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Tackling sexual violence and harassment in higher education

Debbie McVitty meets the pioneers tackling sexual violence and harassment in universities.
This article is more than 5 years old

It was not all that long ago that if a university was confronted with an incident of sexual violence on campus, the matter was automatically referred to the police. Universities typically did not believe that they had a significant role to play in tackling sexual violence and harassment. Many were unaware of the rates of such incidents taking place on campuses. In the post-#metoo era that position appears morally and practically indefensible.

Anyone who still needs convincing that universities need to deal with sexual violence and harassment should consider the impact of incidents like these on students’ emotional wellbeing, mental health and preparedness for learning. As the recent example of the Warwick student WhatsApp group has shown us, sexual violence, harassment and online abuse are a part of many students’ lives. It is not something they can leave behind when they enter the classroom.

Following the convening in 2015 of a Universities UK task force on sexual violence, harassment, and hate crime, universities have begun to take seriously the need to challenge cultures that tacitly, if not explicitly, permit sexual violence and harassment to occur. The work of effecting culture change is challenging, reaching well beyond the span of a single project or injection of cash. It can’t be done as a tick-box change to policy or process. But it is possible to make a difference.

Changing the culture

I quickly learned in talking to the individuals leading projects on this most thorny of issues that the problem extends well beyond isolated incidents of clearly delineated examples of inappropriate behaviours taking place among a minority subset of the student body. It encompasses deeply-held cultural expectations about what sex and relationships are supposed to look like, established norms and beliefs about gender, and cultures around online behaviour. It affects both women and men, in different ways. The risks and patterns of incidents are also affected by students’ ethnicity, faith, LGBTQ status, or whether they have a disability.

As Emma Bond observes, a “parachute approach” such as dropping a lecture about consent into student induction, is woefully insufficient to tackle complex ingrained beliefs and behaviours, especially where the topic is taboo and embarrassing. It requires sustained efforts to increase understanding among students and staff, change policies and practices and connect to expertise and support within and outside the institution.

Emma’s work focuses on supporting students to recognise and report incidents of online abuse. She notes that many students arrive at university with illegal images on their phones, or knowing that an image of them is somewhere out there in the ether. Most are unaware that it is illegal to hold these images, and likewise unaware that they have recourse if an image is shared without their consent.

Successful projects tend to enjoy the wholehearted support of heads of institution to address the issue. Some university leaders can be nervous about lifting the lid on sexual violence and harassment, fearing a reputational impact if it becomes known that the university is struggling with these sorts of issues. Yet it seems clear that this is not a problem located in one type of university or more prevalent among certain types of student. Jill Stevenson points out that given that gender-based violence is an issue for the whole of society, universities have a unique opportunity to use the assets they have to make a difference to a widespread social problem.

Open up the conversation

Kelly Prince has the challenging job of investigating reported incidents of student sexual misconduct. She explained to me that while the individuals trained to receive disclosures of incidents from students must adopt the practice of believing complainants implicitly, as an investigator she is required to maintain strict neutrality. She points out that the potential for both the student reporting incidents and those who are accused of perpetrating an incident to suffer trauma from the process, and the need to ensure both parties are supported and kept apprised of the process for investigation.

The evidence from her investigation is subsequently submitted to a disciplinary committee, all of whom receive regular training and support to come to measured judgements. Kelly acknowledges that universities are still learning how best to address complaints of this nature. She cites the absolute necessity of pulling in external and academic expertise to ensure the work of everyone involved is well-informed of the latest thinking and evidence, and cases are handled with the appropriate degree of sensitivity.

It can be a challenge to convince students they need to be part of the conversation. Non-compulsory training sessions tend not to generate a great deal of engagement. As Emma Short notes, activities will need to engage a diverse group of students, with different backgrounds and patterns of study. Kelly Prince is experimenting with lecture takeover and curated online discussions on sex and relationships in which students can participate anonymously. Jill Stevenson is clear that students respond best to peer-led conversations, describing a partnership with the students’ union to involve student societies in a university-wide social media campaign. The aim is to educate, not to instruct – culture change can only happen when people’s perceptions evolve, not through issuing edicts from on high.

Emma Bond says that it is important not to overlook the staff who are engaged in discussing these issues with students in unexpected ways. Course administrators may have to process a mitigating circumstances claim rooted in an experience of sexual harassment or online abuse, for example. Emma Short notes the challenge of engaging staff and students outside the normal work or study commitments; simply finding space in the working day for discussions about sexual violence is not easy. University staff will inevitably have differing views about the relevance of work on sexual violence and harassment to their roles. Some will have direct experience of the issue, while others will not have encountered it. Open dialogue is a necessity.

