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The reality of campus security: How post-secondary institutions navigate sexual violence

Being followed by a shady figure twice the size of the average college freshman isn’t what post-secondary students look forward to during what is supposed to be the “best time of their lives.”

However, for Brock University student Tanner Hogan, her first-year experience didn’t go as planned.

“It was really scary, we didn’t know what to do at first,” Hogan explained.

At the beginning of her first semester of university, Hogan and a friend were walking late at night from their residence townhouse to the dining hall, which isn’t connected to their place of living, when they noticed a man appear from a court behind theirs.

“It was hard to tell if he was a student or just some random guy or a don,” Tanner said, explaining dons oversee the courts. “Since it was late at night it was a bit eerie, but we figured if we got to the dining hall it won’t be an issue.”

Hogan said that things felt weird when they noticed the man waiting for them outside the dining hall after they’d finished eating.

“We both felt uncomfortable leaving that way since it felt like he was following us,” Hogan said.

Hogan and her friend noticed a security number posted on the dining hall door, called it, and said they felt relieved when two guards showed up – one to speak to the man, who wasn’t a student and later claimed he was “lost” and the other to drive the two girls home.

“The situation was handled well by security,” Hogan said.

Hogan and many like her are part of the 71 per cent of students in Canadian post-secondary schools that witnessed or experienced unwanted sexual behaviours, according to a 2019 report from Statistics Canada.

The reason that number is so high is because 18- to 24-year-olds are more at risk for experiencing forms of sexual assault, according to a 2023 report on sexual assault as it connects to university life.

Catherine O’Donnell, Mohawk College’s director of security and emergency, did crime prevention work for about 8-10 years before moving to administration. She said her passion has been educating on safety and security for as long as she can remember, and that she’s worked hard to make the school a safe place for everyone.

She also mentioned security guards patrol the school all day, every day, all year long.

“Hopefully you, a student, feel that the guards walking through the campus in uniform provide you with that sense of security, provide you that sense of confidence that someone is there looking out for your safety,” O’Donnell said.

That sense of confidence may not be found up on the Mountain, however. Katelyn Leinster, a student at Mohawk College, disagrees with O’Donnell.

“I just feel like [the security guards] don’t really do any good for the school,” Leinster said. “They walk around and stare at you and I’ve never seen them helping someone.”

Frequent reasons students refrain from reporting on-campus sexual violence, according to a 2019 report, are they’re worried it won’t be taken seriously, don’t have enough proof, don’t know who to contact, don’t trust existing staff/resources or are concerned about confidentiality.

Adding to the lack of reports, 80 per cent of women and 86 per cent of men who’d experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in a post-secondary setting said the offenders were fellow students, according to a 2019 report.

O’Donnell said Mohawk has experienced a “record-breaking” number of suspensions this year, and that two out of five were sexual violence-related.

On average, Mohawk sees five suspensions in an entire year.

Along with two counts of sexual violence, other suspensions were due to repeated behaviour contract issues – meaning the student continued to breach classroom conduct terms – and a fight in the campus gym.

“We will instantly intervene if we see something happening,” O’Donnell said. “But if there’s at all an opportunity to chat with the student to determine what the issues are and then what their wished outcome is, we both try to do the best to meet the needs of their outcomes.”

O’Donnell also mentioned the importance of understanding that some minorities are affected at a higher rate than others.

A 2023 random study at a Canadian university found that over 23 per cent of women, over 9 per cent of men, and over 16 per cent of nonbinary students reported an experience of sexual violence at least once the previous year.

O’Donnell said she and her teams are constantly learning unique skills they can bring to the table, adding that she had a team complete a course about performing a trauma-informed investigation of transgender students.

“We’re aware,” she said. “This is probably the biggest thing we can do.”

According to a 2020 Canadian study, various minorities find increased victimization related to sexual violence; 18 per cent of transgender, compared to over 10 per cent of cisgender students; 16 per cent of bisexual, compared to 7 per cent of heterosexual students; 12 per cent of students with disabilities, compared to 55 per cent of students without.

“We do proactive professional development in those areas to learn as much as we can,” O’Donnell said. “But again, we’re going to try to learn from the person that has been affected and how it is affecting them.

“We hope that a lot of our security principles around the guards patrolling, the amount of cameras, the amount of security systems that we put in are a benefit to everyone no matter what their background is,” she said.

Most students, like Hogan, simply seek support during these situations, whether it’s information on the process or psychological care provided by a resource outside the post-secondary institution.

Mohawk’s security resources are a 24-hours-a-day, live answered telephone with many ways to reach it: intercoms on campus and in hallways, assistance phones in parking lots, a mobile safety app, and anyone can ask questions, advice, or assistance from security guards.

Mohawk College’s Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer Maxine Carter didn’t agree to a request for an interview.


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