After more than a decade of pressure from women and student groups, the University of British Columbia has decided to stop allowing a panel of students decide whether or not a sexual assault has occurred.
A revised draft of the university's sex assault policy reviewed by VICE says that "individual, highly-trained, trauma-informed investigators" will now handle all sex assault complaints against students, staff, and faculty.
The policy change marks a departure from the way many Canadian universities deal with campus assault. The new plan is up for discussion in a board of governors meeting tomorrow.
As recently as August 2016, sexual assault complaints against UBC students were handled under the school's non-academic misconduct process, which critics say is primarily designed for in-residence infractions like graffiti or theft.
Advocates say students are not equipped to judge the sexual misconduct of their peers, because duh. Young people are generally prone to making bad decisions in their own lives, why would we put potentially criminal assault cases in their hands, too?
For student Stephanie Hale, who says she was raped in a UBC dorm in 2013, this process was "the most damaging part of this entire experience." On a GoFundMe page to cover legal fees, Hale said she refused to participate in the flawed system.
"I would be put on the stand and questioned by my peers, a group of students without any training whatsoever in the matters of sexual assault," she wrote. "I would not be given the outcome of the hearing."
The trial went on without Hale as a witness in November 2016. UBC has not released the decision.
The Canadian Federation of Students has been saying this is a bad idea for just over a decade. CFS president Bilan Arte told VICE that internal investigations judged by peers can be "extremely traumatizing" for complainants. "Since 2006 we've had a stance against internal processes, in particular those that set up internal committees—like this one made of peers—in favour of third-party investigators."
Arte says it's important to have investigators that can act independently of the institution, and are trained in sexual violence. "For the most part institutions try to keep these things internal, which in a lot of ways creates a culture of silence."
Arte says internal investigations like these show administrators value the institution's reputation over the safety of students. Complainants are often put on the spot to tell their side of the story in front of classmates and people they know socially, sometimes with perpetrators present.
UBC's complaint process can take anywhere from six months to two years, and critics say results have been inconsistent and often favour perpetrators.
In a submission to university counsel last fall, UBC's student union found there were zero expulsions for sexual assault between 2004 and 2014. For comparison, there were 257 students expelled for plagiarism over the same period, and 53 over the 2013-14 school year alone.
Glynnis Kirchmeier, a former UBC student who has filed a human rights complaint over the handling of her sexual assault case, says that criticism of the non-academic misconduct process stretch as far back as 1990. In one case, students joked about the amount of disciplinary points student panels might assign for rape and murder.
Advocates told VICE even though this kind of change has been a long time in the making, universities still have a long way to go. BC's provincial government has required all schools bring in a stand-alone sexual assault policy by May of this year.
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