Prompted by and with assistance from the UWA Student Guild, the University is working to increase the accessibility of reporting procedures for sexual harassment on campus. The revision also involves director of Student Life Chris Massey, the Health Promotion Unit, the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and the head of the Complaints Resolution Unit, Gina Barron.
Various and major flaws have been identified with the procedure currently under revision. It is, for all intents and purposes, awful. Should a student or staff member wish to report a case of sexual harassment, they are made to follow a lengthy and at times baffling process, with features that risk discouraging individuals from following through to get the services and information they need.
On the University website, the form for reporting harassment can be found as a sub-page under a general incident page. This is the same place to go to when, for instance, you think your iPhone has been stolen, or you find a dent in your car after parking in one of the UWA bays. The sub-page moreover serves for reportage on verbal or physical harassment of any kind. There is no indication of whether it is the appropriate place for reporting sexual harassment – in fact, the word ‘sexual’ is entirely absent. Without these specifications, barriers of uncertainty and ambiguity emerge as deterrents.
The form itself is made up of a series of questions utterly inappropriate and insensitive to a recent victim of sexual harassment. Unnecessary demands begin at the first question, with “What exactly happened? How did it start? What did people say? What did they do? What did you do?” Question 2 makes the bizarre request “What do you think they were thinking?” (i.e. please enter into the mindset of your abuser at the moment the abuse occurred), and question 10 offers a yes/no response for “Do you often feel safe living in Perth?”
Whilst there is the option to submit the form anonymously, the expectation that an individual immediately detail how and under what circumstances they had been groped, molested or jeered at as a ‘slut’ is incredibly demeaning as a first step in an impersonal bureaucratic procedure, and likely to cause feelings of distress, humiliation and/or alienation. It is language that suggests an out-of-touch response unit, and a backwards-minded University – heavily undermining trust from the outset.
Submitted reports are handled by the UWA Student Services team, who “study the information” and follow up the matter with the person making the complaint. There is however little information provided on how the case will be handled, what to expect as an outcome, and if the complainant will be required to confront their abuser or give over more information further on into the allegation process.
UWA’s policy on sexual harassment can be found on the Human Resources section of the website, and is orientated more towards staff members than students. The wording of the policy is detailed and complex, and navigating the page to find relevant information is far from user-friendly. For the international student struggling to better understand their rights and protection under law, it would be a nightmare.
Under the new procedure (as yet to be finalised), reports are likely to be handled by the Complaints Resolution Unit (CRU) rather than Student Services or security. To replace the existing form, there will be a separate online one created – easily accessible and with questions specifically tailored to incidents of sexual harassment. Recognising that students with different cultural sensitivities and/or needs may feel more comfortable engaging specialised support, the Student Guild contacted various external service organisations outside the University requesting permission to direct students to them if needed. These organisations have agreed to have their details added to forms and websites to supplement campus-based services and external organisations already listed. The Student Guild assistance team – which allegedly put forward most of the suggestions for reform – was made up of 2016 Women’s Department Officer Laura Mwiragua, Education Council President Emma Boogaerdt, Education Council Secretary Hannah Matthews, and Student Guild President Maddie Mulholland.
The University’s initiative to address and resolve the problems within its reporting procedures coincides with the Respect. Now. Always. campaign, headed by Universities Australia and launched early this year. With full participation across the sector, the campaign aims towards “raising awareness of sexual assault and sexual harassment and lifting the profile of support services for students; obtaining prevalence data to guide further improvements in policies and services; and assisting universities to share resources and best practice across the sector.” Phase two of the campaign launched yesterday. Conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), it comprises a nation-wide survey to document and address the scope and nature of sexual harassment and assault experienced by university students and staff.
Implementation of the new reportage policy is set to begin next week, also to coincide with S.C.R.E.W. week – a UWA calendar event which gives focus to issues of sexual assault and harassment. A key part of the week is the free screening of The Hunting Ground – a documentary on sexual abuse in U.S. colleges and the failure of university administrations to properly address it – being shown in universities across the country as part of a nation-wide project. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion headed by Student Guild President Maddie Mulholland, along with members from the Student Guild, University leaders, and representatives from external partner organisations.
In fact, it is almost as if there are almost too many coincidences. Had the Hunting Ground Project or the high-profile Universities Australia survey not kicked off – with all attendant risks of shining a hypocritical spotlight onto the university’s own poor handling of sexual harassment reportage – would the review have gone ahead? Was the motive here more opportunism and the need to save face over anything more sincerely proactive?
Yesterday, the University of Sydney’s Vice-Chancellor received an open letter co-written by the University’s women’s officers from the last ten years. The letter makes grave allegations of a University which has for decades ignored repeated demands to address the systemic culture of sexual abuse on campus, and condoned unacceptable behaviour. In a Guardian article published this morning, current UoS women’s officer Anna Hush writes that “the major roadblock I’ve faced is trying to work with the University to change the way that it handles sexual assault as an institution. Time and again, I’ve realised that this problem exists for the university only to the extent that it is a public relations issue. For the University, this isn’t about student safety – it’s about future enrolments, profits and reputation.”
For UWA, one can read the timing of the revision as either poor or positive. However much your cynicism meter is going off the charts in that regard – it’s happening. If the outcome is a better, safer University for all students, then that, at least, can only be a good thing.
Still: it should not be the onus of student representatives or victims to keep prodding universities to ensure that misogyny and violence – problems that continue to typify Australian culture at large – are not tolerated on campus. As an institution which sells itself on being liberal, progressive and inclusive (and – in frankly the most pathetic pun ever – all about ‘you’), UWA should put its policies where its marketing message is, and show leadership where it counts.
Words by Kate Prendergast
For help or support on matters of sexual abuse or harassment, call 1800RESPECT.