Are students failed by inadequate response to rape culture

In recent weeks there have  been increasingly compelling voices warning us of some of the problems in the world of education. These are not the “usual” problems: under achievement, lack of resources, access to information technology and learning opportunities. The problems now being talked and written about concern more fundamental issues: the rights to feel safe, valued, free from harm in the environment, where these should not only be taken for granted but top of the list of any institution dedicated to learning and development.

However, we can see that this is not so: lawyers and campaigners have recently suggested that universities have ignored repeated warnings to tackle rape culture on campus; students who disclosed sexual assault or harassment face a postcode lottery on whether, and the type of support they may or may not get; and the Everyone’s Invited campaign has illustrated that the problems don’t just lie with universities and other institutes of higher education but that some schools too are a concern. And we should reflect that no one can learn in an environment that can be perceived as fostering and failing to address harassment and assault.

These issues are starting to be taken more seriously. The Office for Students has recently published a Statement of Expectation for higher education providers to prevent and respond to incidents of harassment and sexual misconduct. This is a welcome development and, as far as the statement goes, a step forward if applied properly. Maybe the statement itself is not the best or most appropriate place to articulate and elaborate on one particular aspect of the comprehensive needs of students, but it does look rather light on recognising and promoting the need for effective personal support to those who are brave enough to step forward and report their experiences.

Effective practical help and emotional support is a crucial part of the process of people seeking and getting justice. We know from experience in working with victims of crime and witnesses that people are more likely to report a crime, more likely to continue through the criminal justice process, if the legal aspects of the case are underpinned by the delivery of effective, timely and person-centred support measures.

Knowing that such support measures are in place will help generate the confidence young people need to come forward, articulate their experiences knowing that they will be heard and taken seriously and so be assisted to start the process of recovering from what can all too often be deeply damaging and long term negative effects on many aspects of their lives.

The  support needed can and should be provided by a range of organisations; educational establishments do not have to do this in isolation. And, to achieve this, each individual story will need to be heard, each individual will have to have their needs properly assessed, and each educational body will need to develop effective referral arrangements so that as wide a range of needs as possible can be met.

We at Supporting Justice have clearly identified the key standards that need to be applied by any organisation that seeks to take the issue of effective support seriously and deliver good outcomes to those with whom they engage. To deliver that support they  need to provide:

  • Easy Access
  • Effective needs assessment
  • Practical and emotional support
  • A culture that clearly demonstrates an individual is valued
  • An approach that helps make people feel safe

As, we hope, the focus of media and news interest begins to shift away from the all consuming issue of Covid 19 we need to think about how we re-focus on the many other threats that face us and need to be addressed if we are to build the inclusive, supportive and ultimately more creative and sustainable society we all want to see.