‘Things get buried’: Sexual violence, bullying and harassment at top Kiwi universities

Each year thousands of Kiwi students head into the lecture halls – embarking on another year of higher education. But for some, attaining a university qualification leaves them vulnerable to sexual harassment, sexual assault and bullying. Katie Harris reports.

Last year, Anna was too scared to leave her room at the university halls.

The Auckland University student feared bumping into the man who she alleges raped her, leaving her traumatised and severely depressed.

Anna – not her real name – had complained to the university proctor, who accepted the incidents happened, but the man was given a written warning and allowed to keep studying.

It eventually got too much and she returned to her home country to be with her family.

“While I was at home receiving therapy … he was able to finish the school year and go about his life as if nothing had ever happened.”

He’d also been ordered not to contact her, but she says he continued to do so.

Eight months after her complaint, the man is still studying a conjoint degree.

Only last week did the university tell the woman via a letter the man would have to face a disciplinary committee over his actions – one day after the Herald on Sunday started asking questions.

Her situation of sexual assault at university is not unique.

More than one in four university students in New Zealand say they have experienced at least one form of sexual assault during their studies.

According to research published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2020, nearly 15 per cent of the 1540 students surveyed said they had been raped while at university. That equates to 229 people.

Of the 431 students who said they had been sexually assaulted, nearly one-third told no one about the ordeal and 93 per cent did not disclose it with a health professional.

The survey showed a high number of alcohol-related assaults, which researchers said was concerning because victims were more likely to be distressed and blame themselves.

Now campus sexual violence prevention groups are calling for an independent body to be established to monitor and report on the institutional response of New Zealand universities to reports of sexual violence on campus.

Complaints against staff

And it’s not just students hurting other students. The Herald on Sunday asked seven of New Zealand’s universities how many bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints had been levelled against staff by students.

It reveals seven sexual harassment complaints against staff at the country’s second-ranked university, the University of Otago, were filed by students in the past five years.

Of these, the university says two formal processes resulted in the accused facing disciplinary action, another formal process ended with no disciplinary action, three staff underwent informal processes and one had insufficient evidence to proceed.

The University of Canterbury had eight formal reports from students alleging they were sexually harassed by a staff member during the same period.

And the Victoria University of Wellington received eight formal complaints from students accusing staff of sexual harassment and two of sexual assault in the past five years.

And these are only the complaints that were officially reported to the university. Pinning down the level of sexual harassment occurring on campus is notoriously fickle, as many survivors may be in a lower power position than their abusers and feel too afraid to put the accusations through official reporting channels.

“The concern is that it might affect grades, or it might affect their ability to continue in their degree programme or that a person will kind of retaliate for instance, or that they won’t be believed,” says University of Otago associate professor Melanie Beres.

Beres says based on general statistics on sexual harassment and assault, her guess would be these numbers were quite a low proportion of the actual cases that are experienced.

Because the numbers are so low, she says it wouldn’t make sense to compare universities, except to say that if there are pathways open for reporting you’re likely to get more cases.

One New Zealand academic, who the Herald on Sunday has agreed not to name, says they know of a university worker who was reported for an alleged inappropriate relationship with a student but was able to stay in his role.

“People aren’t nearly as mobile in New Zealand so people just tend to stay put and things get buried. That’s what partly makes things so toxic in New Zealand, it seems to me.”

After someone blew the whistle about the man, the academic says “everyone” was talking about how the accused was also allegedly messaging a high school student.

“It [the behaviour] had been going on for years because at that point he’d been at the university for close to 30 years.”

They say that because someone close to him had a senior position, each time a complaint would come through, they would “bury it”.

The academic says institutional and structural reform is needed to prevent conflicts of interest interfering with these types of complaints.

“I’m worried that there might be other students out there who experienced abuse, but who [the abuser] never got any kind of accountability for it. I’ve always kind of had the hope that if we got the story out there in the media that other women who’d experienced abuse might then come forward and get help for it.”

Auckland University of Technology, which made headlines in the past year for sexual harassment allegations against staff, received 16 complaints from students accusing staff members of bullying and one of sexual harassment.

A reviewwas ordered at the university in 2020 after two top AUT managers, health faculty head Dr Max Abbott and research head Dr Nigel Hemmington, resigned following allegations of sexual harassment.

Queen’s Counsel Kate Davenport, who carried out the review, found that “about eight individuals have been identified as having harassed female staff” at AUT. She said none of them were now employed by AUT, but one case of alleged sexual harassment was still before the Employment Court.

She found that “AUT’s dispute/complaints process to resolve harassment and sexual harassment issues is inadequate, its policies and processes on harassment could be improved and that AUT did not sufficiently investigate [the victim’s] complaint”.

Waikato University also received three complaints of bullying of students by staffers. Massey had one report of bullying and the University of Auckland had one allegation of bullying and one of sexual harassment.

New Zealand Broadcasting School, which is part of Ara, has had a string of reported issues and last year announced it wasundertaking an investigation following allegations published by the Herald.

One former student alleged they were told to change their foreign accent, others claimed bullying wasn’t addressed, and two women claimed they weren’t allowed to have natural hair on camera.

