What happens at camp: do the USU faculty camps provide adequate duty of care?

In many cases executives are either wilfully ignorant or deeply unprepared for the responsibilities that come with providing the standard of care needed.

Image: Sydney University Arts Society Facebook page.

Each year, faculty societies elect a new executive — made up of students in older years — who are then entrusted with the safety of first year students at their introductory faculty camps.

In most cases, things run smoothly; attendees are stuffed into mould-ridden scout camp dorms, play drinking games in the bush, and are sent back home two days later with a hangover, some stories, and new friends.

In some cases, however, executives are ill-equipped to deal if something goes wrong — a medical emergency, a sexual assault, a case of drunk teenagers lost in the woods.

Without comprehensive oversight from the University of Sydney Union (USU) — who manage all clubs and societies — student executives are left to create their own guidelines and regulate behaviour themselves.

And when this fails, it is often first-years who are put in danger.

The most prevalent issue reported by camp attendees is the drinking culture.

There have been moves to mitigate unsafe drinking practices: for example, this year’s Sydney Arts Students Society (SASS) executive enforced a no-drinking policy for all camp leaders and used wristbands to mark how many drinks each attendee was served.

Image: Sydney University Business Society Facebook page.Similarly, the Sydney University Law Society (SULS) had delegated non-drinkers and officers with RSA training attend their camp.

However, it’s clear that such policies are adhered to at varying degrees. In 2014, the SASS executive tried to implement designated non-drinkers to ensure someone was sober enough to handle emergencies.

As a then member of the executive told Honi, however, he ended up  “scoop[ing] vomit” out of the designated non-drinker’s throat.

More recently, an attendee of last year’s law camp reported how two “super drunk” SULS executives refused to leave a first year’s cabin.

In many instances the camps have actively promoted drinking. Both the 2016 and 2017 SULS camps ran drinking games that one attendee described as “coercive”.

An attendee of the 2015 Engineering camp said drinking was what the camp “prided itself on”.

This year’s Sydney University Business Society (SUBS) camp’s activities involved body shots and playing flip cup for points in an organised ‘Scavenger Hunt’.

“Many people vomited, some people passed out, and one girl was said to not have had a heartbeat for 45 minutes but the next day received an award congratulating her,” one attendee told Honi.

Obviously, it is a huge task for a small group of executives to take care of over one hundred drunken students, typically in remote locations.

This is a job that qualified, sober professionals find difficult, and the students on these committees shoulder a huge responsibility.

It is troubling, then, how the USU neither provides nor recommends camp-specific training.

An email sent from the USU to the executives before camps commenced this year said there would be “serious consequences” for any instance of discriminatory behaviour, and the USU assures it takes formal complaints seriously.

But in terms of prevention there are no guidelines other than those set out by the University’s code of conduct and Clubs and Societies’ regulations.

The USU relies on executives and attendees to report misconduct before they themselves can take action on the matter.

Beyond dangerous drinking practices, there are no clear mechanisms for student executives to respond to reports of sexual assault at camps.

A member of the 2014 SASS executive told Honi that when a student reported an attempted sexual assault, the solution was to give the alleged perpetrator a “time out” from drinking.

When the alleged perpetrator returned, he ripped the shirt of another female attendee.

No one on the executive reported this to the University or the USU.

Sarah,* a second-year law student, told Honi that a fellow attendee at last year’s law camp harassed and tried to kiss her without her consent

As a first year student at the time, she felt like she couldn’t report it to anyone: “I don’t think [not going to the leader] was a personal thing, it was moreso I didn’t want to be labelled as the victim.

“I just felt like [the executive] were all really elitist and hyper-masculine people who didn’t give a fuck about that sort of thing,” she said.

At this year’s SUBS camp, students could earn points in the Scavenger Hunt for telling an executive their sexual fantasy, removing clothing, kissing executives, kissing other members of their team, and skinny-dipping.

It has recently become more common for executives to run discussions surrounding sexual consent.

An attendee of both the SUBS and SULS camp noted that whilst SULS executives outlined procedures for dealing with sexual assault clearly, at SUBS camp there was a “distinct lack of safety procedure”.

Camps exist for a reason; they are an important way to introduce first years to University life.

It remains troubling, though, that in many cases executives are either wilfully ignorant or deeply unprepared for the responsibilities that come with providing an  standard of care for these students attending camp.

Without radical change, it seems inevitable that stories like these will repeat themselves.

* Names have been changed.

Editors Jayce Carrano and Michael Sun conflicted off this article.