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Project 97: “Isn’t the Purpose of a University to Lead?”

Lakehead University professor Lori Chambers on how an anonymous letter changed the way the school handles sexual assault

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Dr. Lori Chambers (Photo: Lakehead University)

It all started with a letter to the editor that ran in the local paper in October 2013. It was written by a former Lakehead student who had been sexually assaulted off-campus, and then later found herself in the same class as her alleged rapist. She had gone to her program chair to ask if she could switch classes, but her request was denied. Her letter outlined her frustration in the way Lakehead had dealt with the situation.

The university president, Brian Stevenson, saw the letter. He’s the father of two daughters, and he was deeply distressed. He called me over the weekend and asked if I was willing to head a task force to look into what could be done differently in relation to sexual assault on campus. I’m a Women’s Studies professor, and I had been arguing for a long time that sexual assault is a problem right across the community, not just on campus. So I said yes, and I started assembling the task force the following week. It was immediate.

The task force included people from both of our campuses, in Thunder Bay and Orillia—a lot of students, faculty, the director of athletics, health and counseling services, student services, residence people, as well as a number of people from the community. It was really wide ranging.

I was surprised how overwhelmingly positive the reaction was; people saw this as something that was necessary. They had all read the letter to the editor and were disturbed that this young woman hadn’t gotten the help she needed. And I think a lot of people pictured someone they loved being in that situation and thought, We have got to do something to make it easier for victims to find the resources they need to heal.

I had thought for a long time that sexual assault policies on all university campuses were lacking, but that Lakehead wasn’t any worse than anywhere else. Students were told that sexual misconduct of any kind was wrong; it was right there in the code of conduct. But it was buried among all the other kinds of conduct that were prohibited. And there was nowhere to find basic information about what to do in the event of a sexual assault.

All the services were there—there’s great counseling on this campus, and really good health services and connections to the hospital. And if someone made their way to these services, they’d get really good care. But there was a communication problem—at first glance, it didn’t seem like we had anything in our code of conduct that related to what obligations our faculty and staff have when a student discloses that they’ve been sexually assaulted. The stuff around judicial inquiry and penalties for the perpetrator already existed in the student code of conduct. The task force didn’t need to touch that. Instead, we focused on how to best support the victim. We created a comprehensive policy and protocol for dealing with sexual misconduct, which was approved by the school’s board of governors in June 2014.

The first recommendation that we implemented from the report was the creation of pamphlets about what to do after a sexual assault. There’s one for students that makes it really clear what resources are available; we’ve created a website about this too. The pamphlets were handed out during orientation last September, so that students know exactly where to go and what to do.

We also created a response guide for faculty and staff that lays out their obligations. It tells them how to respond to disclosure— a list of dos and don’ts, the rights to accommodations these students have, and the people to call to help the student to ensure those accommodations are in place.

Also as a result of the task force, we placed a renewed emphasis on education on campus in relation to sexual assault and sexual misconduct.

Up until this point, there had been lots of voluntary stuff—safe sex workshops, consent workshops, all of those kinds of things, run by the student union and the gender issues centre. But attendance wasn’t mandatory.

This past fall, we instigated mandatory one-hour sessions on sexual assault for all students residing on campus. What constitutes consent was a major part of the conversation. I was stunned by how seriously students took it, particularly the young men. They asked really good questions.

Since then, lots of students have thanked me for the changes that we’ve made.  And the woman who wrote the letter to the editor told me that she’s really happy with our work. She was so, so brave coming forward. It makes me really happy to think that we’ve honoured her courage.

The task force will reconvene some time in the new year, to discuss what has been done and what further steps need to be taken. Next I’d like to see an equity officer on campus—someone who could do a review of all sorts of policies and say, ‘Look, where are there problems? How are we making sure that we uphold human rights in all domains, not just for victims of sexual assault?’ Because we should be in a leadership position in regard to equality on all fronts. Isn’t that the purpose of a university, to lead?

As told to Maureen Halushak. This interview has been edited and condensed.

This story is part of Project 97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.

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