Written by: Britney De Costa
Post-secondary institutions in Ontario have three months to meet their obligations under Bill 26, the Strengthening Post-Secondary Institutions and Students Act. Passed unanimously at the end of 2022, Bill 26 requires every institution in the province to have an employee sexual misconduct policy in place by July 1st, 2023.
An employee sexual misconduct policy, if well-written and built from a trauma-informed foundation, can contribute to broader efforts to address gender-based violence on campus by demonstrating the institution’s commitment to addressing this issue and by providing a clear, consistent framework for all members of the campus community to understand their roles, rights, and responsibilities.
By contrast, an employee sexual misconduct policy that does not take a comprehensive, trauma-informed approach has the potential to be nothing more than lip service, or even create more harm than good.
So, what guidance are institutions given to support meaningful policy development? According to the legislation, policies must, at minimum, include:
(a) the institution’s rules with respect to sexual behaviour that involves employees and students of the institution; and
(b) examples of disciplinary measures that may be imposed on employees who contravene the policy.
Little else is included in the legislation to guide institutions to build effective, trauma-informed policies, so in the absence of comprehensive, robust minimum standards, where can institutions look to inform their policy development?
Ontario Regulation 131/16 provides the province’s minimum standards for institutional sexual violence policies, many of which should also apply to an institution’s employee sexual misconduct policy. For example, the requirement for meaningful consultation with students and regular policy review are two important standards to inform any policy development. Other minimum standards, such as the need to address retaliation in policy, are particularly pertinent in the context of employee sexual misconduct given the unique power dynamics at play.
However, while a good start, the minimum standards in Ontario Regulation 131/16 do not offer a comprehensive framework for trauma-informed policies in the area of gender-based violence at post-secondary institutions broadly, or in the area of employee sexual misconduct specifically.
Until there is a stronger framework in place, we therefore recommend looking beyond what is required under law to guide policy development. For those more difficult and nuanced questions related to employee sexual misconduct, including the role of the institution in addressing student-instructor relationships, and information sharing between institutions, see Courage to Act’s Unsettled Questions White Paper Series. And while the focus is on the complaints process specifically, we also suggest the Comprehensive Guide to Campus Gender-Based Violence Complaints: Strategies for Procedurally Fair, Trauma Informed Processes to Reduce Harm, which offers strategies for trauma-informed, procedurally fair policy development to reduce harm.
Ultimately, more work is needed to develop comprehensive and robust minimum standards for all institutional policies that address gender-based violence – without it, we leave the door open for weak or misinformed policies that may have the opposite effect on the safety of an institution and its members.
Suggested Reference : De Costa, B. (2023, March). Addressing Post-Secondary Employee Sexual Misconduct Through Policy: The Need for Minimum Standards. Courage to Act. www.couragetoact.ca/blog/bill-26-minimum-standards.