Collaborative steps to improve safety and campus culture are driving new interim recommendations and long-term plans at Western, says a diverse group of advocates, all members of the university’s action committee on gender-based and sexual violence (GBSV).
“We need quick solutions, and we also need lasting solutions,” said kirstyn seanor, a member of the action committee on GBSV and president of Western’s Society of Graduate Students (SOGS).
Seanor is pleased with how the committee is drawing in the perspectives from many units across campus and in the broader community.
“With a complex issue like this it often takes a large team to collaborate, and everyone has been so willing to dig into the question of how we can do better.”
Meanwhile, the committee has asked, in an email, that all students and employees complete a climate survey to help the university understand their perspectives and experiences on campus.
The committee also sent a stakeholder survey to more than 30 community agencies and groups, including members of the London Coordinating Committee to End Woman Abuse.
Both surveys are intended to help the committee identify core issues, find solutions and determine how to measure success in preventing GBSV and supporting survivors.
“The bottom line is that there are many stakeholders involved in creating a safe campus culture and we have a shared understanding that this has to be a collaborative, co-ordinated, shared response,” said Terry McQuaid, Western’s director of student wellness and well-being and co-chair of the committee.
Ziyana Kotadia, vice president, university affairs, with the University Students’ Council (USC), said it’s crucial that student concerns lead the conversation. “This is important in a visceral way for students. It’s about safety and equity and we can’t say it loudly enough that these can’t be compromised.”
At the same time, she said, “there’s a recognition that we need our experts from Western and the greater London community to provide their views on how to accomplish this work.”
Action committee co-chair Nadine Wathen, professor and Canada Research Chair in Mobilizing Knowledge on Gender-based Violence, said each of the committee’s meetings so far, and the work underway between meetings, generated “excellent engagement” from graduate and undergraduate students, survivors, first responders, academics and various on- and off-campus partners.
“Students have been at the forefront, and we’ve been fortunate that student leaders are as strong and as committed as they are. They’ve played a vital lead role as we find connection points, share expertise and move forward in supporting survivors and changing the culture.”
Moving the needle
As the committee carries on its mandate, the university has taken a number of steps to combat GBSV, including mandatory training for first-year students in residence about GBSV, consent and sexual culture.
The survivor-centric program content was developed in consultation with many 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 university is taking a similar approach in developing mandatory training and programming for other students and for employees.
That includes some unique considerations for the roles graduate students play as educators, researchers and academics – people who both lead and follow in academia, said Danica Facca, SOGS vice-president, academic.
“We wear a number of hats, so our training can’t be lumped in with undergraduates or faculty and staff.”
Facca said conversations with the university and with the committee “have been meaningful and done with intention. If we’re all working together, the needle is going to move.”
In September 2021, Facca co-founded the Safe Campus Coalition to amplify concerns and solutions about GBSV at postsecondary institutions across Canada.
The coalition organized the walkout on University College Hill on Sept. 17, 2021. “For me, change started when students on our campus and the wider London community called for change, in the days leading up to the walkout, and when Western stakeholders publicly endorsed these efforts.”
Kotadia, who noted the USC has been doing a lot of anti-GBSV work with students throughout the year, added, “It was powerful to see so many students and community members stand in solidarity with survivors and see how much the university community cares about making safety a priority.”
The committee’s four interim recommendations emphasize that students should be prepared for a culture shift before they arrive at Western and throughout their time here.
Each interim recommendation includes several specific aims for implementation:
Prepare students and parents/caregivers for transition to campus
- Mandatory GBSV education modules by all incoming students before they arrive on campus, and in-person sessions once they are here
- Letters of admission to new students that articulate Western’s values specific to GBSV and a safe and inclusive campus
- Continue mandatory in-person, facilitated skill-building sessions for first-year students in residence to follow-up the online learning conducted in 2021-22 and make this available to all incoming first-year students.
Collaborative and coordinated process for hiring and training sophs and others providing guidance/peer mentorship to new students
- New training modules tailored for sophs and student mentors focused on GBSV, EDI and other aspects of student safety and well-being, developed in collaboration and consultation with the USC.
- SOGS and other relevant stakeholders to be consulted on aspects of training involving graduate students and, potentially, other groups of student mentors.
- CREVAWC and other partners to be consulted for content, evaluation strategies, etc.
- Western’s GBSV staff be included on soph/student leader recruitment, hiring and training committee(s).
Enhance residence support staff
- A redefined staffing model for support staff in residence so students have access to after-hours, professional support that’s beyond the capacity of a peer-led workforce.
Additional dedicated GBSV staff
- At least two additional anti-GBSV staff to the Student Experience portfolio to provide more supports for students, recognizing a more supportive community will initially result in more disclosures of sexual violence.
Western Acting President Sarah Prichard said the university welcomes the recommendations and looks forward to working with the community to move forward with implementation.
“I want to sincerely thank members of the action committee for their commitment to the safety of our community. We want everyone to feel a true sense of belonging here. Their work is an excellent example of what can happen when the campus community comes together to address an issue. We look forward to their final report in the spring, as well as the report from the independent reviewers.”
Facca said the interim recommendations send a clear message of the need for continued conversation, feedback and direct communication between students, staff and administration.
“Students coming from disparate places and cultures and educational settings need to know that when you come here, you will find that you are a valued member of the community and that you have responsibilities as well,” said Facca. “Especially when it comes to students coming to us straight out of high school; you’re an adult and you’re capable of making decisions as an autonomous person. The choices you make also have consequences.
“We’re not just setting the tone; we’re giving you the tools, people and resources so you have an understanding of safety and respect as you move through your program, through the university and through your life.”
The group expects to submit a written report with detailed findings and recommendations to the president’s office this spring. Implementation of recommendations will become the responsibility of a separate committee, Wathen and McQuaid said.
Meanwhile, independent reviewers examining policies and procedures following allegations of sexual violence during the period of Sept. 10 to 11 last year have been conducting in-person and virtual interviews over the past several weeks. They also invited the campus community to share feedback and information to them via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lawyer and academic Nathalie Des Rosiers, and anti-discrimination and anti-violence expert Sonya Nigam, who co-lead the investigation, are exploring events that happened on campus, off-campus and online during that September weekend and will identify gaps and outline recommendations for change.
Additional steps Western has taken so far to improve safety and campus culture include:
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 email@example.com). 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.