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Vice-Chancellor unaware of process for reporting sexual harassment complaints

Siobhan Ryan reports

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University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence has admitted he is unaware of the current process for reporting incidents of sexual assault and harassment to the University.

The Vice-Chancellor made the admission on Thursday night, during a panel discussion about sexual assault and harassment on university campuses organised by the USyd Wom*n’s Collective.

Currently, USyd students are directed to the general online complaints form, which asks for details including their full name, student ID, phone number and email address.

It also asks if they have tried to resolve the issue informally with the other party involved, and if not, they are asked to give reasons why.

Nina Funnell, a fellow panellist who has worked extensively with survivors of sexual assault and harassment said to Honi on Friday, “The person who designed this system either has no idea about trauma, or they know all about trauma and how to ensure that a traumatised person will never make a damaging complaint against [an] institution.”

During the panel, Spence said he “did not know that students who’ve had this kind of experience are being directed to the general complaints form”, repeatedly mentioning a new 1800 SYD HELP phone number established by the University for these incidents to be dealt with by trained operators.

However, when Honi raised that this new number was unable to be found on the University’s website, Director of Student Support Services, Jordi Austin, clarified the new number is actually only for staff.

After the panel, Austin confirmed there is no University hotline for students to report such incidents or seek counselling.

She suggested that students first contact 1800 RESPECT, the national hotline for sexual assault and harassment, which specialises in trauma counselling.

The university’s new ‘Safer Communities’ page on sexual harassment and safety on campus directs students to call 000 or campus security, who are being trained to deal with these incidents, as Spence noted on Thursday.

An additional section on contacting counselling services recommends that students call CAPS, which is open from 9am-5pm Monday to Friday.

The panel occurred after a screening of The Hunting Ground, a documentary on sexual assault and harassment on US college campuses.

During the Q&A session, a number of students expressed dissatisfaction at the University’s handling of complaints.

One woman asked if she would ever hear the outcome of a “high profile” complaint she made in 2014.

Spence advised that, due to legal barriers, a student would only ever hear if there was disciplinary action taken, not what that action involved.

Another audience member recounted being told off by university staff when she said she had told her friends about an incident before contacting them.

“I’m just appalled you were told that. It’s your story, you have the right to tell someone… we need to make sure that never happens again,” Spence said in response.

Funnell, also a former student and tutor at the University, described horrific incidents she had been made aware of through her personal life and work.

In 2001, when she was in year 12, a close friend of hers was invited to a St Paul’s event by a student at the college.

She and other women brought as dates were unaware, however, that the Paul’s students were given “challenges” to bring certain dates, which were checked during the evening.

The challenges ranged from “blonde with big boobs”, to Funnell’s friend, “a brunette with a g-string.”

When this was announced, a student allegedly yelled, “We can see the brunette, where’s the g-string?” at which point other Paul’s students tried to look up Funnell’s friend’s skirt.

Karen Willis, another panellist and Executive Director of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia noted that the 1800 RESPECT hotline has to roster on more staff during Australian universities’ and colleges’ OWeek festivities.

Spence noted the colleges are separate legal institutions, and explained that the University had little ability to control their behaviour short of disaffiliation, which would involve lengthy court proceedings.

Willis countered his attempts to deflect responsibility, saying, “We just need to get on with it.”

The panel came after the University announced it would be enlisting former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick to lead a joint task force designed to clean up the residential colleges’ acts with regards to sexual misconduct last week.