The past week has seen the issue of sexual harassment and assault on university campuses take the spotlight in mainstream media. To see an issue usually shrouded in secrecy and silence make the front page of the Sydney Morning
Herald is very exciting, and a great step towards removing the stigma around sexual assault and empowering survivors to come forward and tell their stories.
Last Monday, in the midst of a media frenzy, the Vice Chancellor sent out an email to all students with the results of the Safer Communities survey. While the report emphasised that “it is encouraging to see this figure [the rate of incidents of harassment and assault on campus] is much lower than occurrences in the general public”, the report also contained some very alarming statistics. One quarter of students surveyed had experienced an incident of harassment or assault during their studies, with LGBTIAQ+ students particularly at risk. Of the students that reported their experience of assault, 41% felt that the University’s formal procedures did not help them at all. This is a cause for great concern, and should act as a call to action for the University to rethink completely its approach to sexual harassment and assault.
There is a vital need for a specific mechanism for students to formally report sexual harassment and assault. While the report recommends that the University ‘clarify and simplify’ these mechanisms, in reality the opposite is needed: the evidence shows that streamlining these services does not work. Complaints about sexual assault are of a completely different nature to complaints about academic misconduct, and a generic online form is not an adequate mechanism for students to report these experiences.
We need trained specialists on hand to support students through processes that are often alienating and traumatic. We need a confidential reporting mechanism, that doesn’t suggest that students resolve the matter informally with the perpetrator, as the current complaints process does. More than anything, we need the University to listen to students and survivors throughout this process so we can create a system that students feel safe engaging in.
If you have feedback or suggestions for the ways in which reporting processes could be improved, please email email@example.com – I would love to hear students’ perspectives on this.