Rape, groping, and ‘revenge porn’: Sexual disclosures by UCD students

The 2018-2019 student welfare officer recorded 363 allegations of harassment and assault

Melissa Plunkett was welfare officer at UCD for the academic year 2018- 2019. Photograph: The Irish Times

Melissa Plunkett was welfare officer at UCD for the academic year 2018- 2019. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

A students’ union welfare officer at University College Dublin (UCD) received some 350 disclosures of harassment and assault in one academic year at the university.

Melissa Plunkett was welfare officer at UCD for the academic year 2018-2019. The 363 incidents disclosed to her by other students mostly took place during this time and included allegations of rape, groping, “being forced to take part in a sexual act”, sexual coercion, image-based abuse also sometimes known as “revenge porn”, receiving unsolicited images of a sexual nature, and in some cases, physical violence or the threat of violence.

Some of the offences occurred in UCD, others off campus.

During her time as welfare officer, Plunkett contacted senior management at the university twice with regard to two cases she deemed to be so serious that university management should be informed.

One of those cases involved 13 allegations of harassment made by 13 separate undergraduate and postgraduate students concerning a professor who is no longer working at the university. The other case related to multiple allegations of assault made against a student.

When Plunkett brought the allegations of harassment by the professor to UCD, the university’s response was “extremely disappointing”, she tells The Irish Times. “I was told that it was hearsay and nothing could be done unless a student directly involved made a complaint themselves.”

Of her interactions with university management, Plunkett says that officials were polite and courteous, but also that she was “spoken down to . . . I was even shouted at by a male senior official who told me I was ‘like a dog with a bone’.”

Plunkett and other former students’ union officers who have spoken to The Irish Times, say that Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin’s recent interview outlining a two-year ordeal of harassment at the university by a physics professor, has reignited a conversation about student safety on campus.

‘Extreme fear’

Christine is one of those who experienced harassment on campus around this time. Her harasser was a male student she knew, and the case was serious enough that a court issued a safety order.

Even with this order in place, Christine feared for safety. She stayed off campus for the final weeks of her academic year. She did not sit her exams with her fellow students and did not attend her graduation ceremony. Christine is not the student’s real name; she still lives in fear of the man, and will speak only on condition of anonymity, though her identity is known to The Irish Times.

Christine, too, remains unhappy at how university management handled her case. When she spoke to university officials about the difficulties posed by taking her exams at the RDS where the student she had a safety order against would also be, UCD arranged for her to take her exams in a room on campus – while her harasser took his exams at the RDS.

Christine feels aggrieved that she – the victim of the harassment – had to move venue, while her harasser was allowed to carry on as normal.

She told university officials that she could not return to the college for the remainder of the semester due to “extreme fear”. “I was assured the college understood that the man in question was ‘probably’ not going to return for the remaining weeks. I said that was irrelevant. The fact that he can means I can’t risk it.”

Christine, too, is highly critical of what she and others characterise as a gap between policy and practice in relation to sexual safety at UCD. “For the most part, the policies are there; it is that nothing is implemented,” she says. “There is a laissez-faire attitude to it. To me, that says a lot about what the powers-that-be actually think when women report this behaviour and how a lack of consequences implies a lack of belief or understanding of the distress it causes to these women.”

Serious concerns

The Irish Times has spoken to a number of former students’ union officials who have expressed serious concerns about student safety on campus, highlighted a lack of training for welfare officers, and described tense interactions between the students’ union and university management with regards to student safety, and education around sexual consent.

The students’ union in UCD operates separately from the Union of Students Ireland (USI). Officer posts in the union – such as that of welfare officer – are filled by students who take a year-long sabbatical.

Former officers say that although they did their best to direct students to services on and off campus, the pathways for students to report allegations of sexual assault or harassment are unclear, and overly dependent on a lengthy formal complaints procedure.

They say students are unlikely to engage with this procedure, while university management say they can only act when this procedure is pursued. The effect of this is that the complaints procedure serves not as a method of tackling sexual offences in the university, but can be an impediment to action being taken.

There appears to be a missing step, between the welfare officer receiving disclosures on a semi-formal basis and the official complaints procedure.

Some former students’ union officers also detailed the negative impact of hearing disclosures of assault and harassment had on their own mental health, and say they lacked appropriate training and support from university management.

