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Is UBC's new sexual assault policy enough?

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In response to national attention over their mishandling of sexual assault complaints, the University of British Columbia has released the first draft of their stand-alone sexual assault policy. However, there are questions over whether it can adequately deal with the systemic problem.

UBC's policy will also have far reaching impacts as British Columbia recently passed Bill-23, the Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy Act requiring public post-secondary institutions to have these policies. As one of the first to develop such a policy in the province, UBC could set a precedent for other schools. 

Glynnis Kirchmeier has been vocally critical about the policy and how the university has previously dealt with complaints. She was a third-party complainant in the high-profile case against PhD history student Dmitry Mordvinov and has now filed a human rights complaint against UBC for how it mishandled these complaints.

"I feel like the actual execution has been disappointing and I feel like the people who are most motivated to be horrified over the university's conduct are also not necessarily the people who are making the decisions, so it's sort of a bad situation all around," she says of the policy.

Some of her concerns include the lack of consultation with former complainants, focus on protection for the university and inadequate prevention against retaliation. She also says that the policy should more explicitly state the rights of people involved in the complaint process.

"If it's in the policy then that's much better than having these rights squirreled away somewhere that people can’t find," she explains.

She says the biggest problem with the policy is that no new reporting or investigative process has been created. 

"They kept everything that caused the big public example that embarrassed them because the committee is chaired by two women who think that the policy worked," she says. 

However, Sara-Jane Finlay Associate Vice President of Equity and Inclusion and co-chair of the policy committee contends that the policy can't be written based on a non-existent process. She says new processes may be considered as part of the consultation process. 

The consultation process will continue until the end of September. There will also be information sessions at the Vancouver and Okanagan campuses and you can find information about giving feedback here

"I think this is an important opportunity to get input and feedback and to hear from our community and to regain some trust with our community in terms of our ability to respond to and become a leader in the response to sexual assault," says Finlay.

Kirchmeier notes there are some positive aspects to the policy including a commitment to gender-variant students. It also recognizes that balance of probability is standard and that people often disclose to those they trust.

But this might not be enough to save the policy. As part of her human rights complaints, Kirchmeier has created a vision statement of steps she would like to see the university take including policy recommendations. 

"There were a lot of indications that the university and our provisions might be closer together when this came out and that there'd be something to work with but when we go to the negotiating table like this policy is nowhere near workable," she says.

Sara-Jane Finlay says the policy plays an important role in setting out the values, principles and commitments of the university.   

"In some ways it's a starting point from which all of our other work is going to flow," she says.  

The policy is only able to address some of the problems on campus. There is also a consultation panel separate from the policy panel that has been consulting with community members and examining research. Dr. Lucia Lorenzi has written about her experience volunteering on the panel. Finlay says their report may impact the policy, education and action plan. 

C.J. Rowe, Diversity Advisor at Access and Diversity is on the sexual assault prevention team which is drafting a three-year education plan. It will be based on the 2015/2016 education plan as well as consultation with community members, student groups and experts.

But changing a culture of violence isn't easy. Rowe says developmental theory states it takes four generations of students to change campus culture. 

"There's no quick fixes. In order to change culture, we need to engage with culture on a continuous basis," she explains. "It's kind of like a universe. In order to do this work effectively, we just have to do so many different things and target so many different people because we know how people learn and they learn through campaigns and initiatives that actually relate to their lived experience." 

She also hopes that B.C. adopts some elements of Ontario's Bill 132, the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act. This includes recognition that rape culture is a part of people's ideological approaches before they reach university. Research shows that undergraduate students are most likely to experience sexual assault within the first eight weeks of school. 

"It's a cheesy analogy but I really believe that we're fish in water and the water is rape culture and we don't notice it because it's so much of our everyday practice," she says.

The problem of how universities like UBC are handling sexual assault is deep and complex. While there are some people at UBC doing good work it remains unclear how effective the new policy and initiatives will be. It is brave advocates like Glynnis Kirchmeier that are keeping institutions accountable despite the personal cost.  

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