UBC in damage control mode after failing sexual assault complainants: Alumna

Young men walk past large letters spelling out UBC at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., on Nov. 22, 2015. Universities become part of the problem if they fail to support women who come to them with reports of sexual assault, says the head of a Vancouver women's group. The University of British Columbia also has a moral duty to let women know they have the option of turning to police to report experiences of sexual misconduct, said Irene Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer, executive director of Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER - The University of British Columbia seems more concerned with handling a public relations crisis than taking meaningful action to help women feel safe after multiple allegations of sexual assault, says a complainant.

Glynnis Kirchmeier, who is planning to launch a human-rights case against UBC, published an open letter to the university's interim president on Tuesday. The former student questioned why Martha Piper issued a public apology but didn't contact her or other affected students.

"I was surprised to learn on Sunday that you had issued an apology to the women in these cases who feel they have been let down by our university," she wrote.

"Did you mean to include me? I did not receive a personal communication from you, though you could have asked associate VP Dr. Sara-Jane Finlay for my email and phone number."

Kirchmeier announced her plan to file a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal at a news conference on Sunday. She and other former and current students said the university lacks a clear policy for handling sexual assault reports and it took a year and a half to act on six complaints about a PhD student.

Kirchmeier was not assaulted but said she witnessed his behaviour and reported it in January 2014. She said UBC failed to act until last week, when it said the student was no longer at the university.

Piper acknowledged in her apology Saturday that the process took too long and pledged to "begin a discussion with our students, faculty and staff" on a new sexual assault policy.

Kirchmeier said one action Piper could take would be to ensure the urgent release of documents on UBC's current policy, which she has requested under freedom of information laws.

UBC spokeswoman Susan Danard said Piper was not available to comment Tuesday due to an all-day board meeting.

The university currently relies on a discrimination and harassment policy that sets out a general process for handling complaints, but does not include specific procedures for sexual assaults.

According to a recent report, the Equity and Inclusion Office received 273 complaints between September 2013 and August 2015. Sixty-nine were related to sex, a broad category that includes harassment, stalking, pregnancy and the hiring of women.

Just six of 273 complaints were referred for a formal investigation.

Former graduate student Caitlin Cunningham told Sunday's news conference that she chose not to report her alleged sexual assault to police after speaking with university administrators in July 2014 because she was assured the school "would handle it."

"Honestly, I had no idea what to do," she said. "I turned to the university for guidance and they assured me they could and would help me. But this has proved for the most part to be untrue."

Cunningham said she would have filed a police report had the university suggested that was her best course of action, adding the process remains unclear to her.

"I don't know if they make it up as they go."

Finlay, associate vice-president of equity and inclusion at UBC, said the university provides sexual-assault complainants with extensive information and resources and always encourages them to contact police.

Asked whether sexual assault is an issue on campus at UBC, Finlay said: "Sexual assault is an issue that is concerning to all universities across Canada."

Danard said the school does not generally share reports of sexual assault directly with police, out of respect for the rights of survivors to make that choice.

Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson said his ministry is working with institutions to ensure they have up-to-date policies. But he said the ministry is not considering imposing a provincewide policy at this time and instead will likely compile a list of best practices.

"The universities and colleges are autonomous," he said. "It's up to them to decide how to deal with internal matters."

Universities perpetuate violence against women if they fail to support sexual-assault complainants, said Irene Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer, executive director of Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre, singling out UBC.

"That kind of response is absolutely making a mockery out of the seriousness of sexual assault."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly reported that the Advanced Education Ministry did not have the power to impose a provincewide policy. In fact, the ministry has the power but prefers not to do so at this time.

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