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Western allegations highlight the 'systemic issue' of campus sexual assault

Demand for counselling from survivors remains high, while resources for sexual violence work are reportedly lacking

As London’s Western University continues to investigate the nearly 30 allegations of sexual violence in residence raised on social media last week, alongside four separate formal complaints, our local Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region (SASCWR) is speaking to the “systemic issue” of sexual and gendered violence on campus, and the challenges that continue to exist in prevention education and ensuring adequate supports are made available to survivors.

Opening up with a local perspective amid the unfolding situation in London, Casselman said the reports of “up to 30 young women assaulted on campus” immediately had her considering the reality that those young, vulnerable women have experienced in striking out on their own for the first time and starting a new adventure.

“To have this experience right at the beginning of that has such a profound impact on their lives,” said Casselman. “Moving forward, their ability to start the life they had planned in terms of pursuing their education (…) my immediate thought goes to what that reality would be like for those 30 women and their friends and families.”

Speaking to the partnerships that exist here in the region between community based organizations like the SASCWR and our post-secondary institutions, Casselman noted that the centre maintains partnerships with both Laurier and the University of Waterloo to have counsellors available to provide needed support to survivors in a format that is independent from their education experience. According to Casselman, students seeking support locally as survivors of sexual assault can focus on their healing journey, as she notes that there’s no “mandatory reporting” that gets triggered when students come forward to seek help.

“I think that response is really important – having both supports on campus and community supports available for survivors.”

In addressing the allegations being made in London, Western University has maintained their commitment in being proactive with sexual violence education and “prevention programming” for students – a process that the SASCWR is actively engaged in with both Laurier and UW here locally. With many universities implementing anti-sexual violence training and bystander intervention training during frosh week orientation, Casselman said that work is important – though it doesn’t replace an education system that prioritizes that sort of work from the early years of development.

“It doesn’t replace an education system that, all throughout school, would be talking about things like healthy masculinity, healthy relationships, respect for women, consent for sexual activity…” said Casselman. “Those are messages that we need to be delivering over and over to reinforce – because it takes a long time to shift the attitude at the heart of sexual violence.”

When asked about the level of support available for survivors of sexual violence on campus, Casselman admitted that there had been “some movement” on the issue in recent years, though the demand for counselling for survivors remains incredibly high, while resources dedicated to sexual violence work and funding are currently insufficient.

“There’s more than there used to be – but there’s not enough.”

Casselman highlighted that the “reality” is that women between the ages of 16 to 14 are “four to five times more likely than any other age group” to experience sexual violence. With large, unsanctioned gatherings a regular occurrence in the university district, Casselman noted that the SASCWR always receives disclosures and people reaching out around periods like frosh week and St. Paddy’s day.

“It’s a reality for post-secondary students unfortunately,” said Casselman. “For St. Paddy’s, we actually put out dedicated social media posts telling people we’re here, and we always inevitably get calls for support after. It’s a significant issue.”

Drawing upon her experience as executive director of SASCWR, Casselman said that the resource has been serving the community since 1989, estimating that nearly 40 per cent of the calls received on their 24-hour support line come from local post-secondary students.

“It’s a real issue in our community, it’s a real issue across Canada; it’s a real issue in terms of (…) sexual violence being very pervasive in our communities,” said Casselman. “Universities have stepped up a lot in recent years in terms of addressing it and trying to get support on campus – but until there’s a system in place where supports are always readily available as soon as a student needs it, I’d say the funding isn’t there enough.”

While London police have confirmed their investigation is underway into the multiple sexual assault allegations at Western University, they also maintain that they’re aware of the allegations – though they haven’t received any official reports of drugging or sexual assault occurring in the residences in question in recent days. Calling sexual violence an “underreported crime,” Casselman said the reasons for a low rate of reporting are “complicated.”

“The reasons for that could be that someone doesn’t think it will go anywhere, or that they feel they’re responsible for the sexual violence that happened to them. Some of them may even be afraid of the criminal justice process,” said Casselman. “There’s so many complicated reasons why people don’t report – but one of the reasons (…) is they know the reality of our criminal justice system is that… in Canada, for every 33 sexual assaults that are reported to the police there are three convictions.”

Noting that the process of reporting to police can be taxing and overwhelming for survivors, Casselman again emphasized the importance of providing access to a counsellor with a community based sexual assault support centre – as she said those professionals can talk to “all the options in front of a survivor”, providing proper information as to what can be done and who can support them through the process.

“We’ll work with someone – if they make a report to police and they happen to be going to trial in the future, we’ll stay with them and support them through that entire process – and not kind of just step away after they’ve had eight to ten counselling sessions…”

Staff from Wilfrid Laurier University have since released a statement on the evolving situation in London, as they said they are committed to promoting a “safe and supportive environment” for all members of the community. Laurier’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Prevention and Supports group also works closely with sexual assault centres in Waterloo Region and Brant County to provide counselling and educational programming on campus.

The University of Waterloo also noted that through their Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office, staff support “all members of the campus community who have experienced, or been impacted, by sexual violence” including students, staff, faculty and visitors.

When asked how friends and family can best support survivors of gender based and sexual violence, Casselman said what’s important is to create a “safe space”, focusing on listening to the individual and allowing time to tell their story rather than creating pressure to talk.

“Believe them. So often, people are questioning survivors’ realities – it’s so important to just believe, to listen, and to offer support in terms of, ‘what is it I can do for you?’ (…) it’s really important the next steps are driven by the survivor.”

“Being a safe place for a survivor is really about listening, showing care, not judging and really looking for what supports you can offer if they’re willing to receive them.”

Casselman adds that the SASCWR is in the community to help, inviting survivors to connect through on-campus counselling programs, intake programs like individual counselling, group counselling or family support, or the centre’s 24-hour support line at 519-741-8633.

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