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Survivors condemn UniMelb for sweeping ‘institutionalised abuse’ under the rug

“The University [of Melbourne] is first and foremost the ones who allow people to be on campus, and allowed him to come back. It starts with the University and ends with the University,” Sinead Fernandes said.

Content warning: Mentions of sexual and racial abuse and harassment.

Survivors at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), a subsidiary of the University of Melbourne, published an open letter yesterday condemning the University for its inadequate response to reported sexual assault. 

The letter, which was posted by VCA students Sinead Fernandes, Antoinette Tracey and Mia Boonen, reads: “We, the undersigned, stand together as survivors and allies as we call on the University of Melbourne to address institutionalised abuse it has long swept under the rug.”

The open letter was published following a walkout on Monday in protest of the University allowing a male student with multiple sexual assault allegations to return to campus. 

“Since 2019, the University of Melbourne has failed to act on multiple reports of harassment and assault, and the man reported has been allowed on campus alongside those he has harmed,” Boonen said in a press release on Tuesday.

Testimonies from survivors describe a high degree of insensitivity from a specific member of staff, who allegedly mishandled their reports of sexual abuse.

“The whole ordeal occurred from the kitchen bench of this teacher’s home. Sinead [Fernandes] and I were recorded for two hours as we begged this teacher to stop telling us to sympathise with assault and racial harassment,” Tracey said in Tuesday’s press release.

“We were told to view sexual and racial acts of violence as compliments. We were told that we’d never make it in the industry if we continued to speak out about injustices.

“We were told that if he were to self-harm it would be because we ostracised him.

“We were told that our past experience with sexual assault and the possibility of us being on our periods made us unreliable in our assessment of the situation,” Tracey said.

Fernandes also noted how she and other survivors were forced to continue working with the teacher in question after she was appointed director for their project.

“We went directly to the Head of Theatre to make a complaint [about the teacher] and ensure that it didn’t happen again, but no changes were made,” Fernandes told Honi.

“But when [the Head of Theatre] left, [our] case left with them. We were not notified at all… We didn’t pursue anything further because we assumed the case was being taken care of, or moving up.

“The new Head of Theatre, from what I know, was never notified.”

Fernandes, Tracey and Boonen are currently completing their final elective units online because they do not want to be “subjected to an unsafe environment”, nor be in the same location as the alleged perpetrator.

Boonen also described having to “fend for ourselves” after being denied support in their studies from the University.

“We’ve made our displeasure known a million times when addressing the VCA, but all we got told was that ‘our concerns were taken seriously’. Then nothing happens,” Boonen said.

She said that statements the University has provided to the media suggest that the situation had been satisfactorily resolved, which is contrary to her experience.

“We are not able to comment on the specifics of this matter, however the University has taken appropriate steps to respond to the issues raised, in line with our policy settings and values. We can confirm that this process has concluded,” a University spokesperson told Honi.

“The University of Melbourne acknowledges the concerns that have been raised this week and we take all feedback of this nature very seriously. While we are confident in the integrity of our formal processes, we are committed to listening to our students so that we can continue to improve how we address these matters.”

This statement comes in spite of claims from Boonen, Tracey and Fernandes that “nothing” came out of such reassurances from the University.

The spokesperson also said: “The University has strict policies to ensure campuses and workplaces are safe areas for staff, students and visitors, and have been strengthened by a new, stand-alone Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Policy, which was issued in October 2021.”

The policy in question was a result of years of campaigning from students and survivors, but was criticised by Boonen as “co-opting the language of survivors” without taking any substantive action.

The spokesperson continued: “In addition to the University’s Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Policy, the University has begun an education program to equip everyone at the University to play an active role in identifying, responding to and preventing sexual misconduct. Further programs are due to be rolled out this year.”

“These initiatives are one component of our approach to ensure all our staff and students feel able to raise any concerns and that issues will be handled in a way that is respectful, fair and confidential.”

University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Women’s Officer Lauren Scott criticised the new Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Policy for being ineffective and unenforceable.

“Policy means nothing if there is no action, and it’s very clear that the University isn’t acting in a trauma-informed or survivor-centric manner on reports and incidents on campus,” Scott said.

“They have a legal obligation in the policy to be dealing with these issues, and they are not. They have not been for the past few years at the VCA, and they haven’t been [doing so] in many more incidents.”

When asked about the University’s ‘further programs’ and initiatives scheduled to be implemented this year, they emphasised the need for immediate action.

“Plans for the future are great, but… we need these issues to be tackled now,” Scott said.

“Students are being harmed on campus now. It is beyond frustrating to be constantly hearing platitudes of initiatives that are coming, or that these issues will be dealt with, when we’ve seen from precedent that they are not.”

In describing the UMSU’s role in supporting survivors, Scott said that the Union’s Women’s Department has been taking a “backdoor approach” in line with the wishes of survivors.

“We’ve been following the direction of the VCA students involved. Our number one priority is to centre survivors in this,” they said.

This sentiment was echoed by UMSU President Sophie Nguyen, who said: “UMSU stands in solidarity with those victims, but also understands and respects how they want UMSU [to support them].”

Nguyen told Honi that there are two pathways through which survivors can seek support from the UMSU: the Women’s Department or the Advocacy Department.

The former focuses on building campaigns and advocating for internal structural change within the University, while the latter involves sexual harm coordinators who are trained in providing therapeutic and victim-centred support.

In a statement to Honi, USyd SRC President Lauren Lancaster said: “The USYD SRC stands in solidarity with students at the Victorian College of the Arts, UniMelb, against their university’s failure to protect survivors and act on their so called zero tolerance policy to sexual harassment and violence on campus.”

“Survivors everywhere ought to be believed,” Boonen said. “We’ve had DMs from university students all over the country who’ve had similar experiences… It’s systemic.”

“The University [of Melbourne] is first and foremost the ones who allow people to be on campus, and allowed him [the alleged perpetrator] to come back,” Fernandes said. “It starts with the University and ends with the University.”

Sign the open letter here.