‘The red zone’: Why early education on sexual assault is critical for universities

At the most critical time of the year, post-secondary institutions across Canada are ramping up their efforts to raise awareness of and prevent sexual assault on campuses.

According to statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, one in five women will be sexually assaulted during their time at university. Extensive research shows that more than 50 per cent of sexual assaults occur during the first eight weeks of the school year — earning this period the name “the red zone.” Some studies say the toll of assaults that occur in this zone is as high as 80 per cent, making this time of year critical for universities’ efforts to curb incidences of sexual assault.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor at Northwestern University, said that we are long overdue for a reframing of the conversation over sexual violence.

She said that while current “red zone” initiatives can centre around safety tips like monitoring drinking and staying safe at night, it is ineffective and questionable to limit the conversation to “tips” meant to help students avoid getting assaulted.

More important is widespread education on the meaning of enthusiastic consent and the creation of a safe community atmosphere.

“The bottom line is that we know that talking about healthy relationships, consent, healthy sexuality, sexual assault — it’s really important when everyone’s arriving to campus, because the data suggests that those early months are the danger zone,” said Solomon.

Gaps to fill

In March 2018, Maclean’s released data from a survey that asked 23,000 undergraduates from 49 universities about how their school educated them about resources and procedures on sexual assault. Depending on the school, between 11 to 47 per cent of students said that “no one” educated them on how to report a sexual assault.

At UBC, 32 per cent of students answered “no one,” 35 per cent answered “university staff” and 30 per cent answered “student union.”

Yet as sexual violence continues to be a major topic of public debate, schools are finally starting to pay attention to its staggering prevalence and implement early action to educate and inform students.

This year, McGill debuted a one-hour interactive orientation session for every student entering residence — including over 3,000 first-year students — to provide information on consent, sexual violence, gender and sexuality.

“We know that the first eight weeks [of the new term] are crucial — not just for fall, but also McGill in the winter as well,” said Bianca Tetrault, McGill’s sexual violence education advisor. She added that it took McGill all summer to plan the new orientation initiative. All frosh leaders are given disclosure training and every frosh participant has to watch a consent and active bystander education video.

Ryerson’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education has a “Consent Comes First Orientation Checklist,” which was created to help plan events for incoming students during Orientation Week. It includes information on Ryerson’s sexual misconduct policy, how to receive disclosures and available resources on campus.

The University of Alberta wrote in an email, “While we will be present at a variety of training and welcome events during this period, we don’t currently have any special events that acknowledge the ‘red zone’ concept planned for the first eight weeks of the academic year.”

The University of Toronto declined to comment for this story.

After receiving criticism last year for its lacklustre focus on sexual violence, UBC is increasing its funding and staffing.

According to Sonya Boyce, director of UBC Vancouver’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO), the university is taking a three-pronged approach: awareness, education, and training. Since this is the first full school year that the SVPRO will be operational, the focus will be on increasing awareness of the office and the support services that it offers. Training on how to respond to disclosures will also be given to student leaders such as orientation leaders and residence advisors.

This fall, the university also launched a “We Believe You” campaign, and is raising awareness in partnership with the AMS, GSS, the Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC) and varsity athletics.

“I think one of the things that the awareness campaign speaks to is that everybody on campus can play a positive role in the prevention of sexual violence by doing at least one thing [to support survivors],” said Boyce.

File Alex Nguyen

Large banners that students can sign in support of survivors are paired with coffee sleeves distributed by Blue Chip, the coffee shop in the AMS Nest.

“The campaign is a joint effort that has been led in large part by the student leaders,” said Boyce. “... We have a number of people at the table who all share a common goal, and that is to make sure we start this year with students, in particular, knowing that there is a safe and confidential space on campus for them to go.”

As one of the most vocal critics of UBC on this topic, Holmes has been thinking of sexual violence education at UBC for a while now. It’s his aim to increase awareness of both UBC’s SVPRO and the AMS’s SASC with this campaign — both were spotlighted by the latest Academic Experience Survey as services that many students were not aware of — so that they might better work together to provide help for students moving forward.

“For the AMS it’s been a priority that at the start of the school year, there need[ed] to be a large invisible sexual violence awareness campaign,” he said.

“Lots more to do”

From the founding of Our Turn, a national organization started by Carleton students to combat university sexual violence, to McGill and Concordia students protesting mismanagement of sexual misconduct allegations against their professors, to the vocal AMS push for better support in response to UBC’s inadequacy, students have been at the forefront of efforts for change across Canada.

Many of Our Turn’s suggestions for prevention centre around student cooperation and leadership, including developing peer-to-peer sexual violence prevention and support training and mandating all clubs to create an equity or human rights officer position. They also designed their own bystander intervention training, a peer-to-peer system that has students talking amongst each other about problems and solutions.

“One of the keys to success for [SVPRO] is really working in partnership with all students, staff, and faculty, in a process that is quite iterative. Listening, and learning, basically, to what the needs are on campus and how we can best respond,” said UBC’s Boyce.

“It’s [really all about] that unifying message that sexual violence has no place at UBC, but you do, and really making sure that that resonates with the new student body that’s coming in,” said Holmes, “as well as making sure that there’s other awareness opportunities, such as Santa Ono’s speech at Imagine Day, really making it clear that sexual violence doesn’t have a place at this university.”

Still, moving forward McGill’s Tetrault wants to see the knowledge spread beyond students, with increased engagement of staff and faculty for the cause.

“No matter what university you’re at, we strive to be better because times are changing quickly,” she said. “And we need to be current, and we need to be relevant.”

Where is the line when it comes to post-secondary institutions working to eradicate sexual assault on their campuses? How much can they, or should they, do?

Holmes pointed out that UBC may be catching up on sexual violence education now, but still, they’ll never be done. With a new class of students entering each year, he said, these campaigns are merely setting the foundation for future work.

Said Tetrault, “Lots has changed over the years. I think we’re in a better place than we’ve ever been across Canada, but we still have lots more to do, and I just hope the momentum keeps going for us.”

This article has been updated to include comment from AMS VP Academic Max Holmes.