While the University of Waterloo has claimed to support and prioritize the needs of students who have been affected by sexual violence, how has it provided academic recourse for them?
Stephie-Lea Tabujara, a UW student in legal studies, has some concerns.
A few years ago, Tabujara was in her dorm room in her Village 1 residence building. At the time, Tabujara was in a toxic relationship with her boyfriend and decided to phone her boyfriend’s sister-in-law to talk about the problems she was having that pertained to this relationship.
“All week long I had this looming feeling that something [was] happening,” said Tabujara. “She was the only person that I kind of gave hints and snippets of how he treated me in all parts of our relationship.”
What Tabujara didn’t know was that somebody in her dorm let her boyfriend, a non-UW student, enter the premises.
“I hear this fucking pounding on my door. And I’m on my phone with the sister-in-law, talking about how I feel like he’s growing [suspicious] of these things, and how I feel like he’s accusing me of all these things, and I have no idea he’s outside my door. And it’s paper thin, so he can hear everything I’m saying.”
Tabujara reluctantly opened her dorm room door to let her boyfriend inside.
“He has a car club in his hand. He rips my phone from the phone wall, grabs my cellphone and he breaks it. So I have no contact with anybody, and he’s threatening to beat me up.”
Realizing what just happened, the sister-in-law of the boyfriend called authorities. In the meantime, Tabujara, fearing for her life, was stuck in her dorm room with her boyfriend for five hours, pleading and negotiating with him to talk outside of the room, when Campus Police came to the scene.
According to Tabujara, Campus Police appeared to be insensitive towards the incident. “They [thought it was] like a boyfriend-girlfriend altercation, nothing crazier than that.”
“They never asked at the time [if] there was anything I wanted to do [in terms of] if I wanted to file charges, nothing,” said Tabujara. “And, of course, even in the event that I did say nothing … how am I supposed to say anything when [my boyfriend] is standing right there?”
For the next few days, Tabujara’s boyfriend would head to UW campus in attempts to see her, despite her trying to avoid him at all costs.
A few weeks after the incident, exam season at UW had begun and another incident occurred in Tabujara’s residence building.
“It was two or three o’clock in the morning, and the fire alarm goes off,” said Tabujara. “And we’re all outside and everyone’s freaking out … thinking that somebody probably did this to get away from exams.”
It wasn’t until later when Tabujara realized that it was in fact her boyfriend who pulled the fire alarm.
“As we’re all going back to our dorm room, I see him in the parking lot. And he has this sinister look on his face,” said Tabujara. “It was him that pulled the alarm. He broke into the kitchen, pulled the fire alarm to get my attention. I never told anyone about this, [including] the police. I didn’t want to get him into trouble because I was scared of what would happen.”
Later on that night, Tabujara was forced upon and was sexually assaulted by her boyfriend.
After the spring term, Tabujara was still studying at the University of Waterloo, barely scraping by in her academics and overall mental well-being. At this point, Tabujara was on conditional standing, due to failing exams from the term when the sexual violence occurred. It was only during this term when Tabujara learned that she could actually petition her grades due to this incident that continued to traumatize her.
According to Section 3 of Policy 70 of the University of Waterloo, a student can seek special requests or exceptions from certain university academic rules and regulations, depending on the given reason or circumstances that the student has provided. Requests can range from treating a student’s previous courses as a credit or no-credit basis, rather than receiving a proper grade, removing a WD or WDF grade status, or increasing or reducing a student’s course load per term. To receive these exemptions, student would have to fill Form 70A, Petition for Exception to Academic Regulations. To properly fill this form, a student would have to provide their university program information, attach a one-to-two page statement of why their petition should be granted, and supporting documentation to justify the student’s reasonings. Documentation can range from medical notes, counsellor’s notes, and police statements.
For Tabujara, the petitioning process was a nightmare.
“That was another uphill battle in itself,” said Tabujara. “Because not only [is the university] saying ‘okay well, prove to us that this happened and prove to us how this affected you’ … but while you’re doing that you need to go reach out to everybody to collect this information so that you can present this case to [them]. That’s essentially how it goes. And that’s usually how it is with any academic petition.”
