene.”

The sexual violence prevention committee is made up of representatives from the provincial government, universities, student groups and community agencies.

Its recommendations follow up on the province’s first report on addressing sexual violence, called Breaking the Silence, released in 2015.