Survivors Locked Out of ANU’s Sexual Violence Response

CW: sexual violence, institutional response

We are strong and we will not be silent, writes Codie Bell.

“These results are shocking.”

These were the words our vice-chancellor used on the day the Human Rights Commission survey results revealed the extent of sexual violence at our university – 10 per cent of female Australian university students were sexually assaulted last year, and at a minimum, 116 assaults were committed against ANU students in 2016. Perhaps this was shocking for the vice-chancellor ­– but it was not shocking for our student leaders and survivors.

Now it is our turn to be shocked. We have recently learnt that the review into ANU’s response to sexual violence is explicitly forbidden from seeking out the experiences of survivors of on-campus sexual violence. This news is in direct contradiction with Brian Schmidt’s promise that the review will “consult with staff, students, and survivors”, announced the same day he declared the results shocking. A review into the university’s sexual assault policies and procedures is meaningless if it does not examine how the university and its staff actually use these policies in practice. It is meaningless if it does not examine how survivors have experienced the system in place.

Survivors Are Strong. We can handle an interview – if we know that interview will make the world a bit better than how it was given to us.

It is likely that the review cannot consult survivors because the wait to secure ethics clearance for this project was deemed too lengthy. I speak for many of us fighting when I say we are insulted by the suggestion that a rapid response is better than a thorough – or meaningful – response. We are further insulted that survivors might have been excluded because of the suggestion that they may be re-traumatised – a decision that was made without consulting a single survivor. We would hope that the response to the survey has made at least one thing clear: Survivors Are Strong. We can handle an interview – if we know that interview will make the world a bit better than how it was given to us. Don’t be afraid of us crying in front of you. Crying does not make us irrational or impossible; crying is a natural human response to grief. We have things to say and we deserve to be listened to.

But it doesn’t end there. In addition to the news that survivors would not be consulted in the review, the student leaders who were ‘consulted’, according to the ANU response, were surprised to discover that four of the previously agreed upon terms of reference had been excluded from the review. Terms of reference decide what a study will actually examine: what is ‘in scope’ and what is ‘out of scope’. The four terms of reference that ask for examination into what the university can do to exclude perpetrators and ensure survivor safety have been dropped. This was not a decision proceeded by a conversation that included students or survivors – the conversation was between the university administration and a private consultancy firm, who decided that “twenty days of consulting work” could not cover all the ground we were after. But who decided on the stifling mid-September deadline for the only external review the university will commission on this topic? It wasn’t students or survivors.

We are beyond disappointed to find out that the university is not even interested in learning how it can hold perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment accountable for their behaviour. The “zero-tolerance” approach that Brian Schmidt wants to “continue” has proven useless – many of us have seen, in fact, a high degree of tolerance for violent behaviour at this university. We want a new approach, but this external review will not consider anything beyond the status quo.

When student leaders raised these concerns with the university executive, we were accused of wanting to delay reform and the justice to survivors that reform represents. This is base and manipulative, and an attempt to turn university inaction back on the people who have fought for action for so long.

When student leaders raised these concerns with the university executive, we were accused of wanting to delay reform and the justice to survivors that reform represents. This is base and manipulative, and an attempt to turn university inaction back on the people who have fought for action for so long. We were told to give the new Respectful Relationships Steering Committee “the benefit of the doubt” – but what, exactly, has ‘the benefit of the doubt’ gotten for us up until now? A survey that should have been done 30 years ago, and a handsome sum paid to a consulting firm to draft recommendations that likely already exist – recommendations have already been made by ANU students themselves and in an impressive 150-page research report produced by UNSW’s Australian Human Rights Centre, titled On Safe Ground: A Good Practice Guide for Australian Universities.

We are angry, and we are exhausted. But university executives shouldn’t take our anger personally – our anger comes from a deep well of love and compassion. Compassion for survivors, and the student leaders who carry their burden along with them. And love – for this university, which for better or worse remains a part of our lives, and love for the innate humanity of all people, even those who suppress their own humanity through violence, or through complacency, or a desire not to confront what is before them. We want you to join us, and we want to help you pick up a little bit of the burden that survivors carry around with them every day, and make the world a little better than how it was left to us.

We don’t believe that reform is a lost cause. We believe that we can work productively into the future with the university to get the best possible outcomes for current survivors, and the safety of students now and in the future. We believe this means a centralised ANU policy with investigative mechanisms that is ready by the first day of semester 1 2018, with survivors involved in every step of the process. We believe this looks like a true student-university partnership in deciding on the next steps of the university’s response.

Establishing trust between the university and survivors is crucial if we want to move forward. We want a timely, thorough, and above all, compassionate response to the sexual violence on our campus. We hope the university does too.