The dark side of Waterloo

Sexual assault is talked about. But what is being done to combat it?

Sexual assault is talked about. But what is being done to combat it? | Photo by Will Huang

In July, a Wilfrid Laurier University student was walking home along Bricker Avenue when she noticed a group of “belligerent” males walking behind her. It was 10:30 p.m. As she walked between two apartment buildings, the males followed her. They proceeded to push her against a wall. One ripped the side of her shirt off. She was able to kick one in the shin and run away.

She only told two people about the incident and didn’t report it.

“Because it’s not the first time it’s happened to me,” she explained. “And when I did tell someone, it blew up in my face.”

Over the past few years, discourse has begun to open up in society around sexual violence. Universities across the country are putting forth efforts to eradicate the stigma surrounding sexual assault and develop better protocols and policies. But incidents such as the one above continue to happen.

40% of 570 WLU students surveyed experienced some form of sexual assault

 

According to the Criminal Offence Summary put out by the Waterloo Regional Police Service, there were 19.1 per cent more sexual violations in 2014 as compared to 2013. In 2014, there were 453 reported cases of level 1 sexual assault, where assault is committed in circumstances of a sexual nature and the sexual integrity of the victim is violated. Of these cases, no adult females were charged; rather the largest demographic of persons charged were adult males.

Sarah Syrett said she doesn’t recall there being any talk about incidents involving sexual assault while she attended the University of Waterloo. She graduated in 2011 and said it was only after this point that she discovered the neighbourhood she had been living in as a student was referred to as “Rapeville.” However she never felt unsafe while on campus or when walking home.

“I’m sure it was happening,” she said in reference to sexual assaults. “It was definitely happening. But I think that just generally, we’re better at talking about those things now.”

While she attended Ryerson University for her first year, missing out on any orientation to UW, Syrett said the university didn’t address sexual violence in any form during her undergraduate career. Nor were friends or professors talking about it.

Carla Lopez graduated from Laurier in 2009. She and her female friends consciously made sure to always walk in groups.

“We just didn’t feel comfortable,” Lopez said. “There were those [emergency poles] that Special Constables put up and we knew there were those. But we knew people pranked them so we thought they wouldn’t take us seriously if something did happen on campus.”

She also didn’t trust using Foot Patrol as the volunteers were “just other students” who were sometimes younger. While she always felt safe while on campus, some nearby streets posed concerns.

“I think it was Noecker — for some reason it didn’t feel safe either,” she said. “At the time it was full of guys and frats. So we didn’t feel safe and I didn’t feel safe walking through there. They’d always be catcalling the girls so it just made me feel like something could happen.”

According to Laura Bassett, vice-president of university affairs with the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union, while sexual violence is not an unfamiliar issue for students’ unions to address, universities have just recently been picking up on it.

One of the things the Union has been focusing on is encouraging Laurier to “unwind what is disclosure and what is reporting” to help survivors feel more comfortable with getting the help they need.

“I think that universities are making a really purposeful and concerted effort to change the culture.

 

“In the past — and we’re talking maybe five, 10 years ago — there was a high pressure on survivors of sexual assault to go through the court process,” Bassett said. “We’ve learned through partnerships with the sexual assault centres and experts in the field that that’s not always the best case scenario for survivors.”

Formally reporting can be a traumatic process and is a personal decision. According to Bassett, what’s most important is helping individuals connect with services and supports.

To address this, Laurier has put forward efforts such as the creation of the Gendered Violence Task Force, which is comprised of students, staff and faculty. It spearheads prevention, policy and education and is guided by research gathered by The Change Project. The Project collected data based on responses from 570 Laurier students in regard to the campus climate around gender based violence. 40 per cent of those who responded to the survey said they’d experienced some form of sexual violence or harassment.

Because of numbers like this, David McMurray, vice-president of student affairs at Laurier, said it won’t be surprising if the amount of sexual violence reports and disclosures increase.

“Because of all the education, awareness and training, because students are telling us 40 per cent of them are experiencing this, we are expecting a lot more reports,” he said. “And if you think of it versus not being reported, this is much better.”

He said this would indicate the university’s efforts are succeeding in creating an environment where survivors feel comfortable disclosing their experiences.

Alana Holtom, corporate communications coordinator for WRPS, said it can be difficult to decipher whether an increase in crime rates are due to an increase in criminal activity or an increase in reporting.

“We could see a month where we have way more speeding infractions,” she explained. “Does that mean everyone’s driving faster? Probably not, it just means we’ve put a focus toward that.”

19.1% increase in sexual violations in 2014 from 2013

She said the same is true of sexual violence reports. There is always a need to dig deeper and consider why reports could be up.

When an incident of sexual violence is reported to WRPS, the case is given to a specialty branch that handles sexual-related offences. According to Holtom, this has been the protocol for handling sexual violence reports for a long time.

“The difference nowadays is in technology,” she said. “In that area there’s a lot of focus, especially on the child exploitation area, and also with other cases that come forward where someone is using technology in whether it’s a luring situation or they’re sharing images, that sort of thing.”

To accommodate this change in criminal activity, detectives have to be both proficient at police work and knowledgeable about current trends in technology.

“I feel like we take the necessary precautions … that being said, it happens regardless.”

Laurier’s Students’ Union itself has been involved in all the efforts the university has been putting forward in terms of sexual violence. One of their own initiatives was to introduce a session called The Hawk Pact to Orientation Week this year. The session addressed incidents of sexual violence that happened at other universities and ways Laurier is combatting it.

As the undergraduate representative for OUSA, Bassett also sits on a select committee for legislation development at the provincial level. Here she was able to have input into Bill 132 — the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act. Additionally, members of the Union presented to the Select Committee on Sexual Violence and Harassment about a series of policy recommendations. One of these was a call for an amendment to the Residential Tenancies Act so those who have been a victim of sexual violence or harassment have the ability to terminate their tenancy early. This amendment was included in Bill 132, allowing victims be able to exit their lease with only 28 days notice.

Unlike alumni, current Laurier students seem aware of incidents of sexual violence and the efforts the University is making.

 

453 cases of level one sexual assault in 2014

Josh Aucoin said when he and his male friends hear about incidents, their reaction is to question how it could happen.

“It’s not something that would ever, ever cross my mind,” he said. “To actually think that someone does that to someone else without their consent is ridiculous.”

Kristen Tassiopoulos said she doesn’t feel unsafe while on campus, but when it comes to getting home at night she would rather take a cab than walk.

“I feel like we take the necessary precautions, just as myself and my friends included in that,” she said. “That being said, it happens regardless.”

Aucoin said he doesn’t feel unsafe, but usually travels with a group of male friends. Tassiopoulos and her friend, Jaimie Wilson, commented “that must be nice” to Aucoin. Aucoin admitted that “it’s a whole different ball game for guys.”

Overall, the three believed the university takes the matter seriously enough and that the topic is discussed on campus.

“I think that universities are making a really purposeful and concerted effort to change the culture and I think that they should be applauded for that because this has always been one of those issues that’s been pushed under the rug and nobody really talks about,” Bassett said. “And people in the administration are really taking a very purposeful step toward changing that.”

 

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