A fact-based approach to addressing campus assault

Posted on January 19, 2015 in Child & Family Debates

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
January 19, 2015.   National Post Editorial Board

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is the latest politician to be seized with the issue of sexual assault on university campuses. On Wednesday she met with the provincial chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) to discuss the issue, and her introductory remarks were nothing if not reasonable.

“I don’t believe that it is negotiable that students who go to university or college in Ontario should feel safe,” said Ms. Wynne. “We are at a moment where there are more people paying attention and so we have to seize that moment and make some gains.”

It is axiomatic that Canadian university campuses have a sexual assault problem; one is too many, and there are many more than one. There is no bad time to address the issue. But there is a tendency among some activists, university officials and politicians to exaggerate the problem, which complicates the search for good solutions.

The CFS, for example, notes a study finding “four out of five female undergraduate students said that they had been victims of violence in a dating relationship” — but that’s true only if you define “violence” to include “swearing” and one party doing “something to spite” the other.

In September, President Barack Obama stated that “an estimated one in five women has been sexually assaulted during her college years.” But as Emily Yoffe reported last month at Slate, the figure derives from a survey of just two universities. And contrary to what many seem to assume, Department of Justice figures show women are actually safer on campus than off.

“What we are confronting here is a shift that we see in discussions that involve demeaning and sexist, misogynist and racist comments and words,” University of Ottawa chancellor Michaëlle Jean said last year. “We are seeing this more and more frequently in Canada.”

Yet there is no evidence that sexual assaults are on the rise in Canada. In 2013, the rate of the most serious (Level 2 and 3) police-reported sexual assaults was at its lowest point for any year save one since 1998, when it was nearly 50% higher. It is no doubt true that the vast majority of sexual assaults aren’t reported to police, but there is no evidence to suggest that the number of unreported assaults is growing.

None of this is to downplay the problem. It is rather to urge a calm, fact-based approach that gets at the real issues and properly balances the rights of the accusers and the accused.

We are seeing south of the border how quickly that balance can be lost under pressure from activist politicians such as Mr. Obama, who is threatening universities’ federal funding. Academic careers can now be ruined on a simple preponderance of the evidence; lawsuits against universities are piling up. A group of Harvard Law School professors recently alleged the university’s new procedures “lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process.”

This is not a model to follow. Instead, Canada’s education system should redouble its efforts to send students off to university as well-adjusted young adults fully cognizant of their ethical and legal responsibilities towards their intimate partners and fellow students. Universities, meanwhile, should do their utmost to measure the problem and calmly design solutions that keep students safe without infantilizing them or denying them a fair and due process.

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