The University has set up a ‘working group’ to look into how it deals with the reporting of sexual harassment and hate crime on campus, following criticism from students and elected officers. The central system has been under-used, and student representatives suggest that it is not fit for purpose.
Sexual harassment at York is particularly topical at the moment, after former deputy Labour Party leader Harriet Harman alleged in her recently-published memoirs that she was offered a 2:1 by a Politics lecturer in return for sleeping with him, while studying at York in the early 1970s. This has raised the question of how easily a student in a similar position today could report a similar incident.
Following a Freedom of Information request (FOI), Nouse understands that the ‘Equality & Diversity’ section of the University website contains a policy entitled ‘Code of Practice on Harassment’. Although not “explicitly referenced”, according to the FOI, this policy “covers allegations of sexual harassment/assault and hate crimes, and is the mechanism under which students and staff can report incidents.”
Once found, the policy states that, “wherever possible, allegations of harassment should be resolved informally without recourse to formal procedures,” a sentiment echoed in the FOI. In Appendix A, the policy suggests that concerned students may approach senior members of staff, who would then take on the role of ‘Complaint Co-Ordinator’. Which senior staff this might be would depend on the situation, but could range from assistant heads of colleges and academic supervisors, to the managers of campus bars and restaurants. For the last 18 months there has also been an anonymous ‘Online Harassment Monitoring Form’ for reporting harassment allegations, also on the Diversity and Equality Office website.
Many do not believe that these systems do enough to tackle the issues of hate crime and harassment.
YUSU’s Community and Wellbeing Officer Dom Smithies, said: “The current system for reporting and recording harassment, sexual violence and hate crime is failing York students. The scale of under-reporting is hugely concerning and the University should be addressing this as a priority. Students don’t know how the the system works or who there is to go to and it’s completely unacceptable that there are students out there not receiving the crucial support that they need. Without centralised monitoring and recording the University effectively has its head in the sand in understanding the scope and scale of these issues on campus. Under-reporting is always going to be common, given the barriers that students face after being the victim of an incident, but the University needs to be making every effort to make the system as accessible as possible and supporting students through the process.”
One second year Alcuin student recalled being abused/mistreated by a group of her housemate’s friends: “they called me a ‘slut’ and threw stuff at my window. I eventually got a meeting with the assistant head of college but initially I didn’t know where to turn or who to talk to”.
The University’s methods for recording such incidents have also come under fire. For four of the last five years, the University has recorded <5 incidents of sexual harassment (all figures under five are presented as <5 to protect student identities), with seven reported in the academic year 2015/16. Incidents of hate crime were not centrally recorded as such, but were categorised as hate crimes for the purposes of Nouse’s FOI, with <5 reported for each of the last five years. One second year English student commented on figures: “I know these incidents aren’t always easy to pick up but every student knows that incidents of harassment are much more common than that, there must be ways of ascertaining more about what goes on on campus”.
In order to improve their reporting systems, the University has set up a ‘working group’ with representatives from YUSU and the GSA, which will work closely with the newly appointed Assistant Registrar for Promoting Community Cohesion and Respect, Claire Massheder. The group aims to ensure “that every member of the University community (staff and students) has a clear understanding of what constitutes acceptable behaviour…and what they should do if they are concerned about the behaviour of an individual”. Furthermore, it wishes to “achieve the optimal balance between formal and informal action…and put in place new oversight mechanisms so that the University can monitor the effectiveness of its procedures and amend them as necessary”.
Dom Smithies stated that: “I’m glad that the University has set up the working group as that’s a positive first step – but it’s crucial we stay on track. I look forward to seeing them introduce a lot of changes to improve the current systems and culture around reporting. I had the privilege of being on the interview panel for the new Assistant Registrar and Claire had an excellent understanding of the current system and where there’s room for improvement.”
The group’s ‘four-fold approach’ will include: awareness raising, formal training of relevant staff, widely available written guidance, and changes to the University’s regulation on student misconduct. The group first met on 31 January.
University registrar David Duncan stated: “The current code of practice is easily accessible via the Equality and Diversity web pages or by typing the word ‘harassment’ into the search engine on the website. However, I think we could do much more to raise awareness across the University. We will be addressing this as part of the initiative now underway on student misconduct.”