Unsafe Community

18 April 2018

Content warning: sexual assault and sexual harassment.

If you were a camp leader and a student approached you to say that they had a non-consensual sexual experience with another student on the camp, what would you do? If they said that they were very drunk and had spent much of the evening passed out? If they requested the perpetrator be sent home from the camp, as they no longer felt safe knowing that they were there?

What would you do?
Every year, student leaders from University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) clubs and societies are required to undertake a compulsory training session, conducted by the University’s Safer Community Program (SCP).

This training is held to educate student leaders on how to ensure University camps are safe for all participants, and how to respond to emergencies and situations that could put students in danger. The leaders are put into groups and given hypothetical scenarios, on which they work together to formulate a response and action plan.

At this year’s training, the leaders were presented with a scenario: a female camp-goer has approached them to report that she had been sexually assaulted by another student at a party the night before.

Many of the training groups proposed that they send the alleged perpetrator home, or that they would conduct their own investigation into the assault.

The SCP, the governing body responsible for dealing with sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying at the University, instead recommended that student leaders were not to take any action. Leaders were advised to offer the hypothetical victim emotional support, information on where they could lodge a report and the option to leave the camp. The reason for this, SCP trainers suggested, was to spare the University any liability should the alleged perpetrator find their treatment discriminatory.

Jordan Tochner, events coordinator for the Melbourne Arts Student Society (M-ASS), attended the session and said it left her “shocked and confused”.

“I was shocked that Safer Communities was acting as a mouthpiece for the University,” she said. Tochner expressed fear that these methods were being taught to every student leader involved in the annual camps.

“It felt like they were just giving away liability,” she added.

A University of Melbourne spokesperson assured that the issue is one they take seriously, stating that “sexual assault and sexual harassment are unacceptable at the University of Melbourne and anywhere else”.

“The nature of the interactive scenarios used during training are complex,” the spokesperson explained. “Group discussion encourages participants to consider issues around the victim’s safety and wellbeing, as well as the importance of procedural fairness and natural justice if camp leaders are made aware of incidents”.

This view of the leadership training process did not mirror the sentiment expressed by the students Farrago spoke to, who felt that more should be done to assist campers in such situations.

A former club executive, Mary*, who attended last year’s training, also found it to be unsatisfactory.“The welfare training definitely fell short when it came to sexual assault,” she said.

While the University’s spokesperson maintained that “camp leaders always have the option to ask a student to leave if their behaviour is judged to be inappropriate or presents a risk to others,” this did not appear to be consistent with what students had experienced.
“Older students were told that reporting of sexual assault was the responsibility of the victim and the victim alone,” Mary continued.

“Furthermore, it felt like the University was covering its own behind when it came to dealing with the issue, rather than looking out for the wellbeing of students that fall victim.”

With the issue of sexual assault becoming increasingly prevalent across Australian university campuses, it has become ever more important for the University of Melbourne to take a strong stance on the matter.

According to a report originally undertaken by The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and Universities Australia in 2017—which was then summarised by the University of Melbourne—sexual harassment and sexual assault occurred most frequently in residential settings, which includes camps and colleges.

While the report indicated that the SCP has been making positive progress, there is still much to be done. The SCP has planned future actions, including increasing awareness of the problem, improving student leadership training, increasing the confidence of students to come forward and finding ways to better respond to allegations by the institution.

But beyond the issue of sexual assault, students made it clear that they had other misgivings with the leadership training program. Jane*, who attended this year’s training, described what she perceived to be other flaws in the program.

“In the future, they really need to improve upon their conversations around disability and mental health, and the assumption that everyone on a camp is going to be fully able, while also treating the conversations around sexual assault with greater sensitivity,” she said.

Jane recalled how, in 2017, student leaders were ill-prepared to assist a disabled participant on a camp because of a lack of comprehensive training. Even after this experience, she felt that there were no improvements made to the training for 2018.

Student leaders were also underprepared to deal with mental health issues and were not given sufficient training to deal with any problems. During camps, other than creating a physical “safe space” where participants could go to take a breather, nothing else was done to make it more comfortable for them.

However, Mary suggested that the training in 2017 covered mild mental health issues well, adding that it was “relatively understandable that further issues arising from mental health weren’t dealt with, considering how differently each person’s mental health can manifest itself”.

Aside from the lack of proper treatments for mental health and sexual assault situations, Tochner brought up that the trainings fell short on handling cases of intoxication as well. During the training sessions, student leaders were advised to call an ambulance when participants were drunk, rather than equipping them with the kind of first aid advice needed to immediately deal with such situations. Students felt this was too idealistic and given the frequency of such alcohol-related incidents, there should be more practical ways to assist camp-goers in crisis.

Ultimately, Jane felt that the training “focused more on the idea that clubs need to be protected from members doing bad things, rather than protecting students”. More than ever, it was important that the University take a strong stance in holding perpetrators accountable, acting in a sensitive and consistent manner, and making the training for student leaders as effective as possible to prevent this happening to students in the future.

*Names have been changed due to privacy reasons

If you or a friend have had an experience with sexual assault you can contact CASA’s sexual assault crisis hotline on 1800 806 292 (free call).You can find more resources at https://umsu.unimelb.edu.au/support/survivors/

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