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University processes and decisions are 'perpetuating an unsafe environment'

CONTENT WARNING: One year on from Nouse's report on Joseph McKeown, we investigate the University's regulations and systems, and how they can fail those whom they should be supporting

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Image Credit: Annie Watson

In October 2019, Nouse reported that the Physics department at the University of York had continued to work with Joseph McKeown during his trial for sexual assault. A year has now passed since this information was released, but it appears that little progress has been made, as it was recently revealed by BBC News that the student continued working after pleading guilty.

In 2019, before the investigation was complete, the University’s response was: “the matters raised are of deep concern to the University and are being investigated as a matter of urgency. As the investigation has not yet concluded it would be inappropriate to comment further. We take cases of sexual harassment and violence extremely seriously and the safety and well-being of our staff and students is of paramount importance.”

“We deeply regret that Joseph McKeown continued his short internship following his guilty plea. We apologise unreservedly for the distress caused and our thoughts remain with the victim of his crime. Disciplinary action was taken and we remain committed to applying the lessons learnt from this case including the ongoing review of our policies and procedures.” This case is however just a symptom of a larger problem at the University and just one of the issues that FemSoc touched upon during a recent interaction with the University about their approach to sexual misconduct. Their email to the Vice Chancellor, Charlie Jeffery, highlighted the disappointment that the student body felt over the University’s handling of recent events including the University’s lack of a clear training plan on spotting signs of spiking.

The email commented that: “we are honestly so tired of the University not having our back and not putting student safety first. If a student can continue their study after being convicted of rape, what precedent does that set?”
Nouse spoke to the president of FemSoc, Ellen Martin, who has been campaigning relentlessly for change in how the University deals with sexual misconduct cases. She said that  “the University's failure to ensure the safety of students undeniably contributes to and constructs a systematic rape culture in York. It isn't the students job to campaign and lobby the University weekly to ensure their own safety, whilst trying to complete their degrees. We are tired.”
The University has recently made clearly long overdue updates to Regulation 7: the Student Discipline Procedure. The old Regulation, as Kelly Balmer, YUSU’s former Policy Co-ordinator, puts it, was “far too complex and inaccessible to be understood” nor did it define sexual misconduct properly.”

The new Regulation 7 has, according to Balmer, “adjusted issues that [she] found problematic around the tenancy to fine or suspend, instead of working more reformative measures. It now also defines what ‘sexual misconduct’ is, however, it doesn’t clearly outline if sexual violence is included in as: ‘sexual misconduct’ in Regulation 7.5(b) or ‘Abusive, Threatening, or Unacceptable Behaviour’ in Regulation 7.5(c).”

The University summarised the changes made to Regulation 7 to Nouse saying “there are now clear lines of responsibility for each stage of the student disciplinary process.

“The revised Regulation 7 also prominently features the support all students involved in the process can expect from the University. Student Conduct and Respect staff are reviewing how the University communicates with students throughout the process and are developing a package of comms for students to help make the process easier to understand for all parties.”

The lack of clarity surrounding Regulation 7 is, unfortunately, not the only problem with the reforms. A lack of communication from the University has resulted in few students being aware of the changes despite their importance.
Kelly comments to Nouse that “when speaking to students, no one knew that Regulation 7 was being updated, or that now as we have started a new academic year the new Regulation 7 was in place. Very few of them even knew what it was. There was a significant lack of student consultation or knowledge that this was even going to happen. For something that affects all students at the University, this is unacceptable.

“Considering the University is essentially changing a signed agreement between students and the University. On that basis alone it should be made as clear as possible to students. However, students also need to be told that this structure is there for them to report forms of misconduct to particularly now it is slightly easier to understand.” The University responded to these complaints regarding a lack of communication on their part stating to Nouse that “due to the pandemic we have been operating in an environment with high levels of changing information and have had to adapt quickly. We always welcome feedback from our student community.”

It is clear however that to some the pandemic is not an excuse for this, with Ellen Martin telling Nouse that “the turnaround of teaching and accommodation in the pandemic shows the University’s capability to act on this fast, but it’s lack of commitment to funding shows it’s priorities.”

The lack of student consultation is also concerning considering the importance of the issue and how directly it can affect students, with External Relations Officer for FemSoc, Ally Smith, describing it as “ridiculous” that students were not consulted.
Another key issue raised by Ally is that communication between students and the University is insufficient and advertising is limited. Smith argued that: “transparency and accountability are key in this situation as York has not often been exemplary in issues surrounding student safety (particularly sexual assault/spiking) and for the culture at York to change, they need to acknowledge the problem first.”