Moving the dial

When Sajid Javid commissioned the Universities UK taskforce, he claimed that universities should have a plan to “stamp out violence against women.” The reality is that ending violence against women is not in universities’ power to do. But the projects that are running – and this article has only explored a few of many examples – are seeing real results. Improved understanding of the law and increased ownership of university community standards of behaviour among students and staff. University staff equipped to cope with students reporting incidences of sexual harassment, and increases in the numbers of incidents reported. Joined-up working between universities, the police and local and national expert bodies.

The work can be frustrating, and take a toll on the individuals who carry it out. Self-care, seeking help and advice and creating opportunities to process feelings and experiences are crucial. Universities planning to develop their work in this area need to consider how to support the staff leading the projects, as well as the students and staff who will be involved in delivering it.

In a sense, the pioneers of work in this area have made a smoother path for universities who are just beginning to consider these issues, and who should be eager to avoid reinventing the wheel. At a time when most policy talk is of securing value for money and fostering competition, it is heartening to remember that there is still enormous potential for collaboration and sharing of insight on the issues that are making a meaningful difference to students’ lives.

Meet the pioneers

Kelly Prince, Serious Incident Officer, Keele University

Our project aims to provide a wraparound response based on three key areas of work; prevention, support, and intervention. Prevention has included education and campaigning which has involved staff and students. Support centres on a specialist provision for reporting students via our Sexual Violence Liaison Officers, and support and advice for accused students; the health and wellbeing of both reporting and accused students is at the core of our response. Intervention is achieved through our disciplinary procedures which includes a temporary exclusions process; this allows us to put a number of temporary restrictions in place, depending on the specific circumstances of the case and based on a risk assessment. This enables us to reinforce our educational messaging that sexual misconduct is #NeverOK, at Keele and beyond.

The most notable impact is a year-on-year increase in reporting. We know from various victim surveys that incident rates are high at university, but reporting rates are notoriously low. Through the promotion of our specialist support, students seem to be more confident in coming forward. We make it clear that support is available whether or not the student wishes to make a formal complaint to the university or the police, and our sexual violence liaison officers will always be led by what the student wants. It is important they feel in control of what happens next; while there are times when safeguarding concerns will dictate an outcome, we try to be upfront about this from the start.

One of the biggest challenges is just the nature of the work; it is a new field of work for the sector, which can also be high-risk, and each case brings new dynamics which need a new and considered response. The stakes are high for both reporting and accused students, so emotions run high. When things don’t go as well as we would like, it’s important to recognise that, and turn it into an opportunity for growth by embedding the lessons learned in our future work.

Advice for others

Before launching your support services, make sure you have a clear process for handling formal complaints of sexual misconduct. Link in with local Rape Crisis and other charities, as well as private specialist providers, to make sure your support and disciplinary response is informed and takes account of the various dynamics which make these cases different to other misconduct cases. Disclosure training (we use the USVReact model) for staff across the university community is essential and helps to increase understanding.

Make sure your senior leadership team is fully engaged with and supportive of your work in this area. Involve them in the campaigns, so their support is visible to the whole university community. Pilot, review, and evaluate regularly – embed lessons learned and create opportunities to share and discuss with colleagues from other provider institutions. This work can be very challenging for staff. Making sure there is appropriate external supervision and support is essential.

Emma Short, Reader in Cyberpsychology, University of Bedfordshire

The Bedfordshire Cyber Awareness Programme was designed to raise awareness of students and the staff who engage most with students in their daily lives, about unacceptable online behaviour and how to deal with it, as a preventative strategy. What we aimed to achieve was an increase in the awareness of students and staff about what constitutes unacceptable online behaviour and greater preparedness to seek help when encountering it.

The pilot project evaluation was conducted via observation and pre- and post-intervention questionnaires. Preliminary analysis of the comparison between the pre- and post-session questionnaire showed that approximately 63 per cent of respondents changed their opinion on their readiness/willingness to take action if they witnessed harmful online interactions. We will continue to monitor change as the program rolls out.

The biggest challenge was probably getting the training course piloted, to produce the materials that would be adapted and used in peer-assisted learning. Finding enough staff and students who could be free to give up their time at the same time as the project team who were doing this on top of their day jobs was challenging and took longer to achieve than we expected.

Advice for others

Whatever department you work or study in, broadly everyone in higher education wants the same things: more tolerance, less aggression and a safer place for everyone to be themselves. Research about campus life has to be inclusive. Academics are good at structuring projects, but they will learn far more about the experience of students, from students themselves, peer learning networks and the people who assist them in their daily lives, like library staff, estates and housing and student support services.

