CW: Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment and sexual assault are growing issues amongst university students, prompting Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs’ recent survey into the matter. With six on campus residential halls, including undergraduate and postgraduate accommodation, the ANU forms part of the increasing number of sexual assault and harassment cases across Australia.
Although the university has procedures for dealing with sexual assault and harassment, its residential halls have a significant amount of discretion with regards to any incidents that may occur within their walls.
Woroni contacted various ANU Heads of Hall to comment on their procedures regarding sexual harassment and assault.
Interestingly, the ANU owned colleges do not have individual policies on sexual harassment or sexual assault but rather utilise the official ANU procedures. Given that each college maintains significantly different cultures, traditions and administrations, the appropriateness of generic university-wide policies is debatable.
ANU affiliated colleges such as Burgmann and Johns have separate policies on the matter. Burgmann has a policy on sexual harassment, but currently no policy on sexual assault. Johns has previously had a meagre policy on sexual harassment and assault, provided to residents in a paragraph of their student handbooks. However, Johns is currently drafting new sexual harassment and assault policy with the aid of several consultants, including the ANU, to make sure the college’s new policy aligns with the university’s.
The Head of Johns College, Geoff Johnston, was the only Head of Hall to sit down with Woroni. Johnston said that when his college receives a complaint there is firstly immediate concern for the complainant and secondly, there is an assessment of the threat to other residents.
Richard Baker, Pro-vice Chancellor (University Experience), echoed this sentiment when telling Woroni, “there are two aspects to how the University deals with these disclosures; firstly and of paramount importance is ensuring the person’s safety and support; the secondary considerations are, does the person wish for there to be follow up action and can the University assist in that follow up action.”
However Baker also stated that this ‘follow up action” can be difficult as it “depends on the nature of the allegation, those involved, whether it is a formal complaint or an anonymous disclosure about an incident.” Baker also indicated that “whether the disclosure is made to the University or to an affiliated residence” was of consideration.
That said, regardless of the nature of reports of sexual assault or harassment, ANU policies available on the ANU website claim to treat “all grievances in a sensitive, fair, timely and confidential manner”.
Primarily, this involves facilitating procedural fairness, which ensures that all parties involved in a case of sexual assault or harassment are entitled to respond to allegations against them and provide evidence.
According to ANU policy, the university and residential halls claimed to try to follow the complainant’s wishes as much as possible. However in serious cases concerning, for example, a serial offender, Johnston indicated that the college would most likely take action to protect its residents from immediate and ongoing risk regardless.
Johnston said it was important to achieve justice on both sides; “when you have one of these issues there’s no winners and you’ll tend to find the victim is not as happy as they like and the perpetrator is not as happy as they like and that’s caused by us trying to find a balance between what’s just and fair.”
Aside from fairness, the record of many colleges in terms of treating allegations of sexual assault and harassment in a “timely manner” remains blurry. Residents from an unnamed ANU college who experienced sexual harassment earlier this year told Woroni that their college only started taking action after multiple students repeatedly complained of incidences concerning the same person. Moreover, action was only taken after Senior Residents at the college urged the matter to be taken seriously, a process which ended up significantly delaying results.
Confidentiality with regards to reports of sexual assault and harassment did seem to be prioritised by colleges. Residents told Woroni that when reporting instances of sexual assault and harassment to Senior Residents or Women’s Officers, they were not required to name themselves or the perpetrator to the college administration. Although Senior Residents and Officers were required to disclose to the college that an incident had occurred when in this situation, they maintained the possibility of protecting the privacy of the individual.
However, as a result, the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre and Australian Federal Police were only involved in procedures for dealing with sexual assault and harassment if victims made formal and named reports.
In the case of complaints of sexual assault and harassment involving ANU students, residents were given the option to bring reports to the attention of the ANU Dean of Students, Associate Professor Paula Newitt.
Concerning Johns College in particular, it was disclosed that procedure meant that, where possible, the names of students accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault would be provided by the college to the university, though the details of the case would not be disclosed. Although this process allows individuals to be “flagged” by the university, it does not necessarily prevent them from attending other colleges.
Furthermore, from investigations undertaken by Woroni, it appeared that overall these procedures were not always followed, and that in most situations a “case by case” approach was taken by residential halls.
Although the flexibility of the “case by case” model allows for personalised support and guidance, many students reported being unsure of what to expect from reporting cases of sexual harassment and assault. Many were also unaware of how to go about the process, a situation compounded by the vulnerability of their position.
Discussions with ANU Counselling also revealed that the official ANU procedure for dealing with allegations of sexual assault in residential halls was only available online, and not supplied in hard copies at the ANU Health Centre, ANU Counselling Centre, or in the Residential Halls themselves. As an official stated, “keeping the procedures online is easier in case they change.”
Moreover, these official ANU procedures utilise legal jargon that is arguably difficult for the average student to understand, with terms such as “procedural fairness” and “victimisation” being thrown around lengthy and disjointed documents titled “Procedure: Prevention of discrimination, harassment and bullying” (terms somehow encompassing sexual assault), or “Procedure: Student Critical Incident.”
Additionally, a student shown these documents by Woroni News commented on the fact that no translations of these policy and procedure documents were available online, leading to concerns that international or exchange students with poor English skills might be disadvantaged in understanding university protocol and the options available to them in the case of sexual assault or harassment.
In all conversations conducted by Woroni looking at ANU sexual assault policy and procedure, a single trend was clear; as summarised by a welfare officer from an unnamed residential hall, “The real issue is that this is happening in the first place.”
Similarly, for Johnston, what will be most interesting to see from the anticipated results of Triggs’ survey is whether rates of sexual harassment and assault on university campus’ are higher than rates within broader society.
Regardless, if anything is certain it is that current ANU procedures and policies are not only failing to fulfil their promises of timeliness, but perhaps more seriously, failing to be effectively communicated to residents. The lack of college-specific policies, widespread distribution of procedures, and clear and transparent language is a concern that must be addressed immediately.
If you are interested in reading or distributing the official ANU Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment procedures discussed in this article, links to appropriate documents are as follows:
Staff Protocol for Responding to an Allegation of Sexual Assault
Supporting Someone who has been Sexually Assaulted
Procedure: Prevention of Bullying, Discrimination, and Harassment
Policy: Student Complaint Resolution