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What Are We Working With? Looking At Concordia’s Policies

In the wake of an amazing workshop with organizers from SAFER, we sat down to a thorough examination of the policies and services that currently exist at Concordia to provide support for survivors of sexual assault.

While we knew the situation was bad – we did lots of research and education on the situation at Concordia before launching our campaign this summer – it can still be entirely daunting to actually sit down and look at how bad the situation is in black and white. Still, it’s important to take the time to break this down, so that we can be clear about where we’re coming from and what we’re working with.

Leaving aside an analysis of existing and potential services for now, let’s focus on Concordia’s sexual assault policy. Actually, calling it a sexual assault policy is somewhat misleading; Concordia University does not have a policy that specifically and comprehensively addresses sexual assault. If you go to the University’s website and do a search for “sexual assault”, no policies come up in the first two pages. It took us a while to actually track down where sexual assault is addressed at all in Concordia’s policies.

What we did eventually find was a section of the Code of Rights And Responsibilities – the document that guides and governs students’ behavior at Concordia – that addresses sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is defined in Article 28, section b) of the Code of Rights and Responsibilities as:

… a form of harassment which involves conduct of a sexual nature such as, but not limited to, sexual assault, verbal abuse or threats of a sexual nature, unwelcome sexual invitations or requests, demands for sexual favours or unwelcome and repeated innuendoes or taunting about a Member’s body or appearance when:

i. submission to such conduct is made, whether explicitly or implicitly, a term or condition of the Member’s employment or educational progress; or

ii. submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for an employment or academic decision affecting that Member; or

iii. such conduct has the effect or purpose of unreasonably interfering with a Member’s right to pursue his/her work, study or other activities related to University life in a safe and civil manner or of creating an intimidating or hostile environment for such activities.

A single serious incidence of such behavior may constitute harassment if it has the same consequences and if it produces a lasting harmful effect on the Member.

For the record, this is the only place where the words “sexual assault” appear in this policy – or, in fact, in any policy at Concordia, and it only appears here to conflate sexual assault with sexual harassment. There is no section of this policy that addresses sexual assault on it’s own; the term “sexual assault” has no place in the list of prohibited behaviors at Concordia University. Sexual assault is only prohibited insofar as it is considered to be under the umbrella of sexual harassment, and as such is so buried in policy as to be completely inaccessible to students.

Let’s break this down. What does the Code mean when it specifies that in order to constitute harassment, the incidence must have a “lasting harmful effect on the Member”?

Fortunately, the Office of Rights and Responsibilities has a website which provides some clarification. On the subject of defining harassment, they have this to say:

The definitions of these offenses consist of two parts: the kind of behavior in question, and the impact of that behavior on you.

-Kind: it must be unwanted, vexatious, and without valid reason.

-Impact: it must be damaging in some way, causing you to suffer some disadvantage related to your physical or psychological well-being or your activities on campus.

In other words, it is not enough to be momentarily offended by some unpleasant remark or gesture by some stranger in the hallway. If you want to file a formal complaint, the behavior must be more persistent or serious than that.

This is disturbing, primarily because it sets up a scenario in which simply being the victim of a crime is not reason enough to seek accountability; the focus of the policy is not on the behavior itself, but rather the target’s emotional reaction to the behavior. This is a dangerous, dangerous way to approach cases of harassment and sexual assault – not only because individual reactions to these things are highly variable, and interpreting someone’s emotions is incredibly subjective, but because it capitalizes on the way most cases of sexual assault and harassment are treated in mainstream justice systems and in the media: putting the survivor on trial rather than the perpetrator, by focusing on their reaction to the assault (where they upset enough? can they prove there was sufficient trauma?) and even whether or not they “contributed” to their assault (never mind that assault and harassment are, by definition, both “unwanted” and “without valid reason”).

It is discouraging to see rape culture so clearly spelled out in our university’s own policies. As we were reviewing these definitions, someone jokingly said, “Gee, I wonder why people aren’t reporting!”

Let’s take a brief break to look at reporting statistics at Concordia. The Office of Rights and Responsibilities releases an annual report that analyzes the statistics on all the complaints received by the office. The most recent year for which a report is available is the 2009-2010 academic year. They break down complaints by the behavior described in the complaint:

Code offense (alleged) / Quantity / Percentage
Discrimination and/or Discriminatory Harassment (art. 18.1) / 7 / 3%
Harassment, including Psychological Harassment (art. 18.3) / 70 / 34%
Sexual Harassment (art. 18.4) / 12 / 6%
Threatening or Violent Conduct (art. 18.5) / 33 / 16%
Property Offences (art. 18.6) / 2 / 1%
Disruptive Behaviour (art. 18.12) / 32 / 15%
Residence related Issues / 6 / 3%
Urgent Cases / 3 / 1%
Other University Issues / 36 / 17%
Other non-University Issues / 8 / 4%
Total / 209† / 100
†Note: As some requests for assistance allege more than one Code offence the number of
alleged offences (209) is greater than the number of cases and consultations (193).