“I’m in this deep hole that I’m trying to dig myself out of and on top of that I’m dealing with everything [in] school… You’ve got to go through the whole bureaucracy of Waterloo and whatever it is they need you to do, so I just sucked it up and did it. It really messed up my entire term.”
Tabujara feels that the fact that the university expects the onus of gathering various documents and following the multiple steps required in the petition to be on the student is extremely problematic.
“While petitioning … you’re still trying to work your best at being a student and trying to keep up with all that, but you’re almost reliving all of these traumatic instances,” said Tabujara. “You know you’re petitioning on these valid bases … you shouldn’t have to now deal with the bureaucracy and even have a more difficult time trying to fight the battle, when your battle should be focusing on school and making yourself better.”
Tabujara also voiced certain issues with obtaining a verification of illness form for her petition. At the time, according to Tabujara, despite already having a doctor’s note from her family doctor, which explained her situation, she was still required to obtain a VIF from UW’s Health Services, which proved to be another hassle while juggling school and her mental well-being.
Aside from finding the proper documentation for her petition, Tabujara also found negotiating with professors in regards to midterms, assignments, and exams to be another difficulty. While Tabujara was registered with AccessAbility Services during that time, she was told that the service wanted to teach her to be a “self-advocate” in terms of talking to her professors. According to Tabujara, while she was told it was not required for her to tell her professors her entire story in order to negotiate with them, she felt as if she was inclined to anyway.
“When you’re talking to the professors of what you need, there’s always the underlying question of ‘why do you need this?’” said Tabujara. “And although they say you don’t have to tell them, you almost have to because you’re kind of restricted, they always throw the ‘well, it’s policy to do this’, ‘it’s policy do that,’ and unless you explain to them … they still have the liberty to decline whatever it is that you’re seeking. And that confidentiality is kind of broken. You’re almost re-victimizing yourself because you’re reliving it.”
While Tabujara’s petition was eventually granted, Tabujara found the language in the university’s acceptance email that was sent to be alarming and condescending.
“[The email read] ‘we encourage you to ensure what the academic policies are and the resources that are available to you so that you can prevent this from happening again.’ The onus is completely on the student.”
During the next couple of school terms, Tabujara encountered stalking incidents from the perpetrator of the sexual violence, and got into a life-altering car accident that resulted in sustaining permanent traumatic brain injuries. Tabujara had to again re-petition her academic grades which perpetuated another cycle and a larger wave of clinical depression. According to Tabujara, the overall process of petitioning and treatment of the university was the contributing factor to her temporarily quitting school.
“In the end, it was the actual university processes that made me fail when there should have been some sort of alternative way to expedite this,” said Tabujara. “This could have all been simplified.”
Since Tabujara’s incident, what has the university done in terms of improving recourse for students who have suffered academically due to being involved in an incident of sexual violence?
In 2013, the University of Waterloo introduced its first ever director of equity, Mahejabeen Ebrahim. The director of equity aims to promote and achieve fairness and diversity across UW’s campuses, for its students, faculty, and staff.
“We recognize that working to achieve equity is about the fulfillment of the highest aspiration of all human beings,” said Ebrahim, in her official message on the UWaterloo website. “We recognize that the talents of diverse individuals is critical to the success of our mission. Equity is a strategic priority at the university.”
According to the Equity Office’s Strategic Plan in 2013, it was indicated that the Equity Office would also aid in achieving equity through consulting in university policies and legislations.
Fast forward to 2015, when the Ontario Provincial government initiated its action plan, It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment. The action plan aims to strengthen laws pertaining to sexual violence and sexual harassment in order to promote safe spaces.
On March 8 2016, the Ontario government’s Bill 132 — Sexual Violence and Harassment — was passed. The Bill mandated all post-secondary institutions in Ontario to create or update their policies that address sexual violence on their campuses by Jan. 1 2017. As a result, UW created and passed Policy 42, Prevention and Response to Sexual Violence.
Policy 42 was drafted by a committee which consisted of Feds president Chris Lolas, a graduate student representative, faculty staff, and members of the university administration. The university also requested Feds to co-ordinate and request feedback on behalf of the UW students.
“It was a long [process],” said Feds president Chris Lolas. “Before we started working on the policy, it was all about trying to get background information about where we’re at, what other schools are doing … we got a lot of input from experts throughout the year and then we started working on the policy.”
