Train staff to handle sex assault disclosures, universities told

Australian report responds to concerns about prevalence of sexual violence on campuses

July 19, 2018
Woman speaks to counsellor

Staff at Australian universities who deal directly with students should be trained how to deal with reports of sexual assault or harassment, according to the sector’s representative body.

New guidelines, released by Universities Australia on 20 July, say that staff must be able to respond to disclosures “with compassion and care”.

This meant training the majority of “staff with student-facing roles, so that if someone does come and disclose to them they know how to handle it”, said Catriona Jackson, the organisation’s chief executive.

“You’d think it would be instinct, but I’ve done some first responder training and most of my instincts were absolutely wrong. These guidelines have been informed by people who are experts in victim support,” she said.

The guidelines also advocate the creation of a specialist-trained single point of contact on campus where processes are “compassionate, consistent and robust”, and that minimises the number of times students need to “recount a traumatic experience”.

Ms Jackson said every university needed a stand-alone sexual assault and harassment policy that was “highly visible and very easy to find. One of the things we’ve learned through this process is that people didn’t know where to go,” she said.

Other recommendations include streamlining arrangements for academic special consideration, and offering multiple ways to make reports, for example online or through safety apps.

Universities Australia said the guidelines would arm institutions with a “reference point” for addressing a supposed culture of sexual misconduct plaguing the country’s campuses.

Ms Jackson said a survey had identified 800 separate university initiatives to address the issue. She said the new guide would combine the best of them with “new thinking from violence protection experts and student groups”.

“What is the best way to assist people when they have the courage to come to you and disclose? What’s the best way to stand with them through the whole process? What’s the best way to respond and assist in that recovery process, and give some of the control back to people who’ve had the control taken away?” she asked.

“If they’ve been raped, all the control’s been taken away. The aim is to give them the agency back, so they can make decisions and feel absolutely and fully supported by their institutions the whole way through the process.”

An Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry, which Universities Australia commissioned, last year reported that sexual harassment and assault was rampant in residential colleges. But it provided scant evidence that the problem on other parts of campus was any more prevalent than elsewhere in the community.

Ms Jackson denied that universities were carrying the can for a broader societal issue. “Vice-chancellors decided a couple of years ago that it was time to have a really good look at what was happening on campus, so that they could make some evidence-based decisions rather than guesses,” she said.

“We have a very large proportion of 18-35 year-old women on campus, and they’re the people who get harassed and sexually assaulted the most. It’s really important that universities take a leading position on this.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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