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TENSE FORUM ABOUT SEXUAL VIOLENCE

The Massey Wellington student campus health and safety forum was held last night in a tense lecture hall with 52 attendees.

Sunday-Night-forum-new

Organised by Massey Wellington Students’ Association in collaboration with Massey University, the forum aimed to ease concerns after students raised issues about the “tips” sent out to students on August 8 on how to prevent sexual attacks, following an “attack on a woman” near the campus on August 3.

The forum was hosted by student president Todd Williamson, campus registrar Deanna Riach and New Zealand Police Detective Senior Sergeant John van den Heuvel and analyst Gordon Burns.

Ms Riach said that she was grateful that students wanted to have the forum, and wanted to hear student ideas how Massey can make the campus a safer community.

Detective Senior Sergeant van den Heuvel told students that the attack on August 3 is an on-going investigation and he couldn’t discuss it due to privacy reasons, but said Wellington city is very safe.

“Chances of sexual attack are remote. It is your right to walk freely wherever and whenever you choose,” he said.

In regards to the tips Massey sent to students, he said it is never a bad idea to provide advice on these matters. Wellington city sexually related incidents have been trending downwards, with 21% less offences reported than was in 2009, he said.

In the past few years there have been five sexually related offences in the surrounding areas of Massey University. One of these was the incident on August 3; the perpetrator is unknown to police, he said.

Police looked closer at the Mount Cook area in May 2012, he said, after a “sinister” attack on a 20 year old female who was grabbed by an unknown male while walking along Rugby/Tasman St.

The floor was opened for students to ask questions of Ms Riach and of the NZ Police representatives. A student asked why it took so long for Massey to inform students about the August 3 assault.

Ms Riach said that Massey immediately chased additional security. “The information didn’t go out because it wasn’t within a critical timeframe. The university found out about it on Tuesday because we weren’t critical person to contact.”

The student said that “seemed like an oversight”.

Ms Riach said that the information was given to students and staff as information about safety, as opposed to a response to crucial risk or threat. “We are in city environment, there is a lot going on in the immediate environment,” she said. She said the university considered how best they can inform without alarming our campus community.

“We put out, within a day, tips which we believe were appropriate. In future we will certainly change the lens within we view what happens in campus proximity.”

 Two postgraduate students enrolled at the Wellington campus said they were concerned because they did not receive the email from Massey University.

Ms Riach said that the email went out to 3,600 students.

She said the attack in 2012 happened on Wellington High School property, but the high school did not provide additional security.

“Massey senior leadership approved $10,000 to put lighting and cut down vegetation on property that wasn’t Massey property. We did a safety audit with police.”

Students asked whether CCTV would be an option for Massey University grounds. Detective Senior Sergeant van den Heuvel said CCTV is definitely a deterrent for criminals. He said it was a “good use of technology” and that the council operate hundreds.

Facilities operations manager Janet Flint said they have recently put in half dozen external cameras.

“We put in cameras that cover a reasonable area of the campus exterior – Wallace St and Tasman St. We have started looking at this particular area [by the Museum building]. There are definitely on-going plans and improvements being done year-by-year,” she said.

A visiting crime prevention coordinator said there are other ways of prevention apart from cameras. “Putting in sexual violence prevention teaching programs across Massey staff would be valuable,” she said.

Ms Riach said Massey would welcome the opportunity to do this.

The forum became heated when students expressed concerns with Massey’s communications with staff and students.

“There is a huge disconnect between Massey employees and students, and that’s a really big concern,” said one student.

Ms Riach said Massey needs a mechanism so they can receive and distribute information to and from students. “We are going to report back to you. Massey has acted exceptionally positively to support safety,” she said.

“We are not the police. There has been no charge. The challenge was around informing a community of heightened risk versus overdue concern when we weren’t fully aware of the situation. Our response was to provide positive and practical safety. Our first and foremost concern is our community, and care of our community.”

A student said that the university needs to address the culture of fear on the campus.

“Who feels scared walking home?” she asked.  Every student in attendance raised a hand.

The students clearly need to see changes, the student said.

Ms Riach suggested that a working group should be set up to look at practical solutions. “As a community; you can inform us what we can do better to make you feel safe. We will report back as to what these specific outcomes are.”

“Let’s be leaders rather than followers, and look at tangible things we can lead in this space,” she said.

Another student said that the tips sent by Massey would make her less likely to report an assault. “The tips make me feel like if I had been assaulted, it would have been my fault, if I weren’t following them,” she said.

Ms Riach says the intentions were extremely positive. “The best intentions [from Massey] were met, and the resounding comments from the Stuff.co.nz article suggested that most people were in favour of Massey’s tips.”

Students laughed at Ms Riach’s statement about Stuff.co.nz commenters.

Co-president of the Massey University Friendly Feminists club Izzy O’Neill said that the intent is irrelevant compared to how those tips impact victims and perpetuate rape culture.

“As an institution you need to take your responsibility as a leader of education seriously,” she said.

