Consider this: Survivor-driven accountability

The U of A has opened the door to non-disciplinary accountability options.

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As the University of Alberta continues to move toward our goals to address sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and in recognition that most survivors do not make complaints about their experiences of SGBV, the U of A has opened the door to survivor-driven accountability called Non-Disciplinary Accountability Options.

This is a broad category of potential approaches for a survivor to seek the options that meet their needs. These options do not require a complaint and therefore do not involve an investigation or discipline. Because these options focus on the needs of the survivor (rather than establishing whether or not the incident happened), the process and outcomes can significantly differ based on the situation.

Individual accountability

Some survivors might want accountability directly from the person who harmed them in terms of educating themselves, acknowledging the harm they did, validating the survivor's experience, apologizing and other activities that could either 'right the wrongs' or give assurances that they understand and will never repeat the harm.

Some survivors might want to participate themselves, for example, by requesting a facilitated conversation; others might want that accountability to be supported by a third-party without having to be directly involved.

Institutional accountability

Some might have identified factors outside of the specific incident and might ask for changes in the learning environment, such as more education, a change in the culture or improvements to policies, procedures and practices.

According to the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Policy, non-disciplinary accountability options are: 

“Collaborative facilitated processes to explore interpersonal or institutional accountability options outside of a complaint. Typically requested by the discloser but voluntary for all parties, interpersonal accountability options are intended to be flexible and creative, and may include, but are not limited to: restorative practices, transformative justice, culturally-specific and appropriate practices, peacemaking circles, educational and other remedial activities.

Institutional accountability options may include review of policy, procedure or practice to encourage disclosures and/or discourage SGBV; examination of factors contributing to or permitting SGBV in a specific department, unit or area; and initiatives or projects with the aim of creating or fostering a safe and supportive learning environment."

Non-disciplinary accountability options are especially well-suited to academic environments because, according to the Courage to Act Essential Elements for Non-Punitive Accountability, they:

  • are concerned with harm rather than with rules
  • focus on developing shared values without forcing conformity
  • concentrate on the future rather than the past
  • acknowledge and seek to balance power, wherever possible
  • attend to the impact of the generated agreements on all parties as much as the issues that caused the harm in the first place
  • can address systemic issues in ways that focusing on individual transgressions cannot
  • reduce harm by recognizing that survivors may need to explore multiple pathways as part of their healing process

Restorative pathways

A restorative justice process is one way to hold people accountable for the harm they have caused and is gaining more attention nationally and internationally as an effective way to address the kinds of harms brought about by sexual and gender-based violence.

A restorative approach turns the focus from the incident itself to the harm caused and the steps that can be taken to repair that harm and/or restore trust. Some survivors have expressed a real desire to interact with the person who harmed them and seek true accountability — that is, an admission that what they did was harmful, a promise never to do it again and concrete actions to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. 

For some, an apology is critical; for others, it is entirely unnecessary. In all cases, the process is co-created with the parties and centres on the harm caused and the needs created by that harm. 

Limitations of the restorative approach

Restorative pathways are not for everyone and cannot be used unless: 

  • the person harmed requests a restorative response
  • the person who caused harm takes responsibility and agrees to participate
  • a skilled facilitator is available to work with the parties

In some ways, the restorative pathway may be more difficult for a person who caused harm because they have to actively engage, which differs from a complaint process where they can proceed without any self-reflection or change in behaviour. 

A restorative option is sometimes conceived as a form of informal resolution; however, some restorative processes can be structured and intensive. Whenever a restorative approach is not appropriate or available, other non-disciplinary accountability options can be explored.

Whatever form the non-disciplinary accountability option takes, the intent is to allow survivors to choose and participate in a process that centres their needs. It recognizes that the survivor deserves to fully reintegrate into the learning environment and to know that they are valued and that they belong.

This article is an excerpt from the online training course Foundations of Campus Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, available to anyone with a U of A CCID. See all mandatory and voluntary training opportunities on the SGBV Education and Training guide.

Deb Eerkes

About Deb

Deb Eerkes is the university's lead, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Response. She came to this position after having filled multiple roles at the university, including her previous position as director of Student Conduct and Accountability. In addition to her work as one of the university discipline officers, she initiated the university's academic integrity program and designed the restorative approach currently used in the residence system

Over the past two years, Deb has led the review and development of the new Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Policy, developed and implemented the Options Navigation Network and built a comprehensive training program for those who have a formal role in disclosures and complaints of sexual and gender-based — and other forms of interpersonal — violence. She was also the co-lead for the Reporting, Investigation & Adjudication working group for Courage to Act, a multi-year national initiative to address and prevent gender-based violence on post-secondary campuses in Canada and a co-author of A Comprehensive Guide to Campus Gender-Based Violence Complaints.