Almost half of Western students in residence have completed a unique training program to understand and prevent gender-based and sexual violence – with all residence students scheduled to finish the training in the next six weeks.
The innovative approach entails a one-hour, information-based online module, plus candid 90-minute small-group sessions intended to challenge common values and beliefs about sex and consent.
“We’re taking the issue beyond understanding consent and how to offer support as a bystander,” said Terry McQuaid, Western’s director of student wellness and well-being and co-chair of the university’s action committee on gender-based and sexual violence (GBSV).
“In the facilitated discussions, we’re bringing to the surface some really difficult conversations about gender roles and healthy relationships. We’re challenging stereotypes of sex and gender, sharing real-world scenarios, equipping them with the tools and language to deal with issues such as different expectations of sex and how to handle rejection,” McQuaid said.
The combination of these two elements makes this program unique, she added.
Strengthening campus safety
Mandatory training for first-year students in residence – with the goal of extending training to everyone on campus – is part of Western’s commitment to address GBSV and strengthen safety on campus.
The survivor-centric program content was developed in consultation with multiple stakeholders: students, survivors, violence-prevention teams in residence and across campus, the Western-based Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children (CREVAWC) and Anova, a London, Ont.-based agency devoted to supporting survivors and changing the root causes of gender-based violence.
The first part of the mandatory training is an hour-long module to deepen students’ understanding of violence, safety, policies and reporting pathways, said CREVAWC manager Maly Bun-Lebert.
It’s an adaptation of a program CREVAWC, a national leader in violence prevention, has developed for responding to disclosures of sexual violence on campus.
“Our centre has been working collaboratively in this space for seven years and has created evidence-based training used at colleges and universities across Canada,” Bun-Lebert said.
But that’s just a start.
Cultivating discomfort and change
“Gaining knowledge – knowing the right answer to what consent is, for example – is not the biggest issue. Behaviour change requires much more: challenging our values and beliefs and what we’ve been taught is normal,” said Annalise Trudell, manager of education, training and research for Anova.
The agency led the development of the small-group sessions – which include frank conversations about verbal and non-verbal signs of consent, how much alcohol is too much, unpacking the sexual ‘scripts’ we have in society and how they set up harmful expectations and behaviour, exploring what our own desires are outside of those scripts, and normalizing rejection while offering healthy ways to manage it.
“We know we’re leading students to a place of some discomfort and pushback – and that’s a good thing because that brings about change,” Trudell said.
“We’re looking at skill-building and exploring difficult questions. This isn’t a math quiz and it’s not a checkmark in a box. In spite of good consent education over the past many years that has focused on giving students the knowledge of what consent is, we haven’t seen significant behaviour change – sexual violence continues. That’s because we need to go deeper, to the values and beliefs that inform how we behave sexually. Discomfort challenges people to think and act differently. It shifts social culture.”
While the sessions would ideally take place in person, they have been effective as facilitated Zoom sessions, Trudell said, with many positive comments, including from survivor participants.
One participant has even approached Anova to say he and some friends are keen to fund-raise for the agency.
CREVAWC academic director Katreena Scott said the two parts of the training – the module and interpersonal session – work in tandem with each other. “It’s important that people have information on how to change their behaviour. It’s just as important to provide them the opportunity to develop skills to change their behaviour.”
CLICK FOR EXCERPTS OF STUDENT FEEDBACK
- “I liked how important topics are being taught to us, and the fact that it’s mandatory makes sure that everyone is aware of these situations.”
- “This training makes me feel safer within the Western community knowing that my peers are required to be educated on this and understand the consequences of their improper actions without being able to use the excuse of being ‘under-educated’ or ‘not knowing what they did was wrong.'”
- “Y’all did great! I thought this session was a breath of fresh air compared to ‘be careful, don’t take drinks from strangers.’”
- “It was engaging and as someone who is a part of the LGBTQIA2S+ Community, I felt like my voice was heard and I am valuable.”
