GDPR shouldn’t be a barrier to tackling toxic cultures

Does data protection legislation prevent students who have experienced abuse on campus from getting justice? Gemma McCall on changing the culture on campus.

Gemma McCall is CEO and co-founder of Culture Shift

When you’re a victim of sexual violence or harassment, the journey towards getting justice is long, hard, emotional and often retraumatising.

Unfortunately, in so many cases, it’s also fruitless. When closure is rarely the outcome, it’s easy to see why so many victims decide not to take that journey.

One of the biggest problems survivors face is that more often than not, they are completely cut out of the loop when it comes to sharing the result of an investigation – a process that is technically between the institution and the responding party. Institutions feel their hands are tied when it comes to sharing case outcomes, fearing it would be a breach of GDPR.

The recent spotlight on rape culture in schools, colleges and higher education, has once again proven the pervasive scale of this problem. We have to move on from the discussion to prove how prevalent the problem is, and we need to put survivor support at the heart of our approach, so the experience doesn’t result in them leaving their education and blight the rest of their lives.

Focussed on survivors

That approach starts with creating a policy and process for victims of sexual misconduct which is survivor-centric. At the moment these processes are a far cry from being satisfactory. In a recent report published by Reclaim The Campus, only 13 out of the 41 universities they researched have a policy in place to handle sexual misconduct.

Many survivors feel like complaining to their university would be a ‘waste of time’ and it’s easy to see why when they are kept in the dark about the outcome of their complaint. Often staff and students aren’t informed of the action that has taken place to keep them and others safe, which is a vital step towards not only protecting everyone in the institution, but in helping survivors find closure.

While institutions must meet their obligations under The Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA) and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), our recent guidance outlines that data protection is not a barrier to disclosing outcomes in harassment cases, it simply provides a framework for disclosure.

Survivors are being let- down, and this has to change soon if universities want to continue building trust and encourage survivors to disclose their experiences.

Finding the balance

We echo the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recent recommendations that universities should share information on both outcomes and sanctions in accordance with data protection legislation.

Sharing this information will help students and staff feel satisfied the complaints process was worthwhile and that pursuing their complaint will help create safer environments for everyone. This is also critical to providing a sense of closure for reporting parties and is a key element in taking a trauma informed approach.

Lobbying for change

We know there are many survivors who don’t feel safe enough to share their experience, or cannot yet find the words. It’s down to university leaders to make sure those people are encouraged to speak up, supported, empowered and believed, if they do choose to take that first step.

Anonymous reporting plays a pivotal role in removing the barriers to sharing an experience. We know that many survivors worry if they come forward and make a named report, not only will it impact their reputation, but some of the most intimate details of their private lives will be under scrutiny.

For survivors choosing to come forward and make a formal complaint, institutions must improve how they handle cases. We are calling on all HE institutions to commit to sharing outcomes with both reporting and responding parties, or an explanation of any actions taken as a result of the complaint.

Tackling toxic cultures

While it’s important to safeguard survivors, the biggest challenge is in adopting primary prevention tactics to create a positive culture which ultimately prevents these incidents from happening.

Institutions must recognise the main reasons survivors refrain from making a complaint, which tend to be one, or all, of the following: they think nothing will be done, they think they won’t be believed or they don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker.

Leaders should do everything in their power to earn the trust of survivors, proving them wrong by openly communicating how they will be supported. It’s also essential leaders are transparent about what action has been taken.

Time for change

We recently conducted research to provide recommendations for HE institutions on how they can tackle sexual misconduct. This included leading with a survivor-centric approach, while also offering advice for institutions on how to create safe and inclusive spaces where those affected can report and access appropriate support.

We thank all survivors for the courage they’ve shown in sharing their stories and will continue to work with universities across the country to eradicate toxic cultures for good. These issues being swept under the carpet and survivors not gaining closure, has to stop here.

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