Several high profile incidents internationally and on campus have seen UCD’s policy and approach to sexual assault and harassment on campus come under question. Do students know how to report an incident with the university if they want to, or do the college need to make it clearer? Should the college take a proactive stance on tackling sexual assault or ‘rape culture’ on campus?
The combination of the young adult’s burgeoning sexual identity, the nebulous concept of consent and the alcohol fuelled first taste of freedom: the formative years of university life are a vulnerable period for young adults which can turn college campuses into an insidious breeding ground for sexual assault.
America has seen a number of high-profile sexual assault and rape cases, which have brought to public attention the endemic of college rape culture that has existed for many years. The Stanford rape victim penned a widely publicised open-letter to her attacker; a university town called Missoula earned itself the label ‘America’s Rape Capital’ because of a series of 80 rapes within a three-year period; and the case brought against Owen Labrie rape case uncovered the long-standing tradition of senior students sexually propositioning younger students in an elite boarding school.
Irish press covered similar cases of violence against female students in November of last year, with investigations underway into the alleged rape of a UCD student in November in Belfield campus. Mainstream media reporting would suggest that these was random and isolated event, however the lack of press coverage should not be considered indicative of Ireland’s college rape culture.
Sexual violence is undeniably a stain on the wider fabric of Irish educational institutions and a study by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) in 2013 shows that 16% of students received an unwanted sexual experience while at their educational institution. The prevalence of sexual assault or harassment in borne on the shoulders of Irish female students more acutely. One in five women experienced unwanted sexual behaviour and one in twelve were the victim of rape or attempted rape, with the figure being less than 1% in relation to men. Speaking to Neuroscience student Áine she acknowledged feeling scared late at night in UCD, saying. ‘When I’m alone and walking through the car park or walking home through the library I have my keys between my fingers.’
Sexual assault on campus is an Irish problem not just an American one.
How does UCD deal with Sexual Assault involving its Students?
Hand-in-hand with the disturbing frequency of sexual assault attacks against students in Ireland is the lack of proactive behaviour put in place by educational institutions to handle it. The Journal recently reported on a UCD student’s attempt to lodge an incidence of sexual assault, which is said to have taken place on October of 2015, with the college authorities. The second year student has said she was ‘bounced around’ by UCD officials as there are no ‘visible system in place’ designed to handle her claims, which remain unaddressed despite her feeling unsafe.
Informing students on the correct course of action in the aftermath of a sexual assault has not been a point of concern for UCD. With information on how or where to report an incident notoriously difficult to find. Anecdotally the Tribune quizzed fourteen random students on if they knew where to report an incident of sexual harassment or abuse within UCD, with not one knowing how to make a complaint.
I began by looking at information on the Welfare page under the sexual health section. The page listed the UCD Health & Counselling centre, a student advisor link (that didn’t work), the welfare page itself and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. There was no prescribed route for dealing with the matter internally, nor any information beyond links to external websites. Next I turned to the support section of www.ucd.ie. The page listed the Emergency Campus helpline, which would refer the incident to official Emergency Services. Again, there was no information detailing an internal handling of the case, with all guidelines targeted towards the immediate aftermath of the assault.
I had a hypothetical scenario in mind, in which one UCD student is raped or sexually assaulted by another student of UCD. Was there a specific body in UCD to process such complaints and what were the necessary procedures and safeguards in place?
My last port of call was UCD’s code of conduct. Trawling through the entire document I found only one mention of sexual violence, Article 6.14, which forbids ‘sexual harassment of any student or member of the staff of the University’. I referred to the UCD Dignity & Respect Policy to seek elucidation of the university’s sexual harassment policy. The Dignity and Respect policy (which is currently under review) fleshed out the meaning, by providing examples of sexual harassment of varying degrees of intensity. Only two of the nine examples involved physical harassment, the most severe of which beginning ‘threats of or actual, physical assault’. No more details were given as to what actions ‘physical assault’ would encompass.
Given that 1 in 20 of Irish female students are the victims of rape, with an additional 3% suffering an attempted rape, both documents appear grossly inadequate for dealing with the reality of sexual violence in UCD. It is unclear if sexual assault and rape is included within the scope of this terminology, and even if it were, the heading ‘sexual harassment’ demeans the level of violence suffered by a victim of sexual assault.
