A Broken System: The ANU and SASH on Campus

Content Warning: This article makes express mention of sexual assault, sexual harassment and institutional betrayal.

With the release of the ANU Women’s Department Broken Promises Report this year, new questions have arisen surrounding the effectiveness of the University’s current strategies to tackle the issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH) on campus.

On the 1st of August 2017, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released their findings from their report titled “Change the Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities”. 

This report detailed an extensive survey and investigation of the prevalence of SASH across 39 Australian universities, including the ANU. Over 30,000 students responded to the survey submitting over 1800 personal experiences between 2015 and 2016. 

The ANU was ranked as the university with the highest percentage of its student population reporting that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. It also ranked second highest in the percentage of its student population reporting that they had experienced some form of sexual assault.

In 2018, at the request of the ANU, consultancy agency Nous Group formulated its own report titled “Review of ANU residences’ response to sexual assault and sexual harassment”. It detailed 12 recommendations to guide the University in combatting sexual violence at ANU, particularly at residential halls and colleges.

The Nous Group’s report criticised the ANU on a number of issues including a lack of consistent communication of zero tolerance towards SASH, reporting mechanisms and support available to victims, a reporting and disclosure mechanism that was reputed to be confusing and unnavigable for staff and students and lack of communication of consequences and punishments for perpetrators. 

The Report also criticised the previous Senior Resident (SR) model at ANU residences, mentioning that SRs were sometimes inadequately trained to deal with SASH disclosures and incidents. It also found that SRs were sometimes too young to be dealing with these issues, which require a high level of maturity. 

All 12 recommendations were accepted by the ANU and since then the University has implemented a number of strategies and changes in an effort to combat SASH on campus. 

Such changes included the establishment of the Respectful Relationships Unit (RRU) as the designated body in dealing with primary prevention of SASH through education and community engagement. The RRU has since run a range of training and education initiatives aimed at increasing awareness and understanding of sexual violence and guidance on receiving SASH disclosures for both staff and students, particularly at residential halls and colleges.

Specific training concerning responding to disclosures and incidents of SASH was also provided to SRs at all ANU residences and has been permanently incorporated into the University’s SR InterHall training program since 2020. 

The ANU also created an online disclosure form, which can be used by any member of the ANU community to report an incident of SASH, recent or historical. This form is managed by the Student, Safety and Wellbeing Team who aim to respond to reports within 72 hours.

The RRU additionally provides soft and hard copies of print resources designed to improve community literacy surrounding SASH as well as support mechanisms available to survivors. 

The University also established the Wellbeing and Support Line designed to provide support to students experiencing significant distress and mental health concerns. It offers debriefing support and assistance to students, operating 24 hours a day. 

The ANU has also elected to be a part of the National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) which launched this year. The NSSS collects information on SASH incidents at Australian universities to provide a better understanding of what is happening on Australian university campuses and what support should be provided to students. The ANU opted to contribute to this survey to make the University “a safer and more respectful environment for everyone.”

While the changes and commitment from the ANU have been welcomed by students, ANUSA Women’s Officer, Avan Daruwalla, says that the follow through has been “abysmal.”

She acknowledged that while disruptions due to COVID-19 may have stilted the effectiveness of these proposed changes, it remained that many of these initiatives have either lost momentum or have not been properly executed to meet student needs.

“It appears that even with pressure the ANU fails to prioritise addressing widespread instances of SASH. It is [a] blatant wrongdoing and the neglect of survivors of sexual violence points to a systemic lack of care for oppressed groups who are most likely to suffer,” she said. She highlighted that ‘there hasn’t been a long term actionable cultural change plan implemented and it’s evident that the RRU has not yet been particularly successful as a prevention mechanism.”

Daruwalla also commented on the communication efforts from the ANU concerning support resources available to victims and guidance for pastoral care teams around escalation measures. She posits that long term cultural change requires “academically informed primary prevention planning, not a one-off soft approach consent session and click through online module.”

Furthermore, the Women’s Officer said that the capacity to respond in a compassionate manner to SASH disclosures and incidents differed between residences on campus. She stated that the “system is deeply flawed given that often survivors of sexual violence are not in a position to pursue multiple avenues of support so a negative initial response may mean they never access appropriate and useful support.”

A previous SR from John XXIII College provided their views on the training and its effectiveness. “They pretty much just told us how to listen, show empathy, make sure the person feels supported. But…those are just buzzwords, sure we can spend a 10 minute activity training for it but it doesn’t really add much when you’re actually in a situation.”

Daruwalla said that the ANU should be doing more to deal with the issue of SASH on campus. She proposed a number of changes such as development of a cultural change action plan to address the drivers of sexual violence, increasing the capacity of the RRU to be a “multi-pronged unit for understanding disclosures, reporting, and engaging in prevention,” and that the RRU develop a specialist team trained to deal with the complex legal and administrative procedures of SASH disclosures and incidents. 

She also suggested that the ANU should be more transparent in its work towards dealing with SASH on campus stating that “students have a right to know the extent of the University’s compliance with previous promises and commitments.” 

A number of protests have occurred over the last four years, including during Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt’s address about the ANU Strategic Vision in August this year, Daruwalla’s sentiments may indeed reflect the attitudes of a large portion of the ANU student population: that the University’s actions and outcomes have not met the expectations of students.

This article forms part of a Woroni series focusing on the quality of wellbeing and pastoral care services available to ANU students living on and off campus.

If you or anyone you know is affected by the content of this piece, please contact one of the support services below:

Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Crisis Line
(02) 6247 2525

ANU Counselling
(02) 6125 2442

1800 RESPECT
1800 737 732

ANU Women’s Department
sa.womens@anu.edu.au

ANU Queer* Department
sa.queer@anu.edu.au

ANU Respectful Relationships Unit
respect@anu.edu.au