Dear Pearson Community,
In my President’s Updates of December 2015 and April 2016, I told you about an important initiative undertaken by the College to ensure the continuing health, safety and wellness of the Pearson community – in particular, the students in our care. Today, I would like to update you on this process and tell you about the steps we have taken to ensure a safe and respectful learning and living environment on the campus.
Within days of my assuming the headship of Pearson in August 2015, I became directly aware of allegations of past misconduct impacting some of our alumni. After bringing my concerns to the Board at my first meeting with them, the College, in the fall of 2015, engaged human rights lawyer Cynthia Petersen. She was tasked with a two-part mandate deliberately designed to ensure that best practices were in place for current students and to review the historical concerns that had been brought to my attention. In particular, she was instructed to:
- first, review and report on existing policies and student complaint procedures to ensure that they met the highest standards of transparency, accessibility, effectiveness and fairness in the educational sector; and
- second, Ms. Petersen was charged with the responsibility of investigating, reviewing and reporting on historical concerns brought to the attention of the College and to recommend what steps, if any, Pearson should take to address these legacy issues.
Ms. Petersen has now completed both phases of her mandate and, while respecting personal privacy considerations, I would like to share with you the main outcomes of her work.
Summary of the Petersen Process
Ms. Petersen found that Pearson’s existing policies and complaint procedures are currently largely consistent with best practices among similar institutions in Canada and have evolved through the years. She also made a number of recommendations to improve policies, practices and procedures in certain areas, as well as to enhance awareness of protocols. Her recommendations are also aimed at improving access to avenues of complaint and, more importantly, ensuring resolutions that are safe, and supportive while also balancing transparency and confidentiality and the rights of everyone involved.
Specifically, Ms. Petersen asked us to ensure students are clearly informed about their avenues of recourse in the event they experience any form of abuse ranging from personal boundaries violations to harassment, exploitation or forms of sexual violence while attending the College.
I want to share a few examples of what we have done to meet and exceed the spirit of recommendations made as a result of this review. For instance, in the Student Handbook distributed to every student before they arrive on campus, we set out expectations and standards and have elaborated the complaint protocol. The handbook is available at the College and on line. These expectations are also reinforced with all students during Orientation Week. We are also taking steps to enhance students’ access to culturally appropriate healthcare and counseling services – both on and off campus – for survivors of any form of abuse. This is part of an overall mental health initiative that is currently underway.
As well, we have engaged a subject expert to complete work on reviewing our Respectful Campus Policy and developing comprehensive Sexual Violence policies to meet and exceed best practices. She is already at work on the campus.
Our adult community plays a key role in promoting a healthy and safe living and learning environment. As such, in addition to criminal background checks for any adult who lives, works, teaches or volunteers on campus, we have introduced ongoing training and awareness educational initiatives which are mandatory for all adults – faculty, staff and campus residents – to support a positive campus environment.
Off-campus Host Families – community volunteers who open their homes and hearts to students during academic breaks – also now are required to undergo mandatory Criminal Records Checks. Concurrently, we recognize that every College program, no matter how well it is working, needs to be audited and reviewed from time to time to ensure best practices are maintained. As such, we are also embarking on a comprehensive review of policies and procedures supporting the Host Family Program.
The Well-Being of all Pearson Students: Past, Present and Future
These proactive, concrete steps are directed at ensuring the well-being of current and future Pearson students. We are also committed to the wellness of our former students; and this commitment is reflected in the second phase of Ms. Petersen’s mandate. Prompted by anecdotal and other allegations of historical concerns brought to our attention, both informally and formally, we asked Ms. Petersen to reach out to alumni and other members of the Pearson community and we invited alumni and others to come forward and contact her, in confidence, with their concerns.
I should emphasize that Ms. Petersen’s mandate was not to investigate the actual veracity or merits of any of these concerns. She was asked to gather information relating to outstanding historical allegations. Ms. Petersen conducted a thorough review lasting many months and involving dozens of interviews and the complete and unfettered access to all College records. Based on Ms. Petersen’s comprehensive findings, the College has concluded that, although there are reported historical incidents of misconduct, there is no evidence of a pattern of systemic abuse.
Ms. Petersen’s findings indicate that over the College’s 40-plus year history, there have been a number of alleged incidents of misconduct affecting students, ranging from bullying, harassment and discrimination to suggestive or inappropriate behavior to sexual misconduct. Some witnesses reported incidents of misconduct by students, while others reported incidents of misconduct by staff, administrators and/or faculty. In a very small number of cases, some of those who reached out to Ms. Petersen informed her that they were deeply and negatively impacted by events alleged to have occurred on or off campus.
Moving Forward – Reaching Out
While specific allegations are unverified, we are nevertheless deeply concerned to learn of these reported events and, more importantly, how they may have impacted the lives of those directly involved. These reports, as relayed by Ms. Petersen, gave rise to much reflection by me and my colleagues in College leadership and has been carefully considered by the Board. This led to immediate action in ensuring and maintaining the best possible standards and practices, and this work will continue on an ongoing basis.
You should know that I have personally reached out to a number of individuals who bravely stepped forward to share their personal stories with Ms. Petersen. I took that opportunity to thank those individuals and to express regret for any incidents that may have affected their well-being while living at Pearson College.
I wish to extend that gratitude to all alumni/ae and Pearson community members who were generous and courageous enough to speak with Ms. Petersen. I also wish to extend an invitation to any alumni/ae who has not already done so to reach out to me, privately and confidentially if you wish, to share your views on conduct policies and practices based on your personal experience at the College.
This has been a deeply important process for our school. A journey into the past can be demanding and humbling; but it was an essential one to promote a campus culture of respect, safety and support. As we move forward, I want you to know that we will continue to be guided by the values of fairness, equity, transparency and accountability.
As Head of Pearson College, my first priority is the care and protection of our students. As their legal guardian – in loco parentis – while on campus, I want to assure you of my absolute resolve in fulfilling this responsibility.
Pearson College UWC offers an extraordinary educational experience to students from across Canada and around the world. We want to ensure this institution remains a safe, healthy and vibrant community and one that continues to earn your trust, respect and support.
President and Head of College