by Patricia Vera [ID: 450422030]
Nina Funnell, former University of Sydney student and tutor, was brutally assaulted on the day of her honours presentation. After going to the media, other students learnt about her and reached out to her with their own stories of rape, gang rape and sexual harassment. Are Australian universities doing enough to support victims of sexual harassment and assault?
It is already dark at The University of Sydney (USYD) when the screening of The Hunting Ground is about to begin. There are several female students filling half of the seats, as the moderator introduces the event. The students seem to be avidly interested in the documentary and the panel discussion that will follow it.
A group of experts is sitting in the front row too. Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor of The University of Sydney, is one of them.
Promotional picture and Facebook post for The Hunting Ground screening and panel discussion and The University of Sydney. [Post and photo: The Hunting Ground – Australia on Facebook]
When the lights go up again, the audience is silent. Some people seem to be in shock, some angry, but most of them seem to be resigned, as if the experiences shared in the documentary are part of a reality that they know well.
That is probably the case.
The moderator, Allison Henry, THGAP’s Campaign Director, breaks the silence by inviting the panellists to the stage. They talk about the documentary, about similarities to the Australian context, about definitions of sexual assault and consent, and positive attitudes that help victims of sexual assault to recover.
All panellists have already intervened when Ms Henry asks a simple, but important question to Nina Funnell, former University of Sydney student and tutor:
“Can you tell us a little bit about your experience here at Sydney Uni?”
Nina Funnell, former University of Sydney student and tutor, telling stories sexual harassment and assault that happened at USYD, and also her own experience with violent assault.
When Ms Funnell finishes, she is shaking and her voice is trembling. The auditorium is silent once again.
Being sexually harassed or sexually assaulted is something that thousands of students around Australia have and are going through, and it is the reality of some USYD students as well.
Sexual harassment and assault surveys
The National Union of Students (NUS) women’s department 2015 study, Talk About It, says that more than 27% of respondents have experienced some form of sexual harassment while enrolled at their university, while 14% of respondents have experienced sexual assault.
On the other hand, USYD’s 2016 sexual harassment and assault survey, Safer Community for All, says that 24.7% of respondents have experienced sexual harassment, and 2.6% of respondents indicated that they have been sexually assaulted. 25% of them said that their assault happened on campus.
While the USYD numbers are lower than the ones in the NUS survey, Anna Hush, the Women’s Officer at the University of Sydney’s Students’ Representative Council (SRC), thinks that the reason behind this is that victims of sexual assault do not want to share their experience with the university.
“Less than 2% of even the most serious cases are reported, which I think says that, if you have experienced sexual harassment or assault, it’s likely that you’re not going to do the survey because you don’t want to talk to the university about it,” Ms Hush said.
The survey, in fact, indicated that only 1.4% of the respondents reported their harassment or assault to the university.
What becomes clear from sexual violence statistics is that sexual assault is a real and severe issue that students have to deal with. While not ever case happens on campus (only 38.53% respondents reported that), universities need to be prepared to offer support, resources and appropriate reporting processes that will help students to deal with their trauma.
Sadly, this is where most universities fail.
The University of Sydney’s reporting process and victim support system
To report an incident of “unacceptable behaviour” at USYD, students need to fill an online complaints form that asks them to give personal details such as full name, student ID, phone number and email address.
Ms Funnel said that she does not know survivors who would feel comfortable using a complaint form like that because the university does not specify how it is going to use that information.
The lack of an appropriate reporting system is something that came up in the panel several times.
This issue is, in fact, something the survey recommends to “review”:
It is recommended that there be a further review of the incident and complaint handling mechanisms to clarify and simplify points of contact and procedures for incident reporting.
The USYD survey is part of a larger campaign, Safer Communities, which that encourages people to “speak out about unacceptable behaviour on campus.”
In its website, the university explains the process to follow in case of an emergency, which consists on dialling triple zero (and contacting the NSW police), calling campus security and contacting counselling services.
“The Counselling and Psychological Services team are able to assist students who wish to talk confidentially about an issue. This, occasionally, includes sexual harassment, assault or uncertainty about behaviours in relationships,” said Jordi Austin, Director of Student Support Services.
Dr Spence pointed out that campus security is being trained on how to manage sexual assault cases. Ms Austin added that “campus security teams are all undertaking first responder training, as well as ALLY and Pride in Diversity LGBTQI training.”
Student Support Services is also collaborating to increase awareness of the issue. “Sexual assault services posters have been in all bathrooms on campus, and we will continue to promote sources of assistance to students at orientation, through the student news and on the Safer Communities website,” Ms Austin said.
While the university is trying to improve its initial response team and the problem’s awareness, the main problem lies on the reporting process itself.
The implementation of the survey’s recommendations is, apparently, on its way, according to Ms Austin.
However, there is more that could be done, and USYD students seem to have a few ideas of what could be done to improve the system.
Ms Hush would like the university to do some kind of research on best practices to handle sexual assault cases. For the reporting process, she also suggested: “knowing that the information that you provide is kept confidential, knowing that the person who handles your complain is specially trained in responding to sexual harassment and assault, [and] providing a really clear time frame in which it’d be resolved.”
A student in the audience also criticised that victims do not get information about the outcome of their cases. Dr Spence explained that there are “legal restrictions” on what they are able to tell students, but he still thinks that “knowing what happens is a very important part of helping people.”
Karen Willis, Executive Director of Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia, agrees, but she also said “the process is just as important in many instances as the outcome.” She believes that when survivors are included in the process, when they are listened to, informed and supported, they have a better chance at recovery.
The University of Sydney has started taking baby steps towards the improvement of its reporting and support systems now, but it is not enough.
Going through a sexual harassment or assault experience can be devastating for the victim. People who have gone through it have already been failed by the system. The crime should have not happened, but sadly, the reality is that sexual harassment and assault are part of the everyday lives of some students.
Universities cannot and should not allow being part of the system that has failed them.
Survivors will have to live with their trauma, and the least that a university can do is to ensure they do not worsen the victim’s trauma through the reporting process, and to support them with appropriate resources.
It is time that the university does more and works harder for survivors because if it is not now, then when?
If you have experienced sexual harassment, sexual assault or domestic violence, and you are seeking for support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or NSW Rape Crisis (1800 424 017). These services provide 24/7 professional counselling over the phone. If you are feeling unsafe right now, call 000.
To contact the author of this story, email Patricia Vera [firstname.lastname@example.org].