Once we began talking inclusively, we got a much fuller picture about online harassment and the different levels of understanding that members of the university community had about it. Keep in mind the variety of cohorts you have (foundation, apprentice, MSc etc…) and look for ways to have your programme reach those students as well.

Emma Bond, Director of Research and Head of the Graduate School, University of Suffolk

Concerns over sexual misconduct at universities have recently been the focus of media headlines, and research suggests that women are more likely to be asked for a nude; be the recipient of a dick pic; have their intimate details shared online and be the victim of online sexual harassment and abuse.

The University of Suffolk has just completed a year-long Office for Students Catalyst-funded project to successfully raise student and staff awareness to recognise harmful content and online abuse, and how to report it. The project adopted a whole community approach starting with all staff training sessions on handling disclosures and reporting online abuse and included pan-university workshops; seminars; posters; leaflets; social media and online resources on the virtual learning environment which focused on image-based abuse; online harassment; indecent images; hate crime and hateful content; identity theft and fraud and how to report incidents and concerns.

As a result, there is an increased awareness of digital civility and improved digital wellbeing throughout the student community with many more students reporting that they can recognise and know how to report online abuse. Since starting the project we have also seen a real difference in staff knowledge and understanding of online harassment and abuse, and in their confidence in responding to disclosures and supporting students to report and seek help.

Current student cohorts are the first to be entering higher education having grown up with smartphones. As such, they are very likely to be all too familiar with nudes and dick pics; hateful content, pornography; online and image-based abuse. The online risk for children and young people is well acknowledged yet it does not cease when young people reach eighteen. Student safeguarding is a well-established responsibility for universities, and as online safeguarding education in schools across the UK is inconsistent, universities should not assume that students are well-versed in keeping themselves safe online or knowing how to recognise and best respond to online abuse.

Advice for others

It is everyone’s responsibility, but clear accountability at senior management level is imperative. Student and staff inductions have their place, but parachute, one-off approaches like a week-long campaign do not have a sustainable impact. To challenge the culture, initiatives need to be long-term, cover the spectrum of risks, be embedded in course curriculums and be part of the everyday student experience.

Adopting a holistic approach is essential including staff training for everyone and reporting needs to be accessible to all through a variety of mechanisms including face-to-face and online. There are some great resources, help and support already available, for example, the National Revenge Porn Helpline; Safelives; the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF); Cifas and the Home Office ‘no ifs no buts’ campaign for universities to use.

Jill Stevenson, Head of Student Support Services, University of Stirling

I am leading the delivery of a holistic strategy to prevent and tackle gender-based violence. Developed in partnership with our students’ union and a range of local and national partners, it aims to create a culture where gender-based and sexual violence is not tolerated, staff and students feel comfortable to report gender-based violence, and our community is confident in how to support anyone who has been affected. We have created an interactive staff training programme, a new network of 16 trained Sexual Violence & Misconduct Liaison Officers (SVMLOs), a comprehensive website and a multiple award-winning campaign #isthisok? which aims to challenge inappropriate behaviours relating to sexual and gender-based violence.

We have trained over 400 staff, and the training has evaluated extremely well; it has not only raised awareness of how to challenge, report and respond to sexual violence, but it has also been shown to change perceptions and tackle myths around this topic. The SVMLOs have already supported students who have reported sexual violence. We see an increase in reports as an indicator of success and culture change, as we know sexual and gender-based violence are severely under-reported across society, not just in universities. Our initial #isthisok? pledge campaign was supported by over 50 student clubs and staff teams and was promoted widely across social media. Next step will be to run a peer training programme to encourage vibrant conversations amongst our student body about respect, consent and a healthy campus environment.

This is a genuine culture change project, so securing buy-in across an institution as large as a university is always going to be challenging, but the response from our senior management team, colleagues and student body alike has been fantastic. This is a true partnership. Gathering data is also a challenge, and developing the SVMLO framework has been hard work, but extremely rewarding as we now have a trained network of staff who can support students and staff who have been affected by sexual violence.

Advice for others

Make sure you truly understand why this work is so important; have evidence to hand to help secure that essential buy-in. Develop your support framework and ensure it links to the staff and student discipline processes before you run awareness-raising campaigns; it is so important to be able to provide robust support to your community if you raise their expectations. Find your champions, build fruitful collaborations, harness expertise, and stay resilient – progress will come! At the University of Stirling, I can genuinely say I have seen incredible, positive culture change which makes me proud and inspires me to keep going.

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