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Addressing sexual violence must be prioritized as higher education continues to intersect with digital spaces

Published on 23/06/2021 by Students for Consent Culture and YWCA Canada

Earlier this year, Students for Consent Culture Canada and YWCA Canada gathered with over 15 students, student union leaders, and campus advocates to share best practices, experiences and ask questions about online campus sexual violence. The two-hour knowledge exchange, ZoomU and Sexual Violence, highlighted new and existing understandings of online campus sexual violence, with a focus on current virtual learning conditions brought forth by the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic. Keep reading for the top highlights of the event.

Most participants noted that their institutions were doing “basically nothing” when it came to raising awareness, addressing or preventing online sexual violence. Like most anti-sexual violence on-campus work, the focus tended to centre policy and some schools had new policies or police reviews in the works. The current “ZoomU” conditions did not guarantee that online sexual violence is included in policies. While schools were highlighted as providing resources pertaining to online sexual violence, many participants noted the gaps, such as committees not meeting in over 3 years, institutions not updating policies and that while “one-time, 40 minute, online” anti-sexual violence trainings were available, they did not meaningfully address online sexual violence.

When asked about resources, participants were unable to name specific sexual violence-focused resources, instead listing a few general mental health resources that their schools have promoted. Participants noted how the pandemic made providing resources challenging for institutions and student organizations alike. As social distancing practices became mandatory, counselling services, student unions, and other resource providers on campus had to adapt to online or socially distanced models. As has been noted by many groups over the past year, online education exacerbates issues of internet access. Students without reliable internet access, including those in the North, faced challenges in accessing these resources.

Participants highlighted four main areas of concern for institutions and student organizations to prioritize when finishing the 2020-2021 school year and preparing for the 2021-2022 year. These issues, while exacerbated by the pandemic, are not unique to the pandemic as our increasingly connected digital world continues to move forward.

Mental Health

Mental health resources were one of the top priorities identified to address online sexual violence. Participants stated that there needs to be both more counsellors available and more promotion of the services that are available in order to increase student engagement with these services. Recognizing barriers of access for diverse student bodies, counsellors of choice programs were highlighted to allow for culturally relevant counsellors. Access to diverse counsellors has been noted in other post-secondary mental health and anti-sexual violence activism as they are vital for marginalized students to receive quality mental health care. Mental health has been an ongoing concern during the pandemic, especially in academic settings. Participants noted how institutions are stigmatizing student and faculty mental health this year, with examples of some institutions expecting students and teachers to skip reading weeks.

Mandatory Education and Training Programs

Across Canada, there has been a push for more education and training resources. Participants highlighted that mandatory education and training programs, including online sexual violence, cyberbullying and video/web conferencing etiquette should be required for all students. The norms of online spaces, especially on web conference apps, can differ from the in-person classrooms, labs, and collaborative spaces on campus. During the knowledge exchange, participants shared stories and experiences of problems in unsupervised breakout rooms, including sexual violence, racism, and more. These issues reflect what we heard early in the pandemic with “Zoom bombing”. In these online spaces, participants noted the additional issue that professors and teaching staff were both unprepared and not technologically savvy enough to intervene in cases of violence, bullying, and harassment.  Mandatory education and training for students could be overlapped with training for teaching staff, to ensure that everyone in the classroom feels prepared to intervene in these situations.

Digital Literacy

As was previously noted, professors and other teaching staff were unprepared to handle the technical side of social interactions in an online classroom. This is part of the call for increased digital literacy for teaching staff, school administrators, and decision-makers. For school administrators and decision-makers, digital literacy should focus on “dealing with and supporting survivors of online sexual violence”. This includes understanding the online applications and programs. Participants shared stories of administrators who did not understand popular apps such as Snapchat or TikTok, yet are appointed to oversee and decide on cases of online sexual violence.

For professors, digital literacy should focus around video conferencing tools and bystander intervention training for online sexual violence. Additionally, participants expressed a feeling of apathy and that “there was no way to enforce professors or teaching staff” to take part in digital literacy, online bystander training, or video conferencing training. Institutions must find ways to ensure teaching staff stay up to date in teaching modalities including video conferencing.

International Students

In both of the knowledge exchange breakout rooms as well as the final group discussion, participants noted that international students must be centred in these conversations of campus sexual violence and online sexual violence. International students’ precarious position in Canada and at their institutions make them “less likely to take action and/or seek support for fear of retaliation”. Until they are prioritized in the conversations of campus sexual violence, this situation cannot be rectified.

Updating policies and procedures for in-person and online learning

Finally, it was noted that policies and procedures must be updated to prevent any confusion or loopholes around online or in-person campus sexual violence. Institutions must make clear that accommodations and decisions apply to both in-person and online environments, regardless of the type of violence perpetuated.

The Knowledge Exchange has made clear that online sexual violence must be prioritized as higher education continues to intersect with digital and virtual spaces. Institutions and student organizations alike must prioritize the inclusion of online sexual violence in any campus anti-sexual violence prevention and awareness campaigns or response procedures.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

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