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August 21, 2017 | by  | in News Splash |
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A Call for Change

CW: Sexual Violence

 

Two students from the University of Otago have described the way the University supports survivors of sexual violence as “inadequate.”

Monique, a student at the University of Otago, was involved in the University’s processes after she complained she was sexually violated by another student. Along with Kyra, a student at University of Otago and survivor of sexual assault, she is pushing for the University to overhaul its processes for dealing with complaints of sexual violence.

Salient approached the University to discuss these criticisms. The University stated that it has “robust processes and a consistent approach to all allegations of sexual assault — including treating every complaint made to it, or of which it becomes aware, with seriousness, and providing appropriate support for the parties involved.”

However, the University’s policies and guidelines are not specifically tailored to sexual violence.

The University’s Ethical Behaviour Policy provides that a formal complaint about a student may be made to the University Proctor, requesting that consideration be given to the matter under the Code of Student Conduct. The Proctor’s office is responsible for “pastoral care and student and staff safety,” and “maintaining a healthy learning environment.”

The Code of Student Conduct does not explicitly cover incidents of sexual misconduct, but does provide that “no student shall engage in actions that amounts to assault […] or result in […] harm to a person.”

A Sexual Harm and Response Evaluation Working Group (SHARE) was set up by the University in 2016 to review and make recommendations on the University’s policies surrounding sexual misconduct. However, Monique told Salient that the recommended changes do not allay her concerns. While some progress has been made by SHARE to create specialised policies, Monique said she felt “under-prioritised” and “left in the dark” as to these changes.

***

In 2016, Monique participated in the Love is Blind column* in Critic, the University of Otago’s independent student magazine. Critic arranges a blind date at a local bar between two volunteers, which includes a bar tab. Following the date, the volunteers each write a column about their experiences for publication in the subsequent issue.

Monique told Salient that she was sexually violated by her blind date, Nathan (not his real name). She also recalls being harassed by some of Nathan’s housemates, who hid her clothes and exposed themselves to her as she tried to find her belongings.

“Initially, I didn’t think about what happened as being rape. It was only after some time that I realised that what happened […] had really affected me, that it wasn’t okay,” recalls Monique.

“I didn’t want to think it was rape at the time because that would simply be too painful to admit to myself.”

Monique wrote her column early in the morning after the incident. It was published in Critic and in it she states that the night began well, but as it progressed, both she and Nathan became intoxicated. Two bottles of wine were consumed over the course of the evening.

Nathan’s column, also published in Critic, states that on returning to the flat with Monique, things got out of hand. “I must not go into detail for consequences of retribution.” He told Salient that he was not describing sexual violation.

Monique recalls him saying to her that night, “Maybe I’ll write, ‘Bitch put out’ [in my column].”

On July 29, Monique laid a complaint with the police.

The police confirmed with Salient that the incident was investigated, and that both parties were formally interviewed. Insufficient evidence was found to prosecute. Police met with both Monique and Nathan to explain the outcome of the investigation.

Nathan confirmed with Salient that he was involved in an investigation, but denies that he sexually violated Monique.

***

Salient sought comment from the University, but they considered themselves unable to answer questions about Monique’s complaint. “Due to privacy considerations, the University of Otago is not in a position to discuss the detail of any specific incident — or alleged incident — of a sexual nature.”

“We highlight the unfairness of, and serious risks associated with, reporting on specific situations of which full detail is not available — particularly where individuals (whether those directly involved or those with a role in responding to the situation) might be identifiable.”

At the time the police complaint was made, Monique’s parents, who were concerned about her mental and physical wellbeing, contacted the University to seek support for Monique. They laid a complaint with the University Proctor about the incident, who is stated as the appropriate point of contact in the University’s Ethical Behaviour Policy guidelines.

Monique met with the Proctor approximately ten times over a year-long period.

In these meetings, the Proctor offered Monique pastoral support and advice on how she might manage her studies. He also met with Monique’s family members about the incident.

Over a number of meetings, he and Monique discussed strategies she could employ in moving forward from the incident.

In October 2016, the Proctor suggested that Monique write letters to Nathan and his housemates to explain the harm they had caused, which he would deliver and return to her after they had been acknowledged.

Monique did not hear back from the Proctor or any of the letters’ recipients following this exercise. When she followed up with the Proctor in a meeting on August 2, 2017, the Proctor told her that the letters had been received and read, but did not provide any further acknowledgement or return the letters.

