By Kim Mackrael
After two years of student lobbying, Carleton University says it is prepared to consider a proposal for the creation of a sexual assault centre on campus.
“The sexual assault centre has always been a possibility,” Carleton president Roseann Runte said in an email Monday.
But Runte’s statement contrasts with what student groups have characterized as strong resistance to the centre on the grounds that it could be bad publicity for the school.
“I cannot emphasize enough how much of a shift this is from [the administrations’] previous attitude that the centre was just not going to happen,” said Julie Lalonde, co-founder of the Coalition for a Sexual Assault Centre.
Runte’s comments came one week after the university’s equity services department posted a notice on its website asking for student feedback on the school’s sexual assault services and stating that a student-run sexual assault centre “will be included in our review“ of services.
The notice is the first public reference to a sexual assault centre by university administrators since the idea received overwhelming student support in a January 2008 referendum run by Carleton’s graduate and undergraduate student councils.
In September 2007, a student was sexually assaulted while working late in a Carleton chemistry lab. The high profile case and subsequent lawsuit have landed the school in the media several times, most recently for a Carleton statement of defence alleging that the student failed to properly look out for her own safety.
Lalonde said her group was told the school would not consider a sexual assault centre because of the potential for additional bad publicity.
But Runte said any hesitation from her administration about creating a sexual assault centre was based on the need for a careful evaluation of all options, not a concern about the school’s image.
“In addition to space and funding considerations, we want to make sure that whatever we might offer would be [a] best practice and be equipped to meet the need it is intended to serve,” Runte said.
“We already offer on campus a number of support services that complement those offered by the City of Ottawa.”
She added that Carleton has spent more than $1.6 million on campus security in recent years for cameras, lights, emergency telephones and the school’s new emergency notification system.
Linda Capperauld, the school’s director of equity services, said she thinks the administration’s message was misunderstood by the coalition.
“We have some really interested students who want the best services possible,” Capperauld said. “Sometimes not all the communication gets through.”
“What we want is whatever is going to be best for Carleton. The issue of sexual assault is a public issue, we all know it exists and we’re not going to hide our heads in the sand. It’s all about finding out what’s best for Carleton.”
The University of Alberta established its own sexual assault centre in 1993. Director Kris Fowler said her staff and volunteers see about 150 new clients each year, in addition to the centre’s prevention and outreach services.
Fowler said she is concerned that emergency systems like the ones Carleton has put in place don’t recognize the reality that most sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.
“My frustration is that that kind of funding and money going towards those measures is limited in the types of sexual assaults it can address,” Fowler said. “An acquaintance sexual assault happening in residence isn’t going to change with blue phones and lighting.”
And while there are sexual assault support services off-campus in Edmonton, both Lalonde and Fowler said many students just don’t venture that far away from campus, especially during a crisis.
“You have to know to call or email to find out where the centre is, make an appointment, find the place,” Lalonde said. “People don’t do it. People at the [city centres] are rarely students, and it’s not because students don’t need the services.”
Carleton’s review is expected to last throughout the academic year and will likely involve a series of meetings with interested students and staff and communication with other university initiatives.
Capperauld said she hopes to present a recommendation to senior administration before students leave campus in April 2010.
For more information or to get involved with the discussion on sexual assault services, visit equity services’ sexual assault awareness campaign announcement.