Independent oversight

A spokesperson for Victoria University of Wellington’s Thursdays in Black, a national group aimed at preventing and responding to sexual violence in tertiary spaces, says the university’s sexual harassment response policy was released without genuine consultation with representatives and advocacy groups.

“They undertook obtaining student feedback and input, however, this was not adequately advertised and subsequently the policy as it stands has significant shortcomings in protecting and responding to victim-survivors.”

The policy was introduced by the university in 2020 to set out pathways available for both staff and students who experience sexually harmful behaviour.

In a practical sense, the organisation says students had experienced significant frustration with the current procedures in place for reporting any instances of sexual violence, which also affected those in the halls of residences.

Similarly, Stop Sexual Harassment on Campus Aotearoa says the data affirms the importance of independent oversight of New Zealand universities in relation to sexual violence on campus.

The group says universities need to be held responsible for the behaviour that occurs on campus and how they respond.

“These high numbers, and the fact that universities do not need to report them publicly, mean there are few measures of accountability for our universities. This is why we are calling for an independent body to monitor and report on the institutional response of New Zealand universities to reports of sexual violence on campus.”

They say an independent group would provide much-needed accountability for how universities respond to sexual violence on campus.

A US report on this type of violence shows the estimated rate of nonconsensual sexual contact by force or inability to consent was about 25 per cent for female undergraduates.

That survey also collected data on disability and noted the highest victimisation rate, 26.3 per cent, came from those who had a chronic mental health condition like depression, PTSD and anxiety disorder.

Among all student sexual orientations, it says bisexual students had the highest rate (25.6 per cent), followed by those selecting more than one category (22.2 per cent), those who were asexual, queer, questioning or not listed (18.5 per cent), and those who identified as gay or lesbian (15.1 per cent).

The document also says 22.8 per cent of undergraduate transgender, genderqueer, nonbinary, or otherwise gender nonconforming students reported nonconsensual sexual contact by force or inability to consent.

In New Zealand, Māori are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, with the 2015 New Zealand Violence Against Women study finding 29 per cent of wāhine Māori experience sexual violence during their lifetime.

Professor Tina Besley has worked in academia in New Zealand and now works at Beijing Normal University, where she co-authored a research article on sexual harassment at universities.

In the piece, titled Named or Nameless: University ethics, confidentiality and sexual harassment, Besley points out that non-disclosure agreements are a double-edged sword and big issues remain in the space.

Often, NDAs are used to settle allegations of sexual harassment or assault outside the courtroom. Outcomes can include financial compensation, however, they can also seek to prevent both parties from speaking publicly about the case.

“Not only universities but in fact many other workplaces can focus more on protecting their own reputations and hide behind HR policies than deal with these ethical and professional issues and the person who has been harmed.”

Besley says defamation/libel laws further muzzle people in Australasia, and often the only way the cases become public is if there is a whistleblower or a criminal case.

“So the informal gossip circles continue for better or for worse … and perpetrators may remain nameless despite some people knowing who they are.”

In a statement, the University of Canterbury told the Herald on Sunday no level of misconduct is acceptable, and all complaints are taken seriously, with the university having a clear process for reporting misconduct for both students and staff.

“In addition to the formal complaints process, there is also the anonymous Report It tool. We regularly review our complaints process and procedures, including the Staff Code of Conduct and related policies to ensure that we are acting in accordance with best practice.”

An AUT spokesperson says the university has made reporting concerns easier for students and ensured that issues were addressed in a manner they were comfortable with.

The Victoria University of Wellington says all universities are challenged, from time to time, by unacceptable behaviours.

“This is not surprising — we are the size of small towns (at Te Herenga Waka there are about 22,000 students and 3000 staff) and grapple with all the complexities of any community of this scale.”

It says robust reporting systems for dealing with unacceptable behaviour was a priority and when formal complaints were made, it takes action.

A Waikato University spokesperson says the institution does not tolerate sexual violence, and endeavours always to provide a safe environment for students, staff and visitors.

“We have a number of practical initiatives and support services in place and have invested substantially in recent years, including a dedicated Violence Prevention Co-ordinator role to deliver a range of prevention initiatives.”

Likewise, Auckland University says policies in this area had been reviewed and strengthened in recent years.

This included implementing a code of conduct, and developing a detailed Creating Cultures of Consent and Respect Action Plan, which sets out specific actions the university will take to prevent and respond to sexual harm on our campuses, for both staff and students.

A University of Otago spokesperson said the institution had established a sexual violence support and prevention centre, Te Whare Tāwharau, in 2018.

Then in 2019 it implemented a specific sexual misconduct policy, which it said provided a pathway for those wishing to disclose or complain about sexual misconduct.

The university was confident in it’s response to sexual misconduct allegations and was “not convinced” an independent body would necessarily add additional value.

Massey university did not respond in time for publication.

Anna is still horrified at how her case was treated by the university.

“The whole reason I went through this process was so that there would be consequences for his actions so that this will never happen to another girl again.”

Sexual harm – Where to get help
If it’s an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
If you’ve ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone, contact Safe to Talk confidentially, any time 24/7:
• Call 0800 044 334
• Text 4334
• Email [email protected]
• For more info or to web chat visit safetotalk.nz
Alternatively contact your local police station – click here for a list.

Source: Read Full Article