UCD’s Dignity and Respect Policy is under review, but several former student officers and academics at the university say that UCD is ill-equipped to deal with issues of gender-based harassment, bullying and assault.

Clare O’Connor, UCD students’ union welfare officer, 2015-2016, says: “My feeling was when it came to sexual assault, it felt to me that UCD just wanted to wash their hands of the issue completely. They would often just refer to the guards – the general line was once it’s with the guards we can’t interfere – but that left a lot of students in the dark because they could be on campus with a perpetrator and not feel protected while on campus.

“I felt that as a 21-year-old students’ union officer that there was no proper framework in place for me to take these cases up with UCD. I was often left with these deeply traumatised students who’d been through a huge experience, and I was left as a 21-year-old, a totally unqualified student officer, to try and figure out how to deal with this best.

“One sexual assault case that was brought to me by a student, I took it to the upper UCD management.” When she heard nothing from officials, she followed up the issue again some weeks later. “The advice from UCD management was to refer the student to the counselling service, which was completely oversubscribed in the first place. The second piece of advice was to tell the student to avoid areas that the rapist might be on campus.

“So, I was then left with a student who had been raped, was really afraid on campus, and I felt like my hands were tied and that there wasn’t really much more I could do.”

‘Horror stories’

In 2016, the students’ union was working on a campaign to raise awareness about sexual consent and to have various other safety measures introduced. Following controversy on campus after a story in a college newspaper about sharing photos of sexual partners was discredited, the discourse on campus became divisive. Fearing that the sexual safety measures the union was asking the university to support would be derailed, graduate officer Hazel Beattie reached out to then-tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald wrote to college president Prof Andrew Deeks asking him to address issues brought to her by Beattie, who had raised concerns about consent, sexual harassment and violence experienced by UCD students.

Deeks wrote back to Fitzgerald, rebutting Beattie’s concerns: “I am somewhat surprised that Ms Beattie reported to you that UCD was failing to engage with her on the issue,” and telling the then tánaiste that UCD “takes the issues of sexual consent and the safety of our students very seriously”.

The students’ union president, at the time, Marcus O’Halloran, says the union’s approach to student safety was not limited to consent classes, but also practical changes to campus, including certain walkways being better lit at night.

He recalls: “The horror stories that students presented us with and the hurt and pain that SU officers listened to on a weekly basis from students is something I’ll never forget . . . The students’ union officers went above and beyond their qualifications and duties for students that time.”

By contrast, O’Halloran describes the university’s approach to the situation as “blasé” and “most disappointing”.

O’Halloran remains upset by what happened in November 2016, when gardaí investigated an alleged rape on campus. “The news of the alleged sexual assault on campus outside O’Reilly Hall was an extremely sickening feeling,” O’Halloran says. “This happened a couple of hundred metres from the office of the president, who in the previous year in my opinion was failing to act fast enough to the facts we were presenting him with.

“We were all shocked and saddened for the student and the wider student community. This was an issue we had literally put sweat and tears into and it was just gut-wrenching for this to happen.”

‘Inadequate proposals’

It is not only students’ union officials who are disappointed with UCD’s record on sexual harassment and assault.

In the aftermath of Dr Ní Shúilleabháin account concerning her experience of harassment, Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu, a member of UCD’s Governing Authority, wrote to UCD president Andrew Deeks, saying that proposals from university management to review policy and address the issue of harassment on campus are inadequate, with particular reference to students returning to the UCD campus in the coming academic year.

In a letter sent last week, Chu writes: “I understand a decision was to be made for the next Governing Authority meeting but since some students are currently returning to the College for the start of term, I believe an up to date and fit for purpose Sexual Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedure is needed immediately.”

The Lord Mayor, who attended the most recent governing authority meeting also writes: “I welcome your explanation at the Government Authority meeting but do not believe the proposals deal with the urgent matter at hand.”

The Lord Mayor also says that she will be working with Dr Ní Shúilleabháin to raise awareness and to discuss sexual harassment and sexual misconduct “through an upcoming Lord Mayor’s initiative”.

Traumatic disclosures

Former students’ union officers say that constantly dealing with traumatic disclosures of sexual assault and sexual harassment had a negative impact on their own mental health.

“It was without a doubt the most stressful year of my life to date. I can say that five years later. It had a really big impact on my mental health being that, I suppose, first line responder to these types of cases. I didn’t feel fully supported by UCD,” says Clare O’Connor.

