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Students call for review of University's sexual assault handling

In an interview with Nouse, Women and Non-binary Officers and The Last Taboo discuss their petition following the news that another member of staff has been convicted of rape at the University

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Image Credit: Annie Watson

Content warning: discusses sexual violence in detail

Today, The Last Taboo and the Women/ Non-Binary Network amended their existing petition in response to news that York PhD student Fasil Demsash being convicted for rape yesterday, as revealed by The York Press and Vision.

Previously, The Last Taboo launched an open letter in response to Joseph McKeown being allowed to continue working on campus after pleading guilty to rape. In this letter, founder Imogen asked for a “re-evaluation of policies and protocols” that were in place at the University to ensure this would not happen again, but they told Nouse that there has been minimal communication that this has been done effectively.

In a statement via Instagram, The Last Taboo said that they were “still waiting for confirmation on whether Demsash was allowed to be in contact with students during the criminal investigation”. Regardless, they believe that a review of safeguarding policies at the University was essential.

The petition calls for an internal review and investigation into how the University and individual Departments handle cases of sexual violence, and the safeguarding measures in place for students. This comes in the wake of two PhD students, McKeown and Demsash, being found guilty of sexual assault within the last six months, both of whom would have had access to students through their positions.

The Last Taboo said that “it is furthermore worrying that the University only released an email to students within the Education department rather than the collective student body. The break in communication between the University and its students further highlights the need for a review of its policies and procedures”.

Alongside the Petition, The Last Taboo has also put out an anonymous form allowing students and staff to provide recommendations and suggestions as to how the University could improve its handling of sexual assault and harassment.

We interviewed both the Woman and Non-binary officers (WNB) and The Last Taboo on this petition and the recent news.

We firstly asked how they believed the University could have changed the way this situation was handled. The Last Taboo told us:

“The Last Taboo was established as a result of two events, one being the open letter that Co-founder, Imogen, launched in October in regards to the Joseph McKeown case. In this letter, Imogen asked for a “re-evaluation of policies and protocols” that were in place at the University to ensure this would not happen again, there is minimal communication that this has been done effectively.

“We feel that the University needs to communicate with their students, the procedures that are already in place when it comes to a student or member of staff at the University being investigated for allegations of sexual assault. We understand that things in place may not be to students’ preferences; however, the reasoning for these systems ought to be explained so students understand.

“Having an honest dialogue with students on how they handle these incidents will be the first step towards ensuring a clearer understanding about the procedures in place that allow students to feel safe. It will also help students understand the limitations that the University face when handling incidents of sexual violence, due to their capacity as non-legal institution that is separate to that of the legal system.

“We feel that the University should have sent out the email to all students addressing this issue in order to prevent confusion and misunderstanding amongst students, instead of just sending it to one department. However, we can see why that decision was made by the University and we appreciate their quicker response to the situation.”

The WNB Officers said this in regards to the same question:

“First and foremost, they should have told all students. By not confirming Demsash’s presence on campus during this time it really brings into question how safe students are on campus. As Officers, we have a responsibility to make sure that student voices surrounding these issues are being heard and the minimal communication from the university means that students are put in a position to make judgements without all the information. The current policies and procedures should be made clear to students as should the changes the university are making along the way. Student consultation is fundamental in the review of these policies; our outrage and concern deserve to be heard.”

Secondly, Nouse enquired as the groups have launched a petition in light of Demsash’s conviction. The Last Taboo answered by stating that “We launched our petition after Demsash’s conviction was reported by various news outlets, as we feel that the University of York still needs to work proactively on their safeguarding policies in place to protect students and staff.” They continued by explaining that “the open letter circulated in the original case of Joseph McKeown, and the way that we have been working so proactively with the university, evidently hasn’t highlighted just how much demand there is from students to understand the depth of the way these cases are dealt with. We felt that a petition to emphasise the want from students to know more about this issue, would help demonstrate to the university that students care, and want to know how they are being protected.”

WNB Officers stated the following: “Demsash’s conviction is not the only one we have seen this year. The Joseph McKeown case in October 2020 identified the inefficient safeguarding policies that were being employed in the Physics department. To have such a similar conviction repeated later on in the year, and in another department, raises concerns across all faculties at the University of York and what measures are in place to keep students safe. We want students to be informed of where their departments, and the university as a whole, have successfully implemented these procedures and, perhaps more significantly, where their execution of these strategies has failed. We appreciate that the University has attempted to rectify some of these issues through introducing the SVLOs and the “Report and Support” tool however these measures are reactionary and used after the assault has happened. There needs to be a clearer indication of what the University is doing to actively keep students safe before these situations occur. This petition gives the option for students to share their grievances with the university in a way that can influence constructive and necessary change. Students should feel safe at their university and we hope that this petition will clarify the steps forward to ensuring this.”

Finally, we asked both groups what they would like to highlight about this campaign and petition. Imogen and Kelly from the Last Taboo told Nouse that:

“We know that the University wants the best for their students and their staff, however, we feel there is still a lot more to be done to help students and staff feel safe. Our petition and our campaign is not here to make the University look bad, it is here to create productive lines of communication between students and staff at the University. It is here to communicate what students need to know in order to feel safe at the University of York.”

Similarly, the WNB Officers explained that “We recognise that the University wants to make changes in order to improve student welfare and we recognise that there are challenges associated with this. The purpose of this petition is not to be defamatory towards the university but instead to highlight the frustration felt by students by not being given the full picture both when incidents occur and when looking at the measures in place to protect students from incidents like this one. More than anything we would like student voices to be heard and for the university to not just tell us that they’re doing more but to show to students through actions and ongoing dialogue that they are committed to creating a cultural change on campus.”

If you have experienced sexual violence, either recent or historical, feel free to reach out to the University of York’s Sexual Violence Liason officers: https://www.york.ac.uk/students/health/advice/sexual-violence/.
You can report incidents and access further support through the university’s Report and Support tool: www.reportandsupport.york.ac.uk
For more options, you can find a range of services on our support services page of our website: https://www.thelasttaboo.co.uk/support-services

Further resources in York:
Survive:http://survive-northyorks.org.uk/our-services/ 
Rape Crisis: 0808 802 9999 (12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm every day of the year)
Bridge House (Sexual Assault Referral Centre):https://www.bridgehousesarc.org/
York Mind: https://www.yorkmind.org.uk/
Supporting Victims in North Yorkshire:https://www.supportingvictims.org/advice/i-or-someone-i-know-has-experienced-domestic-abuse/?ref=71
Advice line: 0808 168 9293
The Sanctuary: 0300 003 7029



Resources that can provide support nationally:
Refuge: Freephone 24/7 helpline: 0808 2000 247
https://www.refuge.org.uk/get-help-now/support-for-women/
https://www.refuge.org.uk/our-work/our-services/
https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/ (this is linked to Refuge but also has an online chat option)

Women's Aid:https://www.womensaid.org.uk/information-support/
Email helpline: helpline@womensaid.org.uk (https://www.womensaid.org.uk/information-support/help-by-email/)
Galop: (A national organisation that offers advice and support to lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer people who have experienced biphobia, homophobia, transphobia, sexual violence or domestic abuse): www.galop.org.uk
Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
Men's Advice Line:www.mensadviceline.org.uk
Phone: 0808 801 0327 (Not 24hr)

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