Image Credit: John Husband
The recent news that PhD student Fasil Demsash has been sentenced to nine years for rape is unfortunately all too reminiscent of the Joseph McKeown case that resurfaced at the start of this academic year. I never thought I’d be sat here having to address yet another case of this nature.
When I first became aware of the McKeown case in October 2020, I was shocked and I couldn't believe what I was reading. Universities are supposed to be safe spaces that care for their students. Out of frustration, I wrote an open letter to Vice Chancellor Charlie Jeffery.
"If we all have the same goal, why are we not working together to achieve it?"
I expressed my concern regarding the policies in place at the University that allowed this to happen and called for a re-evaluation of these policies and protocols. The letter received over 3,000 signatures, yet the response from the Vice-Chancellor was not enough. It outlined two reactionary measures and failed to note any preventative action that the University would take.
As a student at this University, it angers me that students like this are given the opportunity to access educational resources that some dream of, yet throw it all away. Despite the horrific nature of both of these cases, I think it’s crucial we use these instances to engage in conversations, however difficult they may be. We must keep pushing the University, lobbying them to protect their students, to protect us. But we also need to ensure the University communicate the positive steps they are taking to address the issue of sexual violence on our campus.
I wonder how many times this must happen in order for the University to embed effective preventative measures into policy. This has now happened twice, which is two times too many. But it isn't just these two cases in York, it happens across universities. It is through running The Last Taboo that I have become aware of the scale of issues like these.
In the meetings I attend in my capacity as co-founder of The Last Taboo, it is clear that those working at the University all want the same thing – they want students to feel safe and supported. To feel free from the threat of sexual violence. If we all have the same goal, why are we not working together to achieve it? Why are students being left out of the conversation, and left to feel unsafe?
We are students who pay £9,250 a year to study here, is that not enough money to motivate the University to keep us safe, and tell us how they do so? 3,000 signatures on an open letter asking for change should have been enough, but evidently it wasn’t.. What is enough?
The introduction of ‘Report and Support’ and the new roles of the Sexual Violence Liaison Officers have proved really useful in providing support to survivors, but we need more preventative work such as stronger safeguarding policies and better consent training for students.
Reactionary work is not enough.
I have hope that with the help of some of the amazing members of staff who work at the University, alongside the input from students, we can make the changes necessary to keep staff and students safe.
To be a part of the push for change, don’t forget to sign our petition created in collaboration with the Women’s and Non-Binary Network. You can add your signature here: http://chng.it/y7Vghf9GfD
If you want to do more to help drive change at our University you can head over to www.thelasttaboo.co.uk/the-university-of-york and fill out our consultations. This data is being compiled into a report and will be shared to the University to highlight the extent of students' concerns and drive proactive change.