Leslie Comrie

Selkirk sexual assault policy kicks in

College unveils new policy as part of province-wide mandate

Students and staff who experience any sort of sexual assault at Selkirk College will now have multiple options and additional supports thanks to Bill 23, which legally mandates every post-secondary institution in the province to adopt a sexual assault policy.

Selkirk College’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Policy came into effect on May 1, outlining its mandate to create and maintain “a safe and respectful learning, working and living environment that is free from sexual violence.”

So if a survivor isn’t comfortable initiating a college or police investigation, they can now anonymously disclose the information rather than report it — both will lead to immediate action by the school’s administration.

The school’s response will differ on a case by case basis.

“Each person’s decision to notify the College may be affected by many factors that include their sexual orientation or gender expression, ancestry, race, ethnicity, language, ability, faith, age, socioeconomic status and previous life experiences,” the report reads.

“Each situation is unique.”

And how things proceed is entirely up to the survivor — disclosing the information gives them access to options such as classroom changes, extensions on assignment due dates, and counselling support. Or they can take it all the way to the RCMP or the Nelson Police Department, with assistance from the college.

According to the policy, there will be a counsellor response team prepared to deal with disclosures from both students and staff.

It will be led by the Director of Student Development, Rhonda Schmitz, and will be comprised of a team of counsellors trained on how to receive disclosures.

“Survivors need only to disclose their experience to seek support and will not be required or pressured to make an allegation,” the policy reads.

“Supports throughout the process will be trauma informed.”

‘Student wellbeing is of the utmost importance’

A year ago, Leslie Comrie’s job as the Healthy Campus Advisor didn’t exist. But now it’s her task to look at how to properly support not only sexual assault survivors, but all students and staff at Selkirk.

“This position was brought in response to our acknowledgement that student wellbeing is of utmost importance and there needs to be resources for our students and our staff,” she told the Star.

“I’m here to address all sorts of issues. Racism, sexism, all the isms. Student anxiety and stress, the list goes on. I think this is the best job on Earth. I’ve been waiting for this job all of my life. As a social worker I’ve had my finger on the pulse of wellbeing for a long, long time.”

And according to her, the newly introduced policy is only the beginning of the work they need to do. Now that they’re keeping statistics and learning how to share information between institutions, they plan to embark on “an exhaustive, ongoing education program that will continue in perpetuity.”

“We’ll be doing this forever,” she said.

Developing clear language and protocols

Schmitz was one of the primary authors of the policy, and she said at the time it was difficult to figure out even the proper language to use.

“We found, for instance, that if we language it as perpetrator there’s a bias that the event actually happened, and we didn’t want to set that up. So we decided to go with respondent,” she said.

“We had some pushback around calling them survivors, because there’s an implication there that they survived something, so we had to add a caveat in the policy to further explain.”

Comrie’s personal take: “Victim implies passivity, while survivor uses the language of a victorious outcome.”

The sexual assault policy will be a crucial document for her and Schmitz’s work going forward, and it aims to address a wide range of behaviours, from inappropriate text messaging to stalking or verbal abuse. If a student or staff experiences any form of these things, they have the right to disclose or report it immediately.

The policy makes clear that assault “can occur between individuals regardless of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.”

It defines “stalking” as a “form of sexual violence involving behaviours that occur on more than one occasion and which collectively instill fear in a person or threaten a person’s safety or mental health.” It can include threatening someone’s friends or family, online cyber harassment and distribution of sexual images or video with consent.

Protecting survivors from retaliation, abuse

Sexual assault survivors are often faced with a hostile reactions, and the policy calls for the college to be mindful of the barriers survivors face. Schmitz believes that’s crucial.

“There are many more students harmed sexually than the number who disclose,” she said, noting that giving them the opportunity to disclose rather than report might change that.

“We think this is one of the pieces of the policy that really supports survivors in the best way. We want them to know they can give us a disclosure without doing a full report and investigation, as well as still being acknowledged as having an experience of trauma and being worthy of being supported.”

The policy describes the culture it’s pushing back against.

“Fear and apprehension about the reaction of others or the possible consequences to making a report or allegation are examples of barriers to reporting acts of sexual violence,” it reads.

“Barriers to reporting or disclosing also include not being believed, being blamed, guilt or shame regarding the incident, fear of institutional sanctions or an RCMP or local police investigation and/or the fear of reprisal by the accused or their friends.”

Keeping a detailed record

Another important part of the new policy will be keeping records on allegations in electronic format, which will give the college the ability to keep summary statistics that will be reported annually.

“These reports will be for the purpose of meeting legislated or College reporting requirements. This data would not include any information that would identify the parties involved,” it reads.

These statistics will be one part of raising awareness and educating the campus on issues surrounding sexual assault.

And Schmitz feels the procedures around reporting and keeping statistics have evolved so there’s more communication between institutions and a renewed commitment to confidentiality.

“For the longest time there has been a strong pushback around confidentiality, as you can imagine, but we’ve gotten to a good place where we all agree about how we’re going to keep stats as well as keeping identities confidential,” she said.

Healthy Campus advisor: ‘I believe them’

If Comrie happens to be the first person approached by a sexual assault survivor, her first priority is making sure they know that she believes them.

“I want them to feel confident they can disclose and receive support and not have to worry about reprisals, shame, being humiliated, blamed or confused about what’s going to happen.”

She doesn’t probe for details.

“I give them a place to tell me how much they want to tell, then I ask them how they want to be supported. And everyone wants to be supported in different ways, and might change their mind. It’s critical to let them know they can change their mind about how they want to be supported,” she said.

And if things do escalate to a police investigation, Selkirk staff are on their side.

“If they decide to move forward to a report, we have a team present and trained to help them carry that forward.”

So what is their end goal?

“Our pie in the sky is that nobody ever has to feel like they have to keep a secret,” Comrie said.

To read Selkirk’s sexual assault policy, visit bit.ly/2qG0ZXA.