A number of scathing reports have brought much needed attention to the issue of inappropriate polices and practices for responding to student reports of rape, attempted rape and sexual assault at Australian universities.
In a 2017 report to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the advocacy group, End Rape on Campus (EROC) Australia, with co-author, journalist and advocate Nina Funnell, point to the high numbers of sexual assaults occurring against Australian university students – both on and off campus.
Although we do not currently have reliable statistics on the victimisation rates of sexual violence in Australian universities, figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) more broadly report that 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15, compared to 1 in 22 men.
ABS and police data show that women aged 16 to 24 are at most risk of sexual violence, most commonly at the hands of a known man.
How do universities tackle the issue?
Much concern has been expressed about the ways in which reports of sexual violence are being handled by Australian universities.
In one notorious case in 2015, James Cook University came under fire for promoting a staff member who had been charged with raping an Indigenous student and then continuing to employ him for three months after he had pleaded guilty and was awaiting sentencing.
A spokesperson for the university told The Conversation: “At the time he took on the new role, in early 2016, the university was unaware he had been charged with the offence.”
JCU has since commissioned an external, independent investigation to confirm the timeline of events and what actions were taken within the university.
In 2016, Channel 7’s Sunday Night program investigated reported rates of sexual assault and harassment at Australian universities through freedom of information (FOI) requests, showing that over the past five years, there have been 575 official complaints of sexual assault and harassment recorded (145 reports specifically on rape).
Yet out of 575 reports, only six of these resulted in the expulsion of the perpetrator from the university.
The inappropriate handling of these cases contributes to underreporting, regardless of whether the violence occurs on or off campus.
Few students formally report sexual assaults
In 2016, Sydney University found that only 1% of their students who had experienced a sexual or indecent assault ever made a formal report to their university.
The National Union of Students survey from 2015 likewise reported that just 6% of victims reported the incident to their universities, and less than 5% reported the incident to police.
These figures are perhaps not surprising since rape survivors are among the least likely of all crime victims to report to the police, with some studies revealing that between 15-20% of survivors end up making a formal complaint to police.
Universities advise on ‘how not to get raped’
The EROC Australia report also points to problematic advice, information and support given to sexual violence survivors who disclose to university staff.
These might include accusatory statements, inappropriate questioning about the details of the assault, minimisation, blame, telling the survivor what to do, and overstepping the boundaries. According to one survivor:
“The first person I told asked me how much I had been drinking. The second person I told said that I would be ruining his life. The third person I told said it wasn’t a university issue. The fourth person I told asked me why I had waited so long to tell anyone.”
There is also concern about the university safety tips that “often employ ‘stranger danger’ myths, focus heavily on alcohol consumption, and fail to address commonly-held, dangerous beliefs about gender”.
For example, universities advise students to “not give mixed messages” with eye contact, voice, posture and gestures. They are told to avoid getting intoxicated or to pay half of the bill on a date to reduce obligations.
Students are also advised to walk in well-lit areas, carry personal alarms and “rape whistles” and “be prepared to scream and shout if attacked”.
The problem is that these prevention messages are often directed at the victim and what she or he can do to avoid being raped, rather than the perpetrator.
The danger in this advice is that many survivors may be deterred from reporting since they may feel they are at fault, or that what happened to them doesn’t really count as “rape”, particularly if the perpetrator is a known person.
Is this a university responsibility?
Australian universities have a patchwork of policies and practices for responding to reports of sexual violence. According to EROC Australia:
“Australian universities’ policies and procedures regarding sexual assault and harassment are often overlapping, confusing, inconsistent, incomplete, or in some cases non-existent. This means that it is extremely difficult for students who have been sexually assaulted to identify where they can get help at the university, who they can report the assault to, and what formal complaint procedures are”.
The reporting policies and processes vary between different Australian universities.
Some universities require that all reports of rape and sexual assault are reported to police, which might be directly against the survivor’s wishes.
In other cases a survivor wants the incident to be reported to police, but has been discouraged either formally or informally to do so.
Some universities advise survivors to meet informally with the perpetrator.
On the University of Sydney’s website on Student Complaints Procedures, students are advised that before making a formal complaint they should seek to resolve the issue informally by approaching “the person you believe is responsible and tell[ing] them what the issue is; ask[ing] them to stop; or to behave differently”.
This advice is highly inappropriate in rape or sexual assault cases and can lead to further harms.
In all Australian universities, survivors have the option of going through an internal process that investigates an alleged breach of the institution’s disciplinary code or code of conduct, often through inviting the student to appear before a panel to give evidence.
An internal investigation cannot involve forensic evidence and a perpetrator cannot be deprived of his or her liberty. However, an alleged perpetrator can be reprimanded, suspended, expelled or dismissed from the university if the panel decides on the “balance of probabilities” that the act occurred.
If conducted appropriately, these internal procedures can ensure fairness to both the survivors and the alleged perpetrators.
While not all survivors will want to pursue this avenue, it should be made available as one of range of different options.
Universities can also implement interim measures to exclude an alleged perpetrator from university premises pending the outcome of a formal complaints process.
Overall, the EROC Australia report criticises the “inappropriate outcomes” and “lenient punishments” that universities impose on perpetrators in internal investigations.
FOI data reveal that punishments have variously involved: fines, community service, apology letters, or moving the perpetrator to a different residential hall. In other cases, the perpetrator received a formal warning or a “note on file”.
Promoting pro-active and supportive university environments
As educational centres, universities are well placed to address the problem of sexual violence.
Measures should focus on: awareness, support, education and prevention, and responses or remedies.
When students report that they have been a victim of a rape or sexual assault, it is important that these disclosures are received in a supportive and caring environment.
Training and support needs to be provided to staff members so that they give reassurance and information about the avenues available to survivors to empower them to make the right choices.
Emphasis needs to be placed on listening, and above all, protecting the confidentiality of survivors.
Universities have a duty of care to students and staff, regardless of where the rape or sexual assault took place, and regardless of whether the perpetrator was a student or staff member at the time of the assault.
What can universities do better?
Above all, universities need to take a proactive approach to tackling sexual violence on campus. Recommendations include:
Clear and consistent institutional policies on how to respond to, and report on, disclosures of sexual violence, regardless of whether the incident occurred on campus and regardless of whether the perpetrator was a student or staff member at the university. These policies should be trauma-informed and survivor-centric.
A designated person (or team) with special expertise on sexual violence and who can conduct internal investigations.
Mandatory training for university counsellors in responding to disclosures of sexual assault; and training to help support staff and student leaders that is delivered by qualified expert services.
Clear referral pathways, that includes knowledge of external local services and an array of different options for survivors.
Transparent and publicly available data reporting.
Removal of reporting/lodging times for internal misconduct processes.
Greater communication to all parties about the processes and outcomes.
Appropriate advice and information to survivors through a comprehensive and trauma-informed website.
Primary prevention campaigns that: focus on consent and respectful relationships; raise awareness of the nature, scope and prevalence of sexual violence (both off and on campus); and promote proactive bystander intervention to challenge problematic behaviours and attitudes.
Support of further research into sexual violence.
These strategies will contribute to lesser rates of offending, greater reporting of victims and more transparency for universities.
EROC Australia also recommends that national standards be created for best practice responses to sexual violence.
This is alongside the establishment of a national complaints mechanism where an individual can complain to a federal agency about inappropriate responses to rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment by their university.
•If you or someone you know is impacted by rape or sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
• Correction: The original version of this story contained an inaccurate sentence about the promotion of a then James Cook University staff member charged with rape. This article was updated and corrected on March 2, 2017 with additional details including information about an external review into the case.