12 cases over the course of an academic year, for a school the size of Concordia’s, is incredibly unusual, and indicates that only a very small minority of cases are actually being reported. At the University of Alberta, a school with roughly the same population size as Concordia, their Sexual Assault Centre claims to see an average of 200 cases of sexual assault and/or harassment per year. Clearly there is a significant disparity here. It would be completely illogical to conclude that Concordia, despite having no school-sponsored primary prevention or even any real risk reduction initiatives going on on a regular basis, just sees less cases of sexual violence and harassment than the University of Alberta (a school with a fully staffed Sexual Assault Centre that runs roughly 60 primary prevention workshops per year); it’s clear that the disparity comes from the fact that students at Concordia simply are not reporting cases of sexual violence and harassment.

And frankly, given the language on the website of their own Office of Rights and Responsibilities – not to mention the sheer inaccessibility of the policies that govern their lives at Concordia – can anyone blame them? Looking again to the ORR’s website, we found this passage in what what supposed to be (presumably) a description of what a student can expect when filing a formal complaint:

In order to sustain a formal complaint under the Code of Rights and Responsibilities, that impact of the behavior on you must have a certain weight: You must show that you have suffered disadvantages that others have not, or that your work or study was affected […] If you are thinking of filing a complaint, the Advisor will explain in detail what the process involves. It is important to understand that once you choose this route, you have entered into an adversarial process where others decide the outcome. This is very different from a situation where you deal with the problem yourself, or negotiate a solution with the other party.

Yikes! Not the most encouraging words to someone who has possibly just experienced a crime in which their choice and control was violently taken away from them, is it? This description makes it clear that once you “choose” a formal complaint process, not only will the process itself be “adversarial”, it will be entirely out of your control. Naturally, it closes with a subtle hint that maybe you’d be better off just resolving the problem yourself.

And this is where students who have been assaulted or harassed are supposed to go to for support?

I should clarify at this point that at least all consultations with the ORR are confidential, although I couldn’t find any indication that students have the option of filing anonymous reports – as far as I can tell, this isn’t allowed under the Code of Rights and Responsibilities. Health Services also allows for confidential reporting, and maintains a procedural policy that forbids staff from taking any actions in the case of an assault without the express direction of the person reporting. While Health Services are far from perfect – we’ll talk about that in a later post – this is at least a better policy that Security’s, which mandates that Security officers automatically turn over any case of assault on-campus to the Montreal police, regardless of whether or not the survivor in question actually wants the police involved. Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done on an institutional level at Concordia when it comes to respecting survivor autonomy.

So, to sum up:

  • In all of Concordia University’s policies, sexual assault is only ever mentioned once, in the Code of Rights and Responsibilities.
  • When sexual assault is mentioned, it is only mentioned insofar as to conflate it with sexual harassment.
  • This means that cases of sexual assault which are reported to the Office of Rights and Responsibilities – the only body which keeps public records of Code violations – they do not actually show up in reports as “sexual assault”, but rather as “sexual harassment”.
  • Even given this, reports falling into the “sexual harassment” category of the Code are far, far fewer than other Universities that are a) roughly the same size as Concordia, and b) invested in keeping accurate records of cases of sexual assaults among their student body.
  • In addition to the Code of Rights and Responsibilities, different departments/services at Concordia have their own procedural policies for dealing with cases of assault, some of which directly contradict each other in places.
  • Much that is written about policies and procedures – on Security’s website, on the website of the Office of Rights and Responsibilities – repeats victim-blaming rhetoric and appears to discourage students from reporting/filing formal complaints.
  • The procedures followed by the ORR in actually dealing with formal complaints seems disturbingly rooted in an institutionalized suspicion of survivors, and hinges not on whether or not an assault actually took place, but on the emotional reaction of the survivor to their assault.

Clearly there’s a lot of work to be done! The good news is, we have a growing group of volunteers dedicated to working on this, and we’ve made significant connections to other local and international orgs with experience in enacting policy and service reform at universities. If you’re interested in getting involved and helping make Concordia a safer place for everyone, you can get in touch with us at sexualhealth (at) centre2110.org; campaign meetings take place every other Thursday, at 5:30 PM.


About lauraellyn

I'm a writer.


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