- “I was prepared to skip through this training as fast as possible and just get it over with, because schoolwork keeps me busy and I didn’t feel like I had time for it. But this training was way better than I thought it would be…I actually cried when I was listening to one of the case studies and had to take a break. Not because it was too much to handle or triggering, because the module handled these topics with surprising grace, but just because I hadn’t thought about a lot of this stuff before.”
- “I just wanted to say thank you. This felt so non-judgmental and I loved how you answered questions in a way that did not make it seem as if someone was silly for not knowing the answer.”
- “It encouraged me to think about times that I experienced sexual violence and never recognized that it was not okay or normal.”
- “I never replied to rejection in a bad way, it I always took it personally. My outlook on rejection has shifted since the presentation.”
- “I now know some ways to ask for consent and am aware of some sexual violence acts.”
Partnership with experts
Training facilitators are drawn from Anova and CREVAWC.
About 4,500 of Western’s 5,400 students in residence have finished the online module, which can be done independently and includes a test of knowledge.
About 2,000 of those students have gone on to participate in the second part, the facilitated small-group sessions which began in mid-January.
All residence students are expected to have completed both sessions by mid-March.
Western has taken seriously the concerns of students and the broader community, which is why it has drawn in so many partners and experts, including survivors, Scott said.“Western is part of London and what happens at Western also happens across the city, so we wanted and needed a broad base of consultation.”
Employee training to start in February
Training for students in residence is part of a comprehensive GBSV prevention training program Western is instituting across campus.
Employee training will start in early February, McQuaid said, with the goal of having employees complete the learning by April 30.
This new online module, Supporting Disclosures of Gender-based and Sexual Violence has been developed by Human Resources, in consultation with Student Experience, the Human Rights Office, Western’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children (CREVAWC) and Western’s Gender-Based and Sexual Violence Action Committee co-chairs.
The module is required training for all employees, takes about 25-minutes to complete, and serves as an introduction to GBSV and includes guidance on receiving a disclosure from a student or colleague and the expected follow-up steps as per Western’s policy. More information about this training will be shared with employees later this week.
Meanwhile, other students have been asking to participate in training, and those opportunities will also be available once training for students in residence is completed and evaluated.
“This is not a one-and-done. We envision moving this out across campus and across multiple years throughout students’ learning at Western,” McQuaid said.
A suite of safety measures
The training is part of a suite of measures Western has undertaken to strengthen student safety on campus. They include:
- An independent review by Nathalie Des Rosiers and Sonya Nigam of the events and allegations of gender-based and sexual violence that took place on Sept. 10-11. An invitation to share information and feedback was sent to all students and employees on Jan. 26, with in-person and virtual interviews already underway.
- An action committee on GBSV with cross-campus representation to study student safety and sexual violence issues on campus and make recommendations for changing the culture.
- A partnership between Western and the Regional Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Treatment Program of St. Joseph’s Health Care London to provide additional support on campus to students who have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence, with 24/7 services as needed.
- Boosting the number of residence health and safety advisors to 100, to work overnight shifts, provide educational conversations, address and document behaviour, and escalate concerns as necessary.
- Adding 15 more on-campus security guards, including evening patrols in and around residences, working alongside Western Special Constable Service.
If you need help now:
Western’s survivor-focused supports for those affected by sexual violence include a dedicated gender-based violence and survivor support case manager (519-661-3568 or email firstname.lastname@example.org). Survivors have support options, including disclosure, filing a complaint and/or requesting support.
In emergency situations, Western’s Special Constable Service and St. Joseph’s Health Care Regional Sexual Assault Program (519-646-6100 x64224) are available 24/7, or a call to 9-1-1 connects to London police, fire or paramedic services. Those visiting St. Joseph’s Hospital’s Urgent Care Centre should ask to speak to the nurse on-call for sexual assault/domestic violence.
Anova also operates a 24/7 support and crisis line at 519-642-3000.