By Alanna Rizza
The Sexual Assault Survivor Support Line (SASSL) is struggling to sustain itself, and its services are in jeopardy.
SASSL is a hotline that provides peer-to-peer support for students who have experienced gender-based violence. Currently, there are six Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) equity service centres, including the Centre for Women and Trans People (CWTP), with which SASSL shares an office.
Cassandra Myers, the coordinator for SASSL, said she’s been struggling to maintain the support line for months. “I haven’t been able to give it my full support—it’s burned me out,” she said. “Right now, unfortunately, the line isn’t running at full capacity. We don’t have enough staff to support [it].”
According to Statistics Canada, there were about 21,500 police-reported sexual assaults in 2015. But only five per cent of incidents experienced by Canadians aged 15 years and older were reported to police, according to the General Social Survey on Canadians’ Safety.
More recently, on Feb. 3, The Globe and Mail published an article detailing a 20-month long investigation that uncovered how police dismiss one in five sexual assault claims as “baseless,” which means they are not investigated further. The article stated that those numbers are not made public, and are therefore not analyzed. With the high number of cases being dismissed, many survivors must rely on alternative support services, such as anonymous hotlines.
Currently, SASSL operates Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Comparatively, Brock University’s line offers 24-hour support.
Myers has been the coordinator—and the only non-volunteer employee at SASSL—since May 2016. She asked the RSU to shut down the hotline over the summer so she could update SASSL’s operating manual and policies, which she said were outdated and non-inclusive. These manuals are a resource for volunteers to handle incoming calls.
In addition to updating and re-writing the manual and policies to be gender neutral, Myers has implemented a call-directory system to the hotline so callers can access other crisis centres if needed. She is also in charge of the hotline’s promotions, outreach and research, as well as organizing and conducting the training of 20 to 30 volunteers each semester.
“As someone who really values standards in this practice, I don’t feel good about launching a line when it’s not up to par of what I think is safe,” Myers said. “The priority is that I don’t want anyone to be re-traumatized in this process.”
Myers said when she received funding for the hotline, it wasn’t enough to maintain the line and she wasn’t sure if she could ask for more support. At first, she said, there were miscommunications with RSU executives. Going forward, she is trying to present additional recommendations to push for more support and funding.
York University’s SASSL has eight staff coordinators: an events coordinator, finance coordinator, internal outreach coordinator, external outreach coordinator, training coordinator, promotions and publicity coordinator, policy and initiatives coordinator and a research coordinator.
“I am doing all of these positions on a 15 hour a week basis at a part-time student salary on a contract basis,” Myers said. “I’ve been feeling very satisfied with the amount of work I’ve put into [SASSL], but for me to feel comfortable about running this line to its full capacity, it needs a lot more investment by the RSU.”
RSU vice-president equity Tamara Jones met with Myers two weeks ago to discuss recommendations for SASSL. Jones said SASSL has been neglected because its budget is grouped in with CWTP, despite its independently-run services.
CWTP’s 2016-2017 budget is about $23,870—$1,500 of this budget goes to SASSL, and $18,000 is allocated for wages.
Jones said one of the recommendations she wants to prioritize is having a clinical support worker at SASSL. “I think if we’re going to be forward-thinking about how we want this service to look, we have to start building the infrastructure for that now.”
The major improvements the hotline needs to adequately provide its services, according to Myers, are proper advertising, staffing, training and data collection. Myers added that more students would use the hotline and other equity services if more people knew what support was available.
“The work we do here is at the core of what the students’ union is—we push out all the campaigns and policies and advocacy work.”
“We have the most contacts with the most vulnerable populations on campus and without us, you lose those people and they suffer,” she said.
Myers said she would like to advertise SASSL by having fridge magnets in residence and ads around campus. But that requires rebranding to have a name that’s less daunting and more approachable.
Comparatively, Brock University’s sexual violence survivor support service is called “A Safer Brock,” the University of Victoria’s service is called the “Anti-Violence Project,” and McGill University’s service is called “Drop-in and Line (DIAL).”
Ryerson also has an Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education (OSVSE), which offers a wide range of resources, support and assistance for sexual violence survivors. While OSVSE’s coordinator Farrah Khan provides support and resources to SASSL, Myers said it’s important to have a service run for students, by students, because going to faculty can pose a barrier for some.
“The point of the students’ union is that we’re not aligned with Ryerson [administration],” she said. “We have separate services, we are here so that administration doesn’t influence our policies—we can start a campaign that maybe Ryerson can’t support.”
“Even though Farrah’s office is confidential, you’re going in-person potentially. Whereas with our line, you don’t even see us.”
Myers said a hotline is also important because students can call from home. If an incident took place on campus, some may be uncomfortable accessing services on campus because they run the risk of bumping into their aggressor. Others may not want to be seen accessing these services.
“My heart is very much in this work and my heart is in the volunteers I’ve built relationships with,” said Myers. “I’m not trying to put any of them in danger and I’m not trying to put students in danger by having ill-prepared volunteers for students who need highly-trained people.”
“I just want more support at the end of the day so that I can feel secure in this job and the line will continue without me.”