Sexual-assault task force calls for anonymous reporting system on campuses

Article and Photo from Globe and Mail



A “third-party” reporting mechanism on campus will be one of 10 recommendations to come later this spring from the Western Canada Sexual Assault Initiative, a group of four provincial sexual-assault response centres that is funded by the federal government. Its guidelines will be considered in a report the B.C. government is drafting in preparation for legislation that would establish rules for postsecondary institutions on how to handle campus assaults.

Police forces in British Columbia, parts of Ontario and Yukon already use the system. Those familiar with it say it has identified repeat perpetrators while protecting individual victims.

“It’s another option to be able to track serial predators. We know offenders do not tend to act a single time,” said Kim Regehr, case manager at the Niagara Region Sexual Assault Centre, which has used the system for many years.

Ms. Regehr said a report the centre’s staff submitted to Niagara’s police force identified a serial offender and prevented him from receiving bail. “There’s a public interest in having this in place,” she said.

Only a small fraction of sexual violence on campus is reported. Schools say students who come forward are often more interested in accessing counselling and accommodation services than in filing formal reports. Without a formal report, offenders are unlikely to face sanctions.

A Globe and Mail investigation found that, on average, 10 per cent of complaints of harassment go on to a formal investigation. Many instances of harassment are considered part of a continuum of sexual violence that can include unwanted advances, touching or assault.

In a system of third-party reporting, a counsellor enters information about an incident into a database with the consent of the victim, who does not have to provide their name. The information could be shared with police, who also never have the victim’s identity. Should similar actions occur, the school or the police could connect the cases and have a better chance of apprehending the perpetrator.

“The most important aspect is that when a woman engages with a third party to report, that person is somebody who has the skills and ability to provide them with emotional and psychological support,” said Tracy Porteous, the executive director of Ending Violence BC, one of the four groups that has drafted the guidelines.

“That person is somebody who knows what their options are, who knows what they’re going through, who can help them with accessing [academic] accommodations,” she said.

EVBC worked with sexual assault associations in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The group will recommend campus policies on sexual violence that are separate from other codes of conduct, clear lines of responsibility for administrators, and common definitions of harassment and assault.

Ontario passed a bill on sexual violence in March. At the time, many universities told the government the new legislation could infringe on victims’ confidentiality.

“There is great potential for [third-party reporting] to be a big problem solver in this space between not compelling a student who feels she does not want this information to be taken forward, but also being able to have a handle on the numbers,” Ms. Porteous said.

The task force has consulted with Ontario colleges and universities, which said developing a database and software for a third-party system would take some time. Such a tool is on the market in the United States. Those who have used third-party reporting say it gives survivors back a sense of control. If a case similar to theirs shows up, the initial counsellor can ask the survivor if they are willing to talk to the police.

“People feel badly for not reporting, but there are so many reasons why they may not do that,” Ms. Regehr said. “So how could you convince someone to report? This way, they can choose to come forward at a later date.”