According to Lolas, Policy 42 received plenty of praise for redrafting its policies on prevention efforts and its scope on who this policy is applied to. As for providing recourse for a student who has suffered academically from sexual violence, the policy implemented a sexual violence response co-ordinator (SVRC).
“The SVRC is a central resource person for members of the university community, including complainants, respondents, witnesses and front-line service providers,” said Ebrahim in an email interview. “The SVRC provides guidance on where to find support, options that are available and information on next steps.”
“They’ll be able to direct them to counselling, academic advising, and also tell them [the steps needed] to reschedule a midterm,” said Lolas, when asked how the SVRC could help a student academically. “They’re going to have expertise on this campus about how they’re going to need to get any petitions or any accommodations that are going to be there for them, and they will be able to assist in that petitioning process entirely.”
But would one SVRC be sufficient for addressing all the needs of students who have encountered sexual assault and have been suffering academically?
“That’s a big question that everyone’s wondering,” said Lolas. “I was talking to other universities that have a similar role [as the sexual violence response co-ordinator], and that person was saying ‘I don’t know if I can do it all by myself.”
“The university assesses resource needs on an ongoing basis,” said Ebrahim when asked the same question.
Lolas did add that, while the policy is passed and set for the Jan. 1, 2017 deadline, there will still be plenty of opportunities to review the policy in the upcoming future, as well as initiating more action in terms of providing more recourse for the student.
“I think it’s good that we’ll have a period where we’ll see how the policy works in practice, and then we might change it,” said Lolas. “The university is committed in their policy that we’re going to provide the support … and if one [SVRC] is not enough, they’re kind of bound by policy to get one more person in there.”
In terms of a student who has been sexually assaulted and is in need of providing certain documentation for their petition, Ebrahim provided more information on what is required.
“Similar to a petition stemming from a mental health issue, for example, the details may be unknown due to confidentiality,” said Ebrahim. “But an assessment of the effect of the condition on a student’s academic performance is relevant in decision-making in these cases.”
Ebrahim also mentioned how students who are in this particular situation and are in urgent need of counselling would be given priority as well, thanks to the campus wellness program, led by Walter Mittelstaedt, UW’s first director of campus wellness.
Feds’ arts councillor and government affairs commissioner Antonio Brieva believes that there should be more room for improvement in terms of the university providing recourse for students who have suffered academically after being involved in a form of sexual violence.
“From what I read in the policy, there really isn’t much on academic accommodations for survivors, or at least it’s not outlined,” said Brieva. “I’m not sure if it’s not outlined because it would just be covered under existing policies.”
Brieva was co-author of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Association (OUSA)’s sexual violence policy, along with Danielle Pierre, Meg Hsu, Julia Wood, and Feds VP Education Sarah Wiley. OUSA’s sexual violence paper addressed additional issues that the provincial government should mandate for all post-secondary institutions across Ontario, including providing more academic accommodations for students.
“We wanted to make sure that survivors received full accommodation, knowing that going through the investigation process would present a couple of challenges,” Brieva said.
But the question remains — has the university generally improved in addressing this issue of sexual violence?
“A clear policy that articulates the university’s commitments and support for affected students is an important step in our ongoing efforts to address sexual violence,” said Ebrahim.
Lolas also expressed his opinions on the university’s overall recent progress.
“I wouldn’t say we’re the best, I wouldn’t say we’re the worst,” said Lolas. “I think we’re sort of in the middle of the pack, but ultimately, writing the policy is only so much. It’s how we implement it. I’m saving all my judgments for the university and how we handle this until we actually start using the policy and that will make or break the university on that.”
Tabujara believes that while there has been some improvement in addressing the issue, more needs to be done.
“The university is moving in the right direction by taking on this policy and making some changes, but it certainly needs to consider the bigger picture and the long-term effects that these [circumstances] can have on students,” Tabujara said. “It is recognized that the academic integrity of the institution must be upheld, it should not be at the cost of those who are most vulnerable.”
Tabujara also emphasizes how she believes the university needs to acknowledge how its own policies can possibly interfere with Policy 42.
“I wanted to come out with this story since finding out about UW trying to form the policies and for them to take this experience into consideration,” Tabujara said. “I want to take this experience here and make good out of all of it.”