This article is more than 1 year old

Nightclubs need to do more to ensure students are safe for students

This article is more than 1 year old

Amy Merchant is the Vice-President (Welfare) at Lancaster University Students' Union

Chris Cottam is the Advocacy and Governance Manager at Lancaster University Students' Union

Lancaster University Students’ Union owns and operates its own nightclub – the Sugarhouse – and has supported the Lancaster Night In campaign.

We accept that spiking has likely happened on our premises – no nightclub can say with confidence that spiking has not taken place in their venue, and getting towards safety is about accepting reality rather than denying it.

Nationally, students have been boycotting nightclubs because they want to see more measures put in place to prevent spiking and to lobby nightclubs to take their responsibilities seriously.

At the time of writing a petition calling for these sorts of measures has over 170k signatures – a huge number that highlights the volume of individuals who are concerned about safety on a night out.

Safety begins at home

For years the Sugarhouse has been ensuring that welfare provision has been at the forefront of every decision that has been made – we’ve been proud to say we have always been the leaders in best practice in the nightclub economy in Lancaster.

One of the initiatives we have been most proud of was the introduction back in 2019 of a dedicated Welfare Supervisor staff role, employed as part of our venue security team, which are on duty during all our nights of operation, and provide front line support and triage to students in need of help and support.

This role is trained to deal with first disclosures, first aid and mental health first aid. This initiative has been so successful that our security company have been starting to trial this initiative out across other events and venues they work in across the north west, providing an impact to the wider community beyond our own venue.

We also require the security staff employed at our venue to go through enhanced training on safeguarding, sexual assault, handling disclosures, drugs and young people.

We believe in democracy, and therefore the students’ union nightclub closed its doors on Wednesday to support the boycott and stand in solidarity with Lancaster Night In. We did this because we believe in listening to the student voice and to acknowledge our responsibilities to ensure we run our nightclub safely.

On the night we took the opportunity to carry out refresher training with 50 staff which followed the nationwide Drinkaware training. We covered some of the official Good Night Out training which is to understand what is meant by harassment and to help staff feel comfortable and confident receive a disclosure whilst at work.

We will also covered a section of the DrinkAware training on bystander intervention to make sure staff feel comfortable with noticing situations and knowing how to get involved. The SU Safeguarding policy and responsibilities were also discussed.

More measures

As well as all of that, we’ve reviewed our practices to make sure we can say with confidence that we provide the safest possible environment for our students.

We have a dedicated welfare room, fully stocked with first aid provisions, a sofa, blankets and a coffee machine. We have extensive high-quality CCTV covering the full venue, including all bars. Staff are trained to collect unattended glasses and be alert to suspicious behaviour around the venue and at the bars.

Door Supervisors are alert for suspicious behaviour and are trained to look after customers who are unwell, the majority of our core team are First Aid trained as well as Managers. And on busy nights we run a “Late Night Do it Right” stand outside the venue, offering a friendly face for a chat, free water and biscuits.

If anyone is discovered to be spiking drinks with alcohol or drugs they would be reported to the Police, barred from the venue for life and also reported to the Deanery at the university.

The wider picture

Of course, not all SUs run a club and not all students would use such a venue exclusively anyway. So now we need to see the sorts of steps we take at LUSU adopted by the whole industry. It would be great if they would commit to doing so voluntarily – but if not, regulation and legislation needs to kick in to keep students safe.

There is a clear lack of data in this area and victims have come forward with their experiences and stories – some feel they have been ignored and not listened to. Universities and students’ unions have a responsibility to ensure that students have a forum to speak to someone and get the support they need.

We have always tried to prioritise and ring fence the funding for our welfare resources in our venue and at our events, but in a period where venues have been shut for so long and are trying to recover, we are concerned that venues might not be prioritising expenditure, or be able to financially prioritise spending, on welfare of their customers. That is why we think there is a need for more cohesive working with third parties like the Police, local council, commercial community groups like BIDs, and local support agencies to look at pooling resources, knowledge and intelligence to tackle this issue.

We also think there’s something to be said for a student centred and safety first approach. Too many clubs just eject people when drunk and therefore leave them potentially vulnerable, without providing appropriate care and support. We also need the culture to change so people can feel comfortable reporting incidents to venues with the confidence of knowing that they will be believed and that their complaint will be dealt with appropriately.

What’s next?

The night-time economy and venues have an important part to play in all this – but we must not forget the perpetrators. We still need universities, colleges and schools to do more to understand the attitudes and behaviours of their students, ensuring we’re using research, knowledge and insight to develop policy initiatives/interventions that can address sexual misconduct before students enrol at university.

Finally, we’d like to thank our local campaigners Lancaster Night In and their equivalents around the country for bringing this topic to everyone’s attention. We are also appreciative of all the students who participated in the boycott, many of whom organised their own nights in as part of the campaign. Students’ unions will continue to support the incredible work of the campaigners to make sure that their campaign is a success, and that they drive change we all want to see in the local community.

We don’t regard this as a “moral panic” just because an issue has been raised into the public domain – it is something that has existed and has now been given a national platform. There is an issue with spiking that needs addressing and coordinating on a local and national level. When the media pressure goes away, SUs have a duty to ensure that the campaign does not lose momentum and we continue to apply pressure on those who can make a difference to do more.

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