There may, however, be potential for improvement within this with the University responding to Nouse’s concerns by informing us that “Regulation 7 will have further updates this year and there will be student consultation as part of this. They also said that they “will consider a range of ways to consult with students for purposes of equality and inclusion.”

FemSoc have recently set up a survey, which enables students to express their views about the current systems in place, and the University’s handling of misconduct, spiking and consent. The results so far have shown that 68 per cent of students who took part have not engaged with the optional consent module this year and those who were not in first year and therefore received a consent talk complained the University had put in minimal effort with one student saying: “they’re just playing a YouTube video which has been around for years, they could at least make it more engaging and maybe do it from a less heteronormative standpoint. They don’t do enough to minimise “lad culture” and this is still actively present at our university.” The consent module is currently carried out online through the VLE but is essentially optional with no obvious checks in place to ensure completion.

We asked the University to comment on their advertisement of their report and support systems who responded by stating that: “the Report and Support tool has been widely shared in communications from the Vice Chancellor and others since it became available on 01 June this year. It is strongly highlighted in the Consent Matters module and has also been integrated in communications relating to Covid measures. Although it has only been in place for four months, it has been very well used. Report and Support is something we want all students to be aware of and the University will continue to advertise it further.”

Despite it being “widely shared” 52 per cent of students in the FemSoc survey answered ‘no’ or ‘not sure’ when asked if they knew how to access available support. Even if this advertisement is adequate, as the University claims, there are still inevitable issues surrounding people’s attitudes and feelings towards using such a service. One respondent stated that alongside promoting the report and support service the University “needs to do more work to address stigmas and the inevitable apprehension of reporting incidents. When I experienced sexual harassment on campus not only wasn’t I aware of how to report it but because of the nature of it, with the individual being on my course and being of the same gender (male), I felt grossly uncomfortable at even the thought of officially reporting it and having to go through whatever process the University had at the time.”

The University also responded to the issue of a lack of spiking training in the consent module, saying that: “the Consent Matters course is created by experts and produced by Epigium, which is an international provider of consent courses. The course has been adapted for York and includes local resources. The Conduct and Respect Team is already involved in conversations with Epigium about future developments and this topic will be raised as part of those discussions.”
Ellen Martin summarised the problems the University needs to address telling Nouse: “it appears significantly that the University is attempting to solve various symptoms when it comes to sexual assault at York - rather than tackling the cause. The priorities of the University are demonstrated well by the fact the department dealing with all of Regulation 7 and sexual assault is composed of three people. More funding and more staff tackling this problem would be a significant start. The recent news regarding what happened last year just supports their failure to address the cause.”

We approached Carly Precious, YUSU Community and Wellbeing Officer, as to their views on the issue within the University’s systems and the dangerous environment this fosters on campus. They commented that: “tackling rape culture in any environment is difficult, as it takes a shift in perspectives, behaviours and attitudes. This starts with providing students an understanding of what behaviours are inappropriate, giving students platforms for discussion and removing taboo. In addition to giving people the tools and confidence to report incidents, and seek support. This change will not happen overnight and will require support and participation from the whole community at the university.

As such, we need to look at working with students, such as members of FemSoc, to learn from students’ own experiences of the process. We need to use this information to work with the University to review training and campaigns. In addition we need to better advertise resources of support including the the Sexual Violence Liaison Officer (SVLO) at the University. Some positive actions have been taken to help, such as including this in training, but there is still more work to be done.”  Carly also added that they would be willing to support a campaign to “get more funding for resources regarding consent and sexual violence or harassment of any nature.” Those who wish to support the campaign or want to give their feedback can complete FemSoc’s online survey, which can be found on their Facebook page, University of York Feminist Society.

If you have been affected by the issues within this article, or have concerns about sexual violence visit reportandsupport.york.ac.uk or call Rape Crisis on: 0808 802 9999.

Links to support:

Report and support tool: https://reportandsupport.york.ac.uk/

Employee support from the University:
https:// www.york.ac.uk/admin/hr/browse/health-and-well-being/employee-assistance

Student support from the University:
https://www.york.ac.uk/students/health/advice/sexual-violence/

Visit the Rape Crisis website at: www.Rapecrisis.org.uk
Or call Rape Crisis on: 0808 802 9999

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