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University staff need coaching to help sex attack survivors

Frontline workers at universities worldwide need guidance on the best ways to help survivors of rape or sexual violence when they first come forward.

That’s one of a raft of recommendations after a trail-blazing scheme to ensure staff at 21 European universities know what to do when people report sexual violence.

Spearheaded by Brunel University London, USV React – Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence worked with 1,000 university staff. That’s personal tutors, bar, security and halls staff – workers who could be the first person victims tell about attacks. 

Reports just out, which evaluate the whole project plus specific work at institutions taking part, call for similar schemes to be rolled out across all universities.

“Institutional change in universities is crucial to challenge cultures associated with sexual violence,” said Dr Anne Chappell, at Brunel’s Department of Education.

“It is important that the HE sector takes a stance that is not simply dictated by issues of compliance. Tailor-made policy to address sexual violence and support survivors, challenges cultures of commonplace sexual violence and is vital to enable people to come forward.”

The main report, Training to Respond to Sexual Violence at European Universities, says educating frontline staff can make universities safer places. It says programmes should prioritise staff in counselling, health services and security. They should cover different kinds of sexual violence, sexual harassment, abuse and bullying and highlight the facts that both men and women can be victimised – especially by homophobia and transphobia – and both staff and students can be victims or perpetrators. It also argues senior staff and managers need to stand up for those who speak out and challenge the forces that silence victims, such as institutional cultures that prioritise status and reputation over wellbeing and equality.

The report calls for

  • Training for frontline workers at universities
  • Institutional reforms (care pathways, supportive cultures)
  • Guidance on offering ‘first response’
  • National awareness-raising to challenge myths about sexual violence and the tendency towards victim-blaming.

Universities’ student services face rising demand, the report says. It also forecasts reports of sexual violence will rise with greater awareness. Universities need to forge stronger links with external organisations in their communities, such as sexual health and domestic violence services, the report urges. It adds: “universities need to acknowledge more fully their duty of care to students and responsibilities for preventing – as well as better responding to – sexual harassment and violence.”

Brunel’s Dr Pam Alldred, who co-led USVreact with Sussex University’s Professor Alison Phipps, said: “We hope other universities will adapt and use these materials to better support their own student survivors.”

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