By: Frances Cook
Students Against Sexual Violence (SASV) is holding a public meeting on Friday.
The group has invited those who are concerned about the issue to join it in marching through Otago University’s Dunedin campus, before meeting in a Otago University Students Association clubs building.
It comes after more than a year of trying to change university systems to be more sympathetic to rape and sexual assault survivors, including a sexual violence hui in December 2016.
But SASV students say the university isn’t listening, and only wants to make cosmetic changes to preserve its reputation.
Monique Mulholland is one of those campaigning for change. She claims she was raped by a fellow student last year.
Police investigated, but did not prosecute.
In the aftermath, Mulholland said she found herself struggling with such bad anxiety that her education began to suffer.
She describes how she was studying in the university library one day when she glanced up and saw her alleged attacker.
It triggered a panic attack that lasted half an hour, she said, forcing her to hide in the bathroom while she battled her emotions.
Mulholland’s anxiety eventually spiralled to a point where she says she feared stepping onto campus, and couldn’t attend lectures.
Her emotional distress and mental health issues forced her to withdraw from some of her courses in 2016 and 2017, she said. But she was told her situation didn’t meet the criteria for an “exceptional circumstances” refund of tuition fees.
During this time she met with the university Proctor Dave Scott several times, who the university recommends as the first person to speak to in the case of sexual assault.
But Mulholland said she was horrified when the Proctor allegedly turned to her in one meeting, and said about her attacker: “They’re just silly little boys who don’t know how to treat young ladies, and when combined with alcohol they get even sillier.”
However, the university denies such a comment was made.
Now a year after the alleged assault, Mulholland says she still struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, dissociation, and avoids crowds.
Kyra Gillies has supported Mulholland in the campaign for change.
Gillies says she was raped before becoming a student, and continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder which makes studying difficult.
She said Otago University didn’t seem to understand the long-lasting impact of sexual assault, and didn’t have support systems in place to ensure those who’d been assaulted could still get an education.
Part of the problem, Gillies says, is a cap of six counselling sessions per year for students.
At one point she needed weekly counselling, but says she was told by Student Health staff that she should try to space out her appointments to make them last.
When contacted for a response, Otago University Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne said the university took the concerns from SASV “extremely seriously”.
But she said the advocacy group was taking an unfair and “malicious” approach in its campaign.
“The group needs to be careful not to harm others unreasonably, including alleged offenders, against whom the police had concluded no charges should be laid,” she said.
“These people currently do not have basic rights to justice in terms of what can be said about them in the absence of legal or court processes.”
Students with rape and sexual assault allegations should report them to the police and to the university Proctor, Hayne said, and they would receive support.
“The university leads in this area nationally in pastoral care for students, and has extremely robust processes for handling sexual complaints in colleges and on campus,” Hayne said.
“The university has continued to review and improve these processes as new and recent evidence from around the world guides our work in this area.”
Otago University was in the process of reviewing its policies on ethical and student behaviour, Hayne said.
But she said it was first and foremost an educational institution, and said Student Health did an excellent job looking after their students.
“More chronic mental and physical care is best provided through specialist services in the wider health care system,” Hayne said.
“In that light, we believe six counselling sessions per year is reasonable.”
Students Against Sexual Violence plans to meet at midday on Friday.
They’ll gather at the Proctor’s office at 11.45am, before marching through campus to the OUSA Clubs and Socs building, for a panel and public discussion.
More information can be found on its Twitter and Facebook pages, which are both under SASVOtagoUni.
The changes SASV wants:
- Put in the student Code of Conduct that any form of sexual harassment or assault will result in serious consequences.
- Have a place on campus for victims to go if they encounter their alleged attacker on campus and suffer a panic attack.
- Compulsory content warning if sexual violence is going to be covered in a university class.
- Full or partial trespassing of students who commit sexual violence, and for the university to keep a log of students who have harassed or assaulted others.
- Give victims warning of the possibility of being in the same graduation class as their alleged attacker, and offer alternative arrangements.
- Make it easier for students to withdraw if they are experiencing difficulty keeping up with their workload.
- The university to fully subsidise or waive the cost of repeated visits to Student Health if it is due to sexual violence.
- A page on the University of Otago website where victims and their loved ones can find support, information, and resources about help within the university.
- Provide training for staff members, particularly those in Disability Support and Information, about how to support students with sexual violence trauma.
- Accept a Rape Crisis Dunedin presence on Otago University Campus to assist students.
- The university to bring in a specialised person to deal with sexual violence incidents, in place of the Proctor who usually responds to disciplinary issues.
Source: NZ Herald