CURTIN University student leaders have called on the university to change to better protect students from sexual assault and harassment, in the wake of a damning report into abuse at Australian tertiary institutions.
Curtin Student Guild delivered eight recommendations to the university following the Australian Human Rights Commission report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities released last week.
The report based on a survey of more than 30,000 students in Australia was commissioned as part of the Universities Australia Respect. Now. Always. initiative.
Almost 1100 Curtin University students completed the survey and others made submissions to the commission.
A total of 21 per cent of Curtin students who responded said they were sexually harassed in a university setting included on campus, while travelling to or from university, at an off-campus event organised or endorsed by the university, or in university employment.
And 0.3 per cent of Curtin survey respondents said they had been sexually assaulted in a university setting.
Guild women’s officer Elly Bijlsma said the report was deeply confronting and highlighted the issue of gender inequality and attitudes toward women.
“Changing attitudes is always challenging but we must develop a culture where everyone understands that sexual harassment is not tolerated – ever – and that sexual assault is a crime.”
Ms Bijlsma said the report indicated women were the main victims of sexual harassment and assault at Australian universities.
“At the same time, there were unacceptably high incidences of sexual harassment and sexual assault toward members of the transgender, gay and lesbian communities.
“Everyone has the right to feel safe on campus. The Guild has identified areas of improvement and we will be working with the University’s leadership to address them.
“We know from the report findings that university protocols can be confusing and inconsistent and often lead to victims not reporting their experience.
Examples of sexual harassment in the report included a number of inappropriate behaviours such as staring or leering, sexually suggestive comments and unwelcome touching.
Guild president Liam O’Neill said the fact sexual assault and harassment had gone unreported demonstrated flaws in the reporting, investigation, and the support services available at Curtin and other universities.
“It shows that survivors may be afraid of approaching the university, may not understand the university’s processes for dealing with sexual assault, and do not know what support is available to them.”
Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Terry said the university had zero tolerance for sexual assault and harassment, and was committed to fully implementing the recommendations in the Commission’s report.
“Although the number of students being sexually assaulted was very low, any instance of sexual assault is absolutely unacceptable,” Professor Terry said.
“The report also indicated that many students were not aware how they could seek help, how to report an incident or what the University’s policy is on these matters. As a priority, we will work with the Curtin Student Guild to clarify these issues.”
Call for change
Guild president Liam O’Neill wants Curtin to implement change including:
introduction of mandatory online consent and appropriate behaviour module for all staff and students that imposed sanctions until completed;
increased resources to the university’s integrity and standards unit so that complaints of sexual assault and harassment are addressed in reasonable timeframes;
ensure university accommodation residential staff received first responder training to enable them to respond to disclosures of sexual abuse and administer mental health first aid;
provide trauma-informed training for all front-line university staff so that they can respond to disclosures of sexual assault and ensure student welfare;
provide clarity around university processes for dealing with disclosures of sexual harassment and assault and ensure information is accessible to students.