“The opinions on Stuff comments should not be what you appease to – that is not representative of what students found.”

Ms O’Neill said that such a statement should say that it is nobody’s fault if they are attacked, and that the university needed to link numbers students could call, such as rape crisis support hotlines.

“The tips do not acknowledge students on campus who have various mobility issues and that isn’t good enough for an institution that is meant to be progressive. Massey is supposed to be the engine of ‘new New Zealand’, and needs to do things differently. We are all part of solution.”

The forum got particularly tense when student Hannah Beattie said that Massey has a reputation for having a history of sexual assault and that Ms Riach acknowledged this issue in her email.

Ms Riach said Massey does not have an on-going problem with sexual assault.

“I recognise and agree there is an on-going concern. But there is not an on-going number of reported sexual assaults on campus.

“Massey University does not have a proliferation of reported assaults!”

Another student said students of Massey are taught progressive ideology and need to bring this ideology to the wider community.

“We need to take issues to the perpetrators rather than to victims,” she said. “We need to hone in on issues, and not see through a single lens after each isolated incident. We need to consider how this incident relates to everything and how we can make a positive change.”

The student said that the Massey Wellington Students’ Association has better communication with students than the university did.

MUFF co-president Ms O’Neill presented a PowerPoint presentation on solutions and ideas for Massey moving forward .

“Massey needs to be the critic and conscience of society, to challenge the norms of addressing sexual violence and to make tangible long term changes especially in regards to campus attitudes to sexual violence and within the internal structures of the institution.”

Massey did not even take initiative to inform students of the event [the health and safety forum] which shows a lack of commitment to student safety, she said.

Ms Riach suggested class representatives and the student advocacy system could report back to Massey so that the university had a way of hearing what was happening from students, and said she would work with the students’ association in planning future workshops.

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Forum feedback:

Massey media studies lecturer Radha O’Meara attended the meeting. She said that the forum was constructive overall, as it gave the various interested parties a chance to hear each other’s perspectives.

“The spatial and behavioural dynamics of the forum were very awkward, and seemed to reflect and reinforce a significant power imbalance between interested parties.  It was clear that this was not a meeting of equals.  Having Campus Registrar, Deanna Riach, and the two policemen seated on stage throughout most of the forum gave them a privileged position, which encouraged them to hold forth at length – an opportunity they readily took.  Having students raise hands and wait to be called on or granted permission to speak was often visibly frustrating to many students, although they remained polite throughout.

“It was notable that the Registrar rarely allowed students to finish making their question, point or suggestion without interrupting them. The policemen seemed to listen more without interrupting.

“It seemed that a key desire of students was a wider conversation about sexual harassment and violence, and the Registrar seemed resistant to this.

“Other key concerns of students seemed to be: that they will be informed of serious incidents swiftly; that advice will not imply victims are responsible for violence.

“The longer presentation by Izzy [O’Neill] seemed to capture the concerns of many students and was met with applause.

“Massey staff requested that a Wellington-all email go out yesterday to invite all students and staff to the forum, but this was rejected.  There was not high attendance at the forum, but many interested people never found out about it, or only found out very late.”

Students’ opinions of the forum:

 

MAWSA president Todd Williamson: I think it was successful. It is great to hear that the leaders in our community support us, and are intent on being leaders against rape culture in New Zealand. MAWSA will work with the university to ensure that the workshop proposed will happen to continue supporting our students.

Ella Tait: I had mixed feelings on the outcome of the forum. It was reassuring to know that when Massey received the information [of the attack] they did their best to inform the student body. The university defended the email when many criticised its victim-blaming message. It was like they didn’t really value our feedback. We liked the idea of the workshop. It will be interesting to see if words become actions.

Hannah Beattie: I was kind of dismayed by the way members of the faculty seemed oblivious to the press around the assault and that a Massey representative referred to comments from the Stuff website as “proof” that Massey had responded well to recent events. The fact that the faculty members seemed so out of touch made me feel uncomfortable. I think the discussion was useful but could have been more so without the defensive and dismissive attitude by one Massey staff member. The words seemed disingenuous and I left feeling really annoyed, as though some staff members gave more of a damn about good PR rather than student safety.

Kelsey Elizabeth: I think the woman representing Massey was highly defensive and avoided answering direct questions. She seemed as though she had one set of things she wanted to say to us and anything deviating from her script she was unprepared to answer, which made me feel very uncomfortable. The police were more receptive of comments and suggestions from students and other Massey staff seemed interested in helping. The workshop is a great idea and I’d like to have more students notified about it. [The forum] is a good start but Massey needs to stop being defensive and give themselves over to working with students.

Margot Mills: I think it went better than expected and I’m really glad that we had that dialogue back and forth between students and the university and police. But I still feel that there were some issues, especially with Deanna [Riach] saying that she valued our opinions but referred to comments from the Stuff website. That was problematic. I wasn’t fully convinced that Massey was doing everything they possibly could, and it did feel a little forced. I do appreciate the positivity and the willingness to hold future workshops, though.

 

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