Caitlin Salvino was studying on exchange in Washington, D.C., in 2016 when she received an e-mail from Carleton University, her school back home. Carleton's administration was asking for student input on the draft version of the school's Sexual Violence and Harassment Policy.
"I read it and was pretty shocked at some of the stuff that I read," says Ms. Salvino. "It was really, really problematic."
Feeling the policy would not encourage students to feel comfortable reporting their assaults, Ms. Salvino reached out to Carleton's student-run Human Rights Society. Together, they wrote an open letter to the university, proposing amendments. The letter, signed by more than 200 students, staff and faculty, led to the creation of a task force, a student-led response to sexualized violence, independent from the administration.
Stories of how some universities in North America are mishandling sexual assault cases on campus have emerged over the past several years. The problem recently led to action, with many schools creating policies so that when assaults happen they have a plan for how to respond. Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba have even passed legislation that requires schools to have these policies. With so many decisions being made on behalf of vulnerable students, activists like Ms. Salvino are banding together to make sure the policies reflect what survivors really need.
In the fall, the student-led task force will launch a completed survey – documenting more than 500 on-campus experiences. The Carleton group will also provide peer-to-peer training programs for at least 1,000 students to address sexual violence on campus.
Carleton University commented on its policy development process, writing "During the development of Carleton's sexual violence policy, campus stakeholders, including students, faculty and staff members were significantly consulted by Equity Services, Human Resources and the Office of the VicePresident (Students and Enrolment)." This consultation, they say, included more than 30 meetings and focus groups, and received 140 comments and feedback documents.
The university says it encourages increased feedback as the policy continues to roll out across campus.
"It's not just about creating new processes.
It's also about the university taking a very public, committed stance on rape culture," says Kasari Govender, lawyer and executive director of West Coast LEAF, a legal advocacy group for women.
"If we're going to do this, and it's about a culture shift, which I think it has to be, then there is a key part of the process that is missing at those campuses where students are feeling like they have to write their own policy, do their own organizing. So I hope the administration is listening to that problem."
At McGill, some students aren't sure the administration is listening to their concerns about its policy.
"We're all kind of figuring out, as these policies come into effect, that a top-down approach to these issues does not work," says Connor Spencer, who starts her role as the vice-president of external affairs for McGill's student union this fall, of McGill's approach.
She thinks the policy is being implemented too slowly to support current survivors.
She says fellow students have been pushing McGill to create a policy for years – to the point of even writing and proposing a draft policy themselves. When McGill eventually passed a Policy against Sexual Violence in 2016, students didn't feel it would accommodate the diverse needs of survivors on campus.
Ms. Spencer is working with a group of students to develop their own alternative sexual assault policy for students who experience on-campus sexual violence. The team – comprised of mostly women of colour and violence survivors – is working on a policy aimed "at the roots of what causes that violence on campus, instead of focusing on banishing abusers," she says.
They won't be able to expel anyone, but the point is to create a safe space for students to disclose abuses without fear of repercussions – for example, if illegal drugs or alcohol were involved. It's policy by students, for students.
McGill's associate provost of policies, procedures and equity, Angela Campbell, says that the university's policy followed months of consultation with students, faculty and staff. She notes the policy has allowed for the creation of McGill's new Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education, providing a single site for survivors to report and get help. It has also led to two new committees to implement and review the Policy against Sexual Violence.
At the University of Victoria, Kenya Rogers feels her voice is being heard. A survivor of sexual violence herself, Ms. Rogers is the policy advisor for the University of Victoria's Anti-Violence Project, which is the school's independent sexual assault centre, paid for by the student levy. The centre, she says, has been involved in activism aimed at getting the university to develop its own policy to respond to sexual violence for years.
Ms. Rogers was also a part of the working group that developed UVic's policy in 2016.
While she acknowledges the process wasn't perfect, her experience was a positive one.
"I think what I noticed from the administration was they had the humility to recognize that it wasn't their place to build this policy, because survivors on campus were the ones who were essentially begging for this policy to happen."
No matter how students feel about their school's approach to policy-making, Ms. Spencer at McGill believes that it's about making sure universities do more than just produce a piece of paper.
"How can we keep pushing the conversation forward, so that it's not like, 'We've got a policy so now everything's fixed,' because it's never going to be that."