“I ran for that position, and I think anyone who runs for welfare officer does it really wanting to help students, and make their time in UCD better. But, without support from UCD, I felt like my hands were tied a lot of the time and I wasn’t really able to help people. I think that was really what weighed on me a lot of the time, that guilt of not really being able to help them as much as I would have liked to.”

Beattie says the stress of her term became so great she was hospitalised with a kidney infection that had turned into septicaemia, “I was extremely stressed. We were all extremely stressed,” she says.

Reflecting on her time as graduate officer, Beattie says she “worries for [students] . . . I feel like there’s no support. I feel like there’s going to be people dropping out.

“Maybe this is something all universities need guidance on. Maybe there should be a government-led initiative. Is there any university in Ireland that knows how to deal with these issues properly, who are doing a good job where the students feel completely safe, informed of their rights? That, I don’t know.”

Prof Deeks’s office declined to respond to questions for this article. UCD provided a statement, which is published below.

Statement from UCD

When asked to respond to specific questions for this article, UCD provided the following statement.

The university is not in a position to provide personal details in relation to employees.

In relation to complaints, there are specific pathways that aim to guide students or staff who have experienced issues of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. 

This Dignity and Respect policy was reviewed in academic year 2016-2017 and the SU participated fully in its development.

If the actions taken through the informal complaints process do not succeed in resolving the situation, or are not appropriate given the nature of the complaint, a formal complaint is encouraged in order for the university to investigate the complaint further and take additional actions.

To make a formal complaint, students or staff complete the form on the website and this goes directly to the EDI officer and is actioned.

Students coming forward to other members of the university community, disclosing that they have been bullied, harassed or sexually harassed should be directed to receive support via their student adviser in the first instance so that they can be referred to appropriate professional services, such as the counselling service.

Students may wish to explore their options for addressing the behaviour they have experienced. Dignity and Respect contact persons are available to outline the various informal and formal options available under the policy. The Panel of Dignity and Respect Contact Persons are fully trained faculty and staff members of the University who are appointed on a voluntary basis by the President under the Dignity and Respect Policy. This panel is available to both employees and students.

There are other channels for students to raise concerns about unacceptable behaviour of others that does not fall under the definitions of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment, these include the student complaint policy, and reporting breaches of the UCD Student Code of Conduct.

Complaints are treated seriously, objectively and with due regard for the rights and sensitivities of the person making the complaint and the person against whom the complaint is being made.

Since 2017 UCD has been a member of ESHTE (Ending Sexual Harassment in Third Level Education) and has introduced a number of initiatives to tackle the issues of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct on higher education campuses both in terms of behaviour (consent workshops, bystander intervention programme, disclosure training, report and support) and of discipline (policies and procedures).

The Irish Times reported in February 2020 on the launch of the UCD Report and Support Tool, the first of its kind at an Irish university, and the Active Bystander Programme, modelled on developments at UCC and the UK. This year 2,650 new students have completed this programme at UCD.

The development in 2019 of the Consent Framework on Ending Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in Third Level Education by former Minister for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, provided the impetus to undertake a deep review of these policies at UCD.

In autumn 2019 a working group was set up in UCD to revise the dignity and respect policy and procedures based on feedback from those who have experience of them. Taking into account a degree of interruption caused by Covid-19, in July 2020, the working group produced four documents:

The steps in the stakeholder consultation procedure are as follows:

1. The University Management Team was consulted on the documents last month.

2. There was consultation with unions

3. The staff and student focus groups

4. Individual meetings are being scheduled with people who have had these experiences.

5. A special website has been set up for feedback on the documents from both staff and students.

6. The President has written to all staff and encourage them to engage with the review to ensure that their views are heard.

7. The Dean of Students and the Head of Student Advisory Services are contacting all students to encourage them to engage with the review and ensure their views are heard.

8. Once the review is completed the new policies and procedures will be published and the University is committed to proactively implementing its recommendations.

Some of the key proposed developments in these policies include:

1. Reinforcement of a zero tolerance approach.

2. Encouragement to those who have experienced such behaviour to come forward so they can be supported and steps taken.

3. A new concept of disclosure with respect to sexual harassment and sexual misconduct which enables support to complainants, with or without a formal complaint being made.

4. Establishing the option for the University to instigate an investigation in the absence of a formal complaint.

5. Clarifying the relationship between informal and formal internal complaints and complaints to An Garda Síochána.

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