Speaking to UCD SU Welfare officer Roisin O’Mara about the issue she told me that if you go the Gardaí UCD cannot do anything about your claim. Acknowledging that campus sexual assault was not a new problem, she said that UCD needed to change its approach to a zero-tolerance stance. ‘This isn’t going away. This isn’t anything new.’
Seeking more answers I contacted the student discipline administration as well as a dignity & respect colleague. My experiences mimicked that of the earlier mentioned UCD student: I was forwarded from one person to the next and ultimately received no answers to my questions.
UCD’s willingness to distance itself from student instances of sexual violence and leave all investigations to Gardaí is at odds with the US universities, where often the preferred course of actions is to handle reports of sexual violence internally, often to the detriment of the student. Yale law student, Alexandra Brodsky has spoken openly about her experience of reporting her sexual assault to her university, whom coerced into not telling the police.
In response to public backlash, the US government sought to strengthen legal protections, and turned to Title IX, a US federal law designed to prevent sexual discrimination. In existence since 1972, it has been bolstered by the Obama administration to include sexual harassment and sexual violence, legally requiring schools to have an established procedure for handling such cases. If a student files a complaint the school is required to conduct its own investigation, regardless of whether it is reported to the police, and must act to remedy the harm incurred while ensuring it doesn’t happen again. This is still an imperfect model. The life form such an investigation should take is uncertain given that recommendations made by the US Department of Education are guidelines rather than uniform rules, leaving each university free to develop their own procedure.
Having a precise, judicious and thorough process laid out is in the best interest of both the victim and accused, as shown by the John Doe v Jane Roe San Diago Case. After John Doe had been found guilty of sexual misconduct by a tribunal and suspended for over a year he sued the college arguing that the administrative case brought against him was one-sided and unfair. The state judge agreed he hadn’t received due process and the guilty determination was overturned, putting the victim in a far worse position than she would have been had the original investigation been more rigorous.
If a disciplinary hearing were to take place in UCD to investigate a claim of sexual assault it is unclear what safeguards would be in place to accommodate the sensitive nature of the case. A disciplinary procedure designed to punish plagiarism is wholly unsuitable, and the rudimentary mention of sexual harassment in the UCD code of conduct would suggest that a UCD disciplinary committee is ill equipped to handle such complaints.
Does UCD have an obligation to handle sexual assault claims involving its students?
The salient question is whether it is appropriate that third level institutions should have an investigative and discriminatory role for sexual violence involving its own students, or whether it should be left solely to the legal system. The answer is that both investigations should be conducted in parallel with one another as neither is sufficient as a standalone procedure. Sexual violence is a criminal matter that should be handled by police forces, however there are circumstances that require action beyond the Gardaí, like how the university will deal with the practicalities of a victim and alleged abuser sharing a campus or a course.
Low prosecution rates serve as a major deterrence to victims reporting crimes of sexual violence: two thirds of rape cases reported are brought to trial and only approximately 1% of reported sexual assault instances result in conviction. With the burden of proof being ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ for criminal cases, lack of evidence is the overwhelming reason, as it is often one word against another.
Legally an administrative investigation by UCD on the other hand would benefit from requiring a lower burden of proof (‘on the balance of probabilities’) minimising the evidentiary hurdle permitting some form of disciplinary action. Sometimes victims don’t want the perpetrator to go to jail yet wish to avoid the vulnerable position of seeing their attacker on campus. Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz carried a mattress on her back throughout the school year to protest at the way the college handled her reports of rape at the hands of a fellow student Paul Nungesser. He was cleared by a tribunal despite similar rape claims made by three other students, and he continued to study alongside Sulkowicz for the duration of their degree. Committing repeat offences is not uncommon for those who commit sexual violence and internal action would allow UCD protective action swiftly and effectively.
By failing to take a firm stance against sexual violence UCD is contributing to culture that permits attacks and neglects victims. UCD’s response to the alleged rape last semester is particularly telling as they only made public the allegations once it had been circulated by mainstream media. Out of fourteen UCD students I spoke to, twelve had heard about the attack via social media and not from UCD. English and Drama Student Ronan Bartley described UCD’s reaction as a ‘tepid and lukewarm response’, suggesting that UCD intended cover up the incident, a worry voiced by several other students.
It is a worrying reflection of the disconnect between UCD’s governing bodies and its students if they believe the university favours its reputation over their personal safety. An environment in which students feel their safety concerns aren’t being addressed is the same environment that emboldens potential attackers. It’s clear internal policy and institutional frameworks have a long way to catch up to the realities of sexual assault and harassment on campus.