A new framework for reporting sexual assault anonymously on college campuses will be rolled out at the end of September, its developer Gertie Raftery has said.
Speaking to the The University Times, Raftery, a student counsellor at Dundalk Institute of Technology, said that the programme will hopefully contribute to “a major cultural change” surrounding sexual assault and harrassment on Irish campuses.
Nine colleges, including Trinity, the University of Limerick and NUI Galway, have signed up to the online system. The new framework, which has been in development since January, will allow students to anonymously report instances of sexual assault or harassment through an online form.
The programme is being developed by the Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland (PCHIE), of which Raftery is chairperson.
“You have to look at the fact that people don’t report, and are not reporting – and are not reporting because of current culture around it and the fears around it”, Raftery said.
“We want to know what’s going on and we want a safe place where people can say what’s happened to them.”
“This tool is totally anonymous – neither the victim nor the perpetrator are recognised or identified at all – so it’s just so a person can say ‘this happened to me, in this way’, but that’s it.”
The data will be compiled over the course of the academic year and reported on in June. Each college taking parting will have access to its data only.
“We want to contribute to changing the whole atmosphere within third-level”, Raftery said. “To do that we need to know, well, what is the current situation.”
The culture within colleges around sexual assault and harrassment, and the reporting of it, is “not good at the moment”, Raftery said.
This month, a survey published by NUI Galway and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) revealed that nearly a third of female students have experienced non-consensual penetration during their time in college.
The survey, which had over 6,000 participants, also found that 35 per cent of female students who had experienced non-consensual penetration – by incapacitation, force or threat of force – had not told anyone about the incident.
Some 28 per cent of non-binary students said they had experienced non-consensual penetration during their time in college, with 10 per cent of male students having had a non-consensual penetrative experience.
The survey also found that 70 per cent of those who have experienced sexual misconduct don’t understand what happens when a student reports an incident to their college.
Raftery said that there is a “reticence about actually saying something and what might happen”. The new programme is targeted at combating these issues.
“We are putting a lot of effort into getting the questions as unthreatening as possible but as detailed as possible as well so that people can talk about everything from being groped at a disco to being raped because it’s all wrong – and it’s time we call it out as a wrong.”
“There will be signposting to support services both locally and nationally”, she added.
The programme is also aimed at forcing colleges across the country to respond more effectively to cases of sexual assault or harrassment on their campuses.
Last week, the Irish Independent reported that almost no college or university in Ireland has records of how many people have been sexually assaulted on their campuses over the past three years.
The new framework will allow colleges to access their own data and survey “the extent of the problem”. This, Raftery said, will help colleges to develop the most suitable response to the sexual assault and harrassment being perpetrated on their campuses.
“This is all about getting data, professionalising the whole thing so that we have really good data going forward”, she said.
Raftery also hopes that there will be an “educational piece” to the programme in helping people identify what is classed as rape, sexual harrassment and assault.
In February, the government provided €80,000 in funding to the programme. Then Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor had made consent in higher-education institutions a priority during her tenure.
In April 2019, Mitchell O’Connor launched a document that set out the guidelines for addressing sexual violence on college campuses.
The document, which was assembled by an expert advisory group, called on the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Education to support Irish colleges to “develop processes for recording and reporting on incident of sexual harassment, assault and rape on third-level campuses”.
In a video published on Twitter last week, newly appointed Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris also identified sexual assault and harassment on college campuses as a major issue facing universities.
Raftery plans on meeting with Harris in the coming days to discuss the development of the programme and its future.
“The government does respond to data – that’s the one thing that we’ve noticed”, she said.
The programme’s findings, she hopes, will lead to the development of a nationally applicable programme to tackle sexual assault and harrassment on college campuses. In the event, Raftery plans to urge Harris’s department that “we need this rolled out nationally and you need to fund it”.