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Rape, slut dances and exploitation: James Cook Uni vows review

James Cook University’s Cairns Campus. Picture: Marc McCormackSource:News Corp Australia
James Cook University’s Cairns Campus. Picture: Marc McCormackSource:News Corp Australia

A DAMNING report into rape and sexual harassment at James Cook University has revealed a toxic culture of predatory behaviour by some academics where victims told to stay quiet and left "suicidal".

The report, commissioned by the university and former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, includes stories from students who were assaulted or raped on campus and explains how some students were questioned about whether the attack actually occurred while others were told not to complain because taking action could impact others.

One female college resident told the review about a degrading ritual known as "quad cricket" where women were required to dance in their underwear while men played cricket.

The university has campuses in Mackay, Brisbane, Mount Isa, Townsville, Cairns, Thursday Island and Singapore.

The report was commissioned after an exclusive investigation by news.com.au earlier this year, which exposed how the university had promoted a staff member charged with raping a student.

In 2015, JCU staff member Douglas Steele was charged with raping an indigenous student but rather than standing him down, the university promoted him to academic adviser to indigenous students.

Steele pleaded guilty to the rape in September of last year but was permitted to remain in his role at the university until sentencing in January, 2017, when he received a two-year sentence to be suspended to four months.

The Broderick report revealed accusations of university staff failing to take appropriate action in response to reports of rape.

"The Team spoke to a number of female students at JCU who had experienced sexualassault. The impact of these experiences was devastating, and the experience of trauma for individuals was often exacerbated by the university's poor response to disclosures," the report said.

One student told the review: "I told [a senior academic] that I had been sexually assaulted by someone in my year, in my course, and the first response was 'are you sure? Maybe you should talk to him to make certain it was rape'."
Another said they were "sexually assaulted on a field trip".

"When I told the safety officer, they said 'I don't know how to deal with this'. When I told [a senior staff member] they said 'if you say that this has had a significant impact [on you], the risk assessment people will shut down field trips. But we will get you counselling.' I'm still waiting."

A third student stated that when she reported sexual misconduct to another senior academic, she was told to "keep it quiet". "They basically pressure [survivors] to shut up," she said.


'EXPLOITATION IS EASY'

The report says several staff complained of a culture where students were being sexually targeted by predatory staff with "wandering hands" and in some cases female students "get coerced into sexual favours" the report was told.
"Exploitation is easy if someone wants to do it," one male staff member told the review.

"One of the lecturers points out each year which girls he wants to sleep with, [and] says he'll only help pretty girls. Another colleague pulls people out and demeans them. Nothing ever happens," another said.

"At the moment [some] academics are untouchable," another staff member is quoted saying.

"The uni doesn't want to lose [them], they don't want reputational damage and are worried about ruining someone's career. So they turn a blind eye," he said.

Staff were also critical of the responses they received when reporting their own experiences of harassment: "I contacted [Human Resources] to raise an issue about a colleague making inappropriate comments to me …. The response was 'Oh yeah, I know him, he's a top bloke'."

The report also noted that some staff had been sexually harassed by students.

The vice chancellor of JCU, Professor Sandra Harding, says the university is committed to making change.

"Some of the stories that have been told, I am absolutely horrified by. It makes for very uncomfortable reading but my 100 per cent commitment is to ensure that this will never happen again," she said.

"Given the rocky road we've gone on this year, we are looking forward to the future to make sure we are absolutely best practice in what we do. We have learned some very hard lessons."


'SLUT DANCE': DEMEANING COLLEGE PRACTICES

The report paints a devastating picture of sexual harassment and assault between students and the toxic culture associated with some the residential colleges at the university.

The report detailed one college tradition known as "quad cricket" where the men play cricket while women are offered two choices: "They could walk around as bikini girls and serve sandwiches and beers to the boys or they could perform something called a 'slut dance' where they danced in their underwear for the boys," explained one student.

Another female student who reported her rape to a senior colleague said the response was dismissive but the impact of the assault had long term consequences.

"The assault happened to me in first year … The perpetrator is in my year. I had such an innocent mind, people take advantage … It was hard for the first two to three years, I shied away from attending class … it's a constant battle to get through the degree … I felt suicidal."

Another student who experienced sexual assault said "going through with sexual assault can be a safer option than fighting back - you worry about getting hit if you fight back".

Yet another female student observed that "the upper year guys in our course take advantage of the first year girls … Then gossip happens and everybody finds out … it's really sad but a couple of girls actually tried to commit suicide within the last month".


16 SEXUAL ASSAULTS AGAINST JCU STUDENTS EACH WEEK

The Broderick report follows a national report released by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in August that found 8 per cent of students (or approximately 1,729 students) at JCU experienced rape or sexual assault across 2015 and 2016.

Approximately 389 JCU students (or 1.8 per cent of the total student enrolment) were sexually assaulted on campus or in another university setting such as a college or university social event (this number also includes students who were sexually assaulted while travelling to or from university).

Despite these alarming numbers, figures released under a Freedom of Information request conducted by Channel 7 reveal that between 2011 and 2016 there was not a single expulsion or suspension recorded in relation to sexual assault at JCU.

Sharna Bremner, the director of End Rape On Campus Australia, says the AHRC figures would suggest that "roughly 16 students at JCU experience sexual assault each week, and of those almost four will occur within a university setting as defined by the AHRC report."


WHAT THE UNI IS DOING?

Vice Chancellor Professor Sandra Harding. Picture: Zak SimmondsSource:News Corp Australia
Vice Chancellor Professor Sandra Harding. Picture: Zak SimmondsSource:News Corp Australia

Professor Harding says the university is committed to reform and will be implementing all 32 recommendations in the Broderick report.

Elizabeth Broderick has said that the report findings were neither unexpected nor isolated to JCU but feels positive that JCU will continue to progress towards building an inclusive and safe environment.

"These issues are not unique to JCU, but what sets universities apart is how they respond to these issues. In this respect, JCU has taken a bold step to have an external and independent review of their policies and culture."

Ms Bremner has also commended the university for undertaking the review and for committing to make the report public.

"We encourage the university to continue being transparent."

In addition to committing to implementing the report recommendations, the university has taken steps in recent months to reform its culture, including increasing the number of equity contact officers by fivefold, providing first-responder training, and engaging local service providers such as the Townsville Women's Centre.

The university is also reviewing its code of conduct for staff and students and are introducing new policies.

Prof Harding says that having an external review has been incredibly worthwhile and has encouraged all other 38 universities in Australia to undergo a similar process.

"They will get the sort of thorough insight that will help them determine what next steps they can take.

"This is a new beginning for us. We now have the benefit of a thorough and insightful report and we are absolutely determined to implement changes," she said.
 

If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault support is available by calling 1800 572 224.

Nina Funnell is a volunteer ambassador for End Rape On Campus Australia and was interviewed for the report.

Topics:  editors picks education james cook university

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