Students to hold the University to account on sexual violence policy

The following is an article provided by Palatinate.

Student groups, in conversation with Palatinate, have criticised the University on how it deals with claims of sexual violence.

Emily Whiteside, a member of It Happens Here – a student group which campaigns on the issue of sexual violence – has listed three demands to the University.

These are: mandatory staff training on sexual violence and dealing with disclosures, an official policy on sexual violence and proper signposting for all students through the process.

Speaking to Palatinate, all nine feminism societies at Durham have backed these demands.

All nine societies also called on the University to introduce compulsory consent workshops for all of its students.

The student groups have promised to hold the University to account if it does not act on the issue.

Stephen Burrell, a PhD student in the Durham Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse spoke to Palatinate on the issue.

“Currently there appears to be a denial by universities across the country that sexual violence is affecting, and being perpetrated by, many of their students, and a denial that this is something universities have a responsibility to deal with.

“One of the excuses universities give for being so timid in relation to this issue is the 1994 Zellick report – this leads to the ridiculous situation where they are willing to deal with less serious crimes but not ones such as sexual violence which are actually having the most damaging impact upon their students.”

The Zellick report was a collection of guidelines written in 1994 by law professor Graham Zellick, which advised universities against investigating “serious” criminal offences.

This approach has been criticised, particularly with reference to modern human rights law. The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) conducted a legal briefing this year, which has demonstrated that universities are legally obliged to ensure women students are safe and equal whilst they study.

Universities UK is conducting a new report into the subject.

Professor Nicole Westmarland, of the Durham Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, told Palatinate that she thought the new inquiry would supersede the previous guidance of the Zellick Report.

“I think EVAW has convincingly argued that the Zellick principles are inconsistent with modern legislation,” she said.

Much of the criticism is focused on how the University deals with claims of sexual violence.

Emily Whiteside spoke to Palatinate on the issue.

“There is no set procedure for recording or dealing with sexual violence, which I believe should be the absolute bare minimum measure in place.”

She outlined how the lack of a standardised procedure deterred people from seeking help and affected those that did.

“The fact that staff in positions of care do not undergo mandatory training for dealing with disclosures of sexual violence, and then [there is] no standardized procedure to follow from there, has a hugely negative impact on survivors who do report their assault to the University.

“The fact that there is no immediately available document to students on disclosing sexual violence – how to do it, who to go to, what will happen after that – deters people from reporting and accessing the help that they need.”

A student, who wishes to remain anonymous, spoke to Palatinate about their experiences after being the target of two serious incidents whilst at Durham.

“After my experiences, I did not feel that I could report them to the University.

“For me, the issue with the University is that there are not many places that you can go and discuss experiences like mine, without the terrifying thought of actually having to report it there and then.

“Obviously college welfare are fantastic but with something so personal, it is hard opening up to people who may know you.

“Although it’s completely confidential, it is very difficult to discuss something so difficult as dealing with sexual assault and rape.

“I feel that the University could really help people like myself by making it clear what procedures and help they offer.

“I feel a lot more people would be comfortable talking about their experiences and getting support if it was made clear how you can go about getting it.”

An NUS study, published this October, revealed that two thirds of first-year students are not aware of sexual harassment reporting procedures at University.

Palatinate spoke to Catherine Crook, President of Durham University Feminism Society, about her concerns.

“There seems to be no centralised initiative as to what the University’s stance is on even reporting incidents of sexual harassment in the first place.

“During our campaigns meeting last week, many attendees, both freshers and returning students, did not know who they were supposed to speak to if such an incident happened to them. ”

Professor Westmarland agreed that the current lack of a specific procedure on sexual violence was an issue.

“I think it probably depends on who you make that disclosure to at the moment, so I think it is probably not yet a consistent response to sexual violence.

“We have been training members of staff on responding correctly to claims of sexual violence but obviously that is just the people who choose to come along so it is probably the people who are already aware of the issues.

“Yes, there isn’t a current procedure that is specifically in relation to sexual violence.

“Yes, there needs to be one.”

Emily Whiteside called for the procedure “to be clear, give full control and choice to the survivor and involve the minimum number of people possible.”

