Hotline malfunction: University responds to sexual assault calls with ‘white noise’

Two sexual assault and harassment helplines went offline on Monday

The SRC has this morning accused the University of Sydney of failing to maintain its two student support helplines—the Student Liaison Officers line and 1800 SYD HLP.

Students who called the Student Liaison Officer hotline on Monday received a voice message notifying them the line was  “temporarily out of service”. Established this year, the number is recommended for students who have “experienced issues around sexual assault, harassment or domestic violence”.

The 1800 SYD HLP number was also rerouting callers to the NSW Rape Crisis Centre (RCC) during business hours, instead of University staff.

One student who called 1800 SYD HLP reached a RCC counsellor who was unaware that the student had been redirected from a University hotline. The University’s website references rerouting the helpline outside of business hours, however the RCC cannot help students with university-specific advice such as lodging complaints or seeking on-campus assistance.

At present, the Student Liaison Officers line and 1800 SYD HLP are the only campus hotlines designed to provide support to students who have experienced ‘critical incidents’, mainly, cases of sexual assault and harassment.

A University spokesperson confirmed that an outage had occurred on Monday afternoon: “[We] sincerely regret any distress caused to students seeking support. Our technical support team worked to rectify the issues as soon as they were drawn to our attention and the hotlines were restored on Monday evening.”

Although access to helplines have now been restored, SRC President Imogen Grant says it is unclear how long these lines were unavailable. “This is an impact that can last a lifetime,” said Grant. “The first response that a survivor of sexual assault receives often dictates how they will navigate that recovery. If that response happens to be white noise[…] it may discourage the student from seeking help altogether.”

Grant said the redirection of the hotline without making both parties aware “can lead to confusion for both the counsellor and the students”.

1800 SYD HLP has received intense scrutiny for being established without adequate student consultation—last year’s SRC Sexual Harassment Officers were initially hesitant to recommend the service to students for that very reason.

The helpline had previously existed as a private number for staff to report incidents. This caused confusion in 2016 when Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence repeatedly mentioned the hotline during a panel discussion, as a way for students to report incidents to be dealt with by trained operators.

It was opened to students last year in response to the AHRC Change the course report. In an audit of university responses to the report, the hotline was listed as “action already taken” by USyd. It stated that “the University has established a single point of contact helpline to support survivors”.  

In 2017, the SRC Women’s Department called on the University to throw its support behind a petition for Universities Australia to fund a dedicated, university-based counselling hotline run by Rape and Domestic Services Australia (RDSVA). At the time, 2017 co-Women’s Officer, Katie Thorburn, stressed the importance of a national, university-specific 1800 number to alleviate pressure on existing USyd helpline and counselling services, which Thorburn worried may not be able to handle an expected influx in calls and disclosures.

USyd did not publicly declare its support for the proposed national service, and Universities Australia largely ignored the petition. Monday’s incident, however, suggest it is an option that may require a revisit.

Co-Women’s Officer, Jessica Syed, said that although the University outwardly projects proactivity on the issue of sexual assault, “there is no effort to make sure that [the hotline] is functional”.

“Even when the University does endeavor to provide support, these services are drastically understaffed, underfunded and lack counselling staff with trauma specialist training,” said Grant.

“USyd has millions upon millions to spend on new buildings, yet fails to sufficiently resource support services. The University has twisted priorities that leaves survivors in the lurch.”

1800 SYD HLP (1800 793 457) is the dedicated University of Sydney support line for any time-sensitive support services.

If you have experienced or are at risk of sexual assault, 1800 424 017 is the 24/7 telephone crisis counselling service from the NSW Rape Crisis Centre for anyone in NSW and their non-offending supporters.