To deal with sexual violence, some universities are adopting an online tool
More than a dozen postsecondary institutions have turned to a new digital tool as a way to increase options for reporting sexual violence on campus. The Respect, Educate, Empower Survivors (REES) platform provides a centralized online space for students, staff and faculty to report incidents and access support services.
Mount Allison University adopted the platform in February 2022, following an external audit of the university’s policies and procedures concerning sexual violence. The audit, along with recommendations from the university’s internal working group and advisory committees, and “the day-to-day realities of working with survivors and with sexual violence” made it “clear that we needed a strategy for reporting,” said Tasia Alexopoulos, Mount Allison’s sexual violence prevention and education coordinator. “After some research, REES became very clearly the best option for us.”
Mary Lobson, the founder and CEO of the Winnipeg-based REES Technology Group, said the team behind the platform has experience in the field of gender-based violence. Before creating the platform, they consulted with “students, survivors, faculty, law enforcement, crown prosecutors, sexual assault nurse examiners – just really all the touchpoints that a survivor might have.” She said this process was important to ensure the user experience was survivor-centred and trauma-informed.
Dr. Alexopoulos said that approach puts “decision-making in the hands of the students.” Its ease of use and 24-hour access were also positive features for Mount Allison, but the approach to security was key. “All of the information that is going into REES and to us from REES is encrypted. That’s really important for student privacy, and so they feel that they’re in a safe process,” Dr. Alexopoulos said.
In addition, all data is stored in Canada (as required under some provincial privacy laws) and the platform doesn’t use third-party tracking. “For us, it was important that it be truly anonymous,” Ms. Lobson said. “That’s one of the things that we heard from students.” Privacy and security have also been key areas of interest from the institutional side, particularly because of legal obligations with respect to personal information, she said.
To access the platform, users visit the REES website, where each university has its own customized portal. If they want to create a record, they are presented with a series of questions. They then have a number of choices: they can save the record but not send it; they can send an anonymous report to the institution; they can connect directly with support services on campus; or, for some campuses, they can send a report directly to local law enforcement. Users can access information about campus and community resources, and general information related to sexual assault. There is also a repeat-perpetrator identification feature that allows a user to provide unique identifiers of the person who harmed them. And if someone else puts in those same identifiers, a match will be made and the institution will be notified.
This range of options was a key attraction for St. Francis Xavier University, which adopted the platform in December 2021. “We really see it as another entry point, a way to reduce a barrier,” said Heather Blackburn, the sexual violence prevention and response advocate for StFX. “An anonymous report in REES can’t really be investigated because it’s anonymous. But a student can choose ‘Connect to My Campus’ through REES, and then they’re put in contact with me directly.” Ms. Blackburn said she has already had students connect to her office through REES, adding: “I know they would not have come to see me otherwise.”
‘No quick solutions’
Charlene Senn, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Sexual Violence at the University of Windsor and was part of a task force that brought REES to U of Windsor in September 2021, said the real test is still to come. “We will not know for some time, because this is relatively new, how useful this actually is to survivors, how many more survivors get the information that they really need and are connected to the resources,” she said.
Still, Dr. Senn sees potential in the platform to fill gaps. “If we are encouraging our communities to become involved, they often want to know how they can report if something is happening to someone else,” she said, and there is basically no way to make that known through normal reporting structures. “I think that there can be a really great response on campuses without using something like the REES platform,” said Dr. Senn. ”But without a way for bystanders to report or to make anonymous reports, then universities are going to always underestimate what the incidence of sexual assault cases is on their campus, or sexual violence more generally.”
Other institutions that have also adopted the platform include Brandon University, Canadian Mennonite University, Université de Saint-Boniface, the University of Winnipeg and Bishop’s University. But Dr. Senn has a caveat for others that are considering using REES or a similar platform. “There are no quick solutions for sexual violence on campus. This could only be used effectively, I think, by a campus that has really done the work,” she said. “We’ve been doing prevention on campus for a long time and really institutionalizing it. It’s in that kind of context that, I think, the REES platform is most likely to have benefit.”