When asked by Salient, Nathan denied receiving the letter. The University would not confirm with Salient whether the letters were received or delivered.  

Monique told Salient that, while well-intentioned, she felt as though the Proctor’s lack of specialised training meant he was ill-equipped to deal with incidents of sexual violence. The Proctor appears to share these concerns. In the meeting on August 2, the Proctor told Monique, “I don’t believe I’m the right person to come forward to.”

In February 2017, Monique, with Kyra’s support, submitted an article to Critic, which has not been published, expressing their concerns about the University’s processes and Monique’s experiences with the Proctor.

Her article acknowledges that the University of Otago “is not the only university in New Zealand which experiences rape culture,” but that progress requires “taking sexual violence out of the darkness and giving it the attention and resources it so desperately needs.”

In the meeting on August 2, Monique told the Proctor that, “the article isn’t intended to be malicious towards the university in any way. That’s not the point of it.”

However, the Proctor was “disappointed” by the way he was portrayed, particularly the inclusion of a statement, referring to the role of alcohol in the incident, in which Monique claimed he said, “they’re just silly little boys who don’t know how to treat young ladies and when combined with alcohol they get even sillier.” When asked by Salient, the University declined to confirm whether this statement was made by the Proctor.

In the meeting on August 2, the Proctor told Monique, “If you were a young woman reading that article and you read that the Proctor won’t believe you, he’ll victim blame you, he’ll treat you unfairly, would you want to come forward? […] We want to bring this to light, to hold people accountable, and you’re going to portray me as the devil?”

Monique reiterated to the Proctor that her intention was not to demonise him, and that she would make changes to the way he was represented in the article. She delivered an edited copy of the article to the Proctor in person. At the time of print, Monique had not received a response from him.

***

Monique has been involved in a number of initiatives targeted at changing the way incidents of sexual misconduct are dealt with at University.

On December 15, 2016, Monique and Kyra attended a Sexual Violence Hui at a University hall of residence, Toroa College, run by SHARE. As part of the hui, Monique and Kyra made suggestions about practical steps that the University could take to improve their handling of sexual violence on campus and to provide a safer space for survivors of sexual violence.

These included suggestions about the way perpetrators of sexual violence are dealt with by the University, and structural changes which would address the lack of training in academic and support staff, such as appointing a new role with specialised training to support students around incidents of sexual violence, and facilitating the presence of Dunedin Rape Crisis on campus.

Monique and Kyra also sought to address the “cap” on counselling services at the University, which seeks to provide “short-term support,” limiting students to six sessions per year.

Further suggestions included an explicit provision regarding sexual harassment and assault in the University Code of Conduct; providing an independent and safe place on campus for survivors; subsidies or waivers for students’ health-related costs when they are a result of sexual violence; and improved systems for exceptional withdrawals where a survivor of sexual violence is unable to complete a course.

Monique withdrew from a number of courses in 2016 and 2017 due to emotional stress and mental health issues. However, she has been denied tuition refunds for two of the courses she withdrew from, and has not heard from the University regarding refunds for other courses.

Current University guidelines state that, if a student withdraws from a course after the prescribed date due to “exceptional circumstances,” they may receive up to a 50% refund in tuition fees, but this is limited to a defined time period.

“Exceptional circumstances” are defined as circumstances which are beyond the control of the student. Grounds for exceptional withdrawal include “serious illness or accident, bereavement, sporting/cultural commitments, service in the New Zealand Armed Forces, or other special circumstances beyond your control.” The guidelines do not explicitly provide for sexual violence as grounds for withdrawal.

On August 9, 2017, eight months after the hui, SHARE released its draft Sexual Misconduct Policy document and draft Sexual Misconduct Procedures document. According to University of Otago Director of Collegiate Life Services James Lindsay, the draft documents had taken “longer than we had hoped.”

“However, we believe the end result will be comprehensive in addressing the needs of those involved in these situations, and in creating a better University environment.”

The documents seek to establish processes which reduce the likelihood of sexual misconduct, and put into place support systems for those making reports, while recognising “the importance of natural justice for those alleged to have committed acts of sexual misconduct.”

One suggestion made in the Sexual Misconduct Procedure document is the provision of a Sexual Misconduct Action Response Team (SMART), which would monitor all stages of the investigation and resolution process regarding sexual misconduct.

Kyra describes the draft documents as “inadequate.” She told Salient that they do not explicitly address systemic attitudes of rape culture or provide support services for individuals with preexisting experiences of sexual violence.