All the people Palatinate spoke to agreed that University policy alone could not solve the issue.

Stephen, who is also a founding member of Yes All Men, a subgroup of Durham University Feminism Society, called on students to take action to help tackle the issue of sexual violence.

“I believe that students, particularly men, have a responsibility to recognise that this is something which is going on around us, and that we each have a part to play in stopping it.

“[As] men [we] need to look hard at ourselves and think about how our behaviour might be impacting upon other people in ways that mean they do not feel welcome, safe, or equal.

“We have to have the courage to stand up and say that we are going to refuse to take part in a culture which excuses sexual violence and enables it to take place, and we [have to] refuse to stay silent when those around us behave in ways that contribute to that culture.”

Catherine agreed that all students had to take a stand on the issue.

“Simply brushing off people’s concerns with a ‘well, not all men do this’ detracts from the real issue, and can potentially make survivors feel as though their stories are not being valued.

“If you are in a position to do so, then challenging what you consider to be threatening behaviour by other male students is invaluable.”

A Sexual Violence Task Force (SVTF), was set up by Durham University this summer. It is the first university in the United Kingdom to do so.

Professor Westmarland, along with Stephen Burrell and Hannah Bows, undertook a rapid evidence assessment on behalf of the SVTF.

She spoke to Palatinate on the importance of the Sexual Violence Task Force in tackling the issue.

“I think Durham University, at the moment, is at the forefront of doing this type of work.

“I think we are further ahead because we are not rushing into just implementing one of these things.

“We are taking a considered view and it is being led by Pro-Vice-Chancellor with other senior members of staff on board.”

According to the SVTF’s Mission Statement, its purpose is “to make policy and practice recommendations.” It does not have any actual powers to enforce any of those recommendations.

This has led some, including those who spoke to Palatinate, to express concern that the recommendations of the Sexual Violence Task Force might not be followed through properly.

Professor Westmarland warned that students would have to continue to put pressure on the University to ensure that the strategy is actually implemented.

“The test will come in terms of when resources need to be put in to the implementation of the strategy.

“It is all very well having a strategy, but we need to make sure it is implemented and funded adequately.

“I am very confident that the students of Durham will make sure whatever the strategy contains does get implemented and funded well.

“That [pressure from below] is what has made universities act.”

Stephen echoed her call for students to hold the University to account on its implementation of the policy recommendations.

“We have to make sure this leads to real change on the ground, because we cannot allow universities to continue to fail victims of sexual violence.”

When asked if she, along with It Happens Here, would hold the University to account, Emily replied “absolutely.”

“This cannot just be a box-ticking exercise that goes nowhere,” she said.

“I am truly hoping that the creation of the Task Force is a step in the right direction that will engender some real change.

“However, I am currently concerned that there is no student representative on the Force.

“I think it is important that they involve the most major stakeholder – the student – to ensure that they realise how major decisions will affect the student population.

“To do otherwise – to decide [on] a policy that will affect us on our behalf – is beyond patronising.”

Emily also called for the introduction of compulsory consent workshops – a demand which Stephen and Catherine repeated.

“It gives people the opportunity to open an informed dialogue on a subject that has too much myth and stigma surrounding it,” she said.

“Having workshops not only educates people on a serious issue, it signals a culture shift towards zero tolerance, towards supporting and believing survivors, towards a more positive and safe atmosphere for all students.”

Palatinate spoke to all nine feminism societies, who agreed to add their voices to the demand.

The University issued this statement to Palatinate.

“Durham University has set up a Task Force to review its approach to the important issue of sexual violence.

“The Task Force includes representation from students and staff and is chaired by the former Chief Psychologist at the Ministry of Justice, Professor Graham Towl who is a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Durham.

“The purpose of the group is to research and review University practices in this area, current forms of support for those who have been affected by sexual violence and programmes aimed at generating cultural change in the area of sexual behaviour and sexual violence.

“It will make recommendations in each of these areas, and in the long term management and governance structures required to implement and evaluate their effectiveness.

“The Task Force is inclusive and where needed works closely with the police, rape crisis and other organisations in this field.”

Photograph: Venus Loi