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The time has come to SHOUT about student sexual harassment

Julie Tweedale, Training and Development Manager, Freedom Personal Safety
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#EveryonesInvited – sshOUTing about student sexual harassment 

Those of us working in schools and colleges have known for years about the ‘unspoken’ blight of sexual harassment experienced by girls, and last week Ofsted caught up and published their research which highlighted the facts many of us already knew – sexual harassment and abuse is a normal part of school and college life for too many students.

In 2019 we received funding from Rosa, the fund for women, to create a sexual harassment awareness programme with University of Huddersfield Students Union and three FE colleges in Huddersfield.

The sshOUT (student sexual harassment OUT) programme had a number of elements which all focused on reducing incidents of sexual harassment experienced by students, and I’d like to share our approach and recommendations.

1. Know your own setting

Carry out an anonymous survey of all students on their experience of sexual harassment so you have an understanding of what is happening at your college. In the survey we ran with students we asked them about their experience at primary and high school and outside the education setting, so we had an idea of the experiences students carried with them, as well as what happened during their time at college.

Once you have this data, use it as a baseline to inform your policy, training and awareness campaign, and undertake this survey annually to measure the effectiveness of your sexual harassment prevention approach.

2. Have a robust sexual harassment policy

Ideally, DfE should produce a policy for colleges to use and adapt which clearly states what sexual harassment and abuse is including behaviours, responses, reporting and support for victims. The time has come for this to be a separate policy rather than just a paragraph in the safeguarding policy. It should be clear, easy to read and be given to all staff, all students and all parents/carers. Not knowing should not be an option.

3. Have effective reporting and supporting systems

Reporting of sexual harassment in education is low, so to encourage students to report you need to have a system which is accessible to students, promoted, robust and deals with reports and incidences fairly. Students should know how to report, what their options are and what sanctions are in place for those who sexually harass others. Students must have faith in your reporting system otherwise they won’t report and the harassment and abuse will continue under the radar – having a serious impact on the safety and wellbeing of your students.

For victims, reporting is only one part of this process, you must ensure they receive the pastoral support they need so they can continue to enjoy their time at college. All too often, victims are asked to stay away from certain areas of college, move classes, courses etc. to avoid contact with perpetrator – this is victim-blaming and further traumatises the victim.

4. Train staff

Set up a one-day training course for all staff who work directly with students – half a day on sexual harassment and misconduct awareness, responding to disclosures and half a day on the systems and approaches within your college to respond to reports and support victims.

ALL college staff (including canteen staff, cleaners, caretakers etc.) should attend the half-day session on sexual harassment awareness so they can identify and name behaviour, challenge and report.

Include data from the student surveys to help staff understand the experiences of your students.

Sexual harassment awareness and procedures to be included in staff induction.

Training to be updated annually in line with student research and reporting data.

5. Sexual harassment awareness campaign

Now everything is in place behind the scenes, it is time to shout about this – it’s harder to ignore if everyone is talking about it, seeing posters and seeing behaviour being challenged. For the sshOUT programme we created a set of 4 posters based on the most common experiences of sexual harassment from students which were displayed around the campus. Toilet doors are the best place to display these, but I know that competition for this prized location is fierce – I guess you need to prioritise which messages are the most important for students to see. Aim to have a poster in every classroom and in every corridor – make them ubiquitous.

We also created a roller banner and a rolling presentation for display in communal areas – add music if you can to attract attention.

We are happy to email you free copies of these campaign materials – just message me on the email at the end of this piece.

In creating these materials we focused on the potential perpetrator rather than potential victims. Our strapline was ‘this is sexual harassment and is NOT tolerated here’, so there is no ambiguity or room for anyone to say ‘I didn’t know’. So often campaigns about harassment and abuse encourage victims to speak up, and whilst this is important, prevention is the focus of our work and in targeting potential perpetrators, we move away from victim-blaming to addressing and challenging the harassment.

Why not have a competition to design a set of campaign materials – get students in art and design and marketing involved or open it up to the whole college, which will get people talking about your campaign before it is even launched? You can get students to vote on the shortlisted designs and announce the winner in an assembly or in the canteen at lunchtime – make it into an event and create a buzz.

Use the data from your student survey to focus on the behaviour which is happening at your college to make the posters and materials directly relevant to your students.

Oh, and don’t remove these materials when its open day, keep them up, make them prominent and let prospective students and their parents/carers know that sexual harassment is not tolerated at your college – it will reassure them that you take their safety seriously.

6. Explore the issues with students

We created a set of activities for college staff to use with students to talk about issues around consent, impact of sexual harassment and bystander intervention. These sessions should create a safe space for students to express their views, experiences, concerns and learn from others. In some cases you might want to run these as single sex sessions, which, in my experience, can elicit more honest and open responses.

Although, having mixed groups often results in a robust discussion between students about views and behaviours and gives those involved the chance to hear from ‘the other side’. You know your students and what will work best for them which might be a mixture of the two.

In addition, explore wider issues including the impact of gender stereotypes (girls = passive, boys = active), double standards (e.g. slut vs player), talk about porn and the difference between what they see and sex in the real world. Bish.com have some good resources on this and Planet Porn is one I have used to explore this topic in an accessible way which uses humour to discuss some tricky topics.

7. Change the culture

By talking about sexual harassment we make it harder to hide and harder to get away with – all of the above actions feed into a change in culture. Sexual harassment stops being ‘normal’ and we start to stigmatise the behaviour. Think about the language we use, say ‘image-based sexual abuse’ rather than ‘sexting’, ‘sexual assault’ rather than ‘being touched up’, ‘sexual harassment; rather than ‘banter’.

In a CPD online session with the PHSE Association in April, Dr Elly Hanson spoke about how we should stop seeing this behaviour as ‘a joke, funny, not serious, boys-will-be-boys’ and instead describe it as ‘pathetic, low, weak, twisted, shocking, shameful’ – always focusing on the behaviour not the individuals or groups.

She also suggests describing sexual harassment as ‘hostility, unsafe, intrusive, unkind, violating and ugly’. Think about how unacceptable openly racist behaviour is in your college and aim to do the same for sexual harassment.

I realise there is a lot to take in here.

I realise that you are already overwhelmed by the volume of work you have.

I realise that this topic may be tricky to deal with.

But we are talking about the safety and wellbeing of our students and we cannot keep quiet about this any longer – it is time to sshOUT.

Julie Tweedale, Training and Development Manager, Freedom Personal Safety

If you would like copies of the sshOUT campaign materials or would like to chat about tackling sexual harassment in your college, do get in touch with Julie – @fpsjulie on Twitter.

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