“We need support too.”

The consultation period provided in the documents was also short, giving the consultation group 11 working days to respond, from the day that Kyra and Monique received the documents.

The Proctor was involved in the SHARE hui and had been part of consultation about improving the University’s policies around sexual misconduct. On August 2, he informed Monique that new systems and procedures were being trialled by the University, but were still in the initial consultation phase.

Although the Proctor assured Monique that changes were being implemented by the University, she feels “frustrated” that she was not kept informed about these changes. “He said I’d be kept in the loop […] but I haven’t.” She also feels that her own experiences, and the wider issues around sexual misconduct policies, had not been prioritised. “He displays a willingness, but then it’s like… it’s not important anymore.”

At the time of print, the changes suggested by Monique and Kyra have not been implemented by the University.

***

One year on from the incident, Monique still struggles with anxiety attacks. She has received extensive and continued support from Dunedin Rape Crisis throughout. “That has been the only place where I have not [felt] pressured in any form to make decisions about how to specifically heal from this. They have been a lifeline.”

Monique hopes that her negative experiences can be a catalyst for positive change in the University.

“What his flatmates did, the way in which […] the university treated me, is so much worse than actually being raped. At least with that I can’t remember so much of it. So it’s almost like some days, you can tell yourself that that doesn’t exist, that this didn’t happen.”

Monique told Salient that the Proctor had told her the University was using cases like her own as a guide to inform the new policies. While she welcomed a step forward, she was sceptical as to the University’s overall regard for the harm that had already been caused.

“Given the amount of time Kyra and I have spent chasing after the university to find out absolutely anything, it made me think — when it comes time to unveil these fancy [policies], are they going to talk about the fact that they’ve had students be so hurt it’s caused them to make this shift? Or is it just going to be something impressive that Otago faculty members have thought up because they’re so forward thinking, and that they should be congratulated for being one of the first universities in Australasia to do so — rather than being honest about how this even started?”

 

* Extensive changes were made to the Critic Love is Blind column in 2017, which included feedback from Kyra and University of Otago Vice-Chancellor, Harlene Hayne. These included the Editor meeting with volunteers prior to the date, and a limit on the amount of alcohol to be purchased on the bar tab. The email sent to volunteers confirming their selection for the date provides a range of safety tips, stating “If your date is drunk, they cannot consent to sex. Any form of nonconsensual sexual contact is assault.”

 

***

Under s 128A(4) of the Crimes Act, a person does not consent to sexual activity if it occurs while they are so affected by alcohol that they are unable to consent.

According to Rape Prevention Education — Whakatu Mauri, up to one in three New Zealand women will be subject to an unwanted sexual experience by the age of 16. Up to one in five women will experience sexual assault as an adult. For Māori women, the likelihood of sexual violence is nearly twice as high as that of the general population.

The rates of sexual violence for university students in New Zealand is not readily available. In her 2015 study, Samantha Keene found “relatively little” information about New Zealand university students’ experience with sexual violence.

In a report published in 2015, the New Zealand Law Commission found that as many as 80% of sexual violence offences go unreported.

A 2009 study by the Ministry for Women found that only 31 per cent of sexual violence incidents that are reported to police in New Zealand are prosecuted, and only 13 per cent of sexual violence incidents reported to police resulted in a conviction. A large proportion of those sexual violence incidents that result in charges being filed fail to advance through to a completed trial.

The New Zealand Union of Students’ Association, in conjunction with ACC, have been conducting research “around tertiary students’ experiences of sexual violence and secondary school sexuality education.” Their report “In Our Own Words” will be released on August 24.

 

 

If you need support:

Victoria University of Wellington — VUW has a number of different support avenues, details are on their website

VUWSA advocacy service — Erica Schouten; 04 463 6984; advocate@vuwsa.org.nz

Rape Crisis — 04 801 8973; Crisis line 0800 883 300

Lifeline — 0800 543 354

Women’s Refuge — 0800 733 843; Crisis line 0800 REFUGE

Shakti New Zealand — Crisis line 0800SHAKTI FREE

Youthline — 0800 376 633

Wellington Sexual Abuse Help Foundation — 04 499 7530; Crisis line 04 499 7532

Hutt Rape Counselling Network — 04 566 5517; Crisis line 0800 22 66 94

Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust (MSSAT)  Wellington — 021 118 1043

If you’ve experienced a sexual assault you can report it to NZ police by dialing 111, or learn more here.

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