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Nine ways to make our universities safer

By Esmeralda Sayagues

Several South African universities have recently been rocked by student protests deploring the high incidence of campus rape and sexual violence. The students have demanded that universities implement fair procedures that yield justice for complainants and punishment for offenders.

In order to address these issues it is useful to look at the Clery Act, a law promulgated in the US following the brutal murder of a university student.

In 1986, Jeanne Clery was raped, strangled and murdered in her dorm at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, by a fellow student. In the aftermath of the trial, students and parents lobbied for the US Congress to address the issue of crime on campus.

Eventually, in 1990, Congress passed the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, known as the Clery Act. It requires universities that receive federal funds to disclose statistics and information about crimes committed on university grounds.

The Act compels universities to abide by stringent rules in order to receive federal funding and other benefits. Failure to adhere to the Act often results in investigations and steep fines. Each Clery Act violation can carry a fine of up to $35 000 (about R525 000) which deters universities from non-compliance with the Act. In 2013, Yale University faced a fine of $165 000 (about R2.5 million) for failing to report sex crimes.

Accordingly, the Clery Act can serve as a useful source of ideas to address campus crime at universities in South Africa:

1. Record crime statistics
All crimes committed on campus need to be logged daily and compiled into annual reports that are publicly available on the university’s website. These crimes should include a wide range of crimes, including but not limited to sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment, hate crimes, stalking and theft. The report should not disclose intimate details but should state the nature of the crime, the date, location and number of accused.

Students and faculty have a right to know about crime on campus. Publishing an annual report of crime sends a clear message to the public that the university is actively involved in crime prevention, which could deter future offenders.

Moreover, a complainant who knows his or her report will be consequential may feel more comfortable coming forward.

Universities need to create a culture of transparency as opposed to a culture of silence.

Oupa Nkosi, M&G

Oupa Nkosi, M&G

2. Timely warnings
Any crime that is committed on campus and continues to be a threat to the university community must be communicated to students via an email or sms.

For instance, when I was a third-year student at UCT there was a spate of muggings under the bridge that connects middle campus to upper campus. This is an ideal example of when a mass email encouraging vigilance would have been appropriate, at no substantial cost to the university.

3. Release the policies on crime
Each faculty and residence should make the university’s policies on reporting crime visible and easy to understand.

4. A dedicated centre
Ideally, each university should have a space dedicated to receiving complainants, a center where students can feel safe and are offered free counselling.

5. Written explanation of both the complainant’s and the accused’s rights
Upon reporting an incident, each complainant is entitled to a written explanation of his or her rights and options, as well as the rights of the accused.

It would also be of value to provide complainants with the definition of different crimes. It can happen that a crime is “downgraded” from sexual assault to harassment by the complainant or the investigating officer, either fortuitously or to protect the accused.

The complainant should be given a written description of the procedure to follow if he or she is unhappy with the investigating official, offering the details of alternative people to approach if necessary.

6. Training staff
“Institutional betrayal”, a term coined by University of Oregon researcher Jennifer Freyd in 2009, occurs when a university responds inappropriately or ineffectively to a report of sexual crime and proceeds to further victimise and traumatise the complainant through cumbersome procedural bureaucracy.

Universities need to train their investigating officers and counsellors extensively to avoid exasperating the complainant’s stress and anxiety – also known as secondary victimisation.

7. Heterosexual men

When discussing violence on campus we are quick to use non-gendered terms to describe the majority of assailants and victims. Often we centre our discussion on how women can keep themselves safe. But we are missing a fundamental issue when we shift the focus from the perpetrator to the victim.

According to statistics, heterosexual men are the primary perpetrators of sexual violence crimes. Universities should be discussing rape culture and masculinity both inside and outside the classroom. For example, by prescribing mandatory lectures in all-men’s residences and all-male sports teams. Such lectures should also be broadened to include discussions on LGBT rights.

8. Surveys
Universities should administer annual, anonymous sexual assault climate surveys to students. Once the results are published, the university should work together with student activists and societies to find practical solutions.

9. An online reporting system
Often victims of gender-based crimes fear coming forward because they may not be believed.

Jessica Ladd, a US based sexual-health activist, has developed software that allows complainants to submit reports online. What is revolutionary about the software is that it can match complainants who have accused the same perpetrator of committing a crime.

The automatic matching of complainants can facilitate the prosecution of the perpetrator, either through university disciplinary proceedings or the criminal court system.

Campus crime, and particularly gender-based violence, is not immediately solvable. But universities and students can move towards a future where the prevalence of crime on campus significantly decreases and students inhabit a safe learning environment.

Ideally, the South African legislature should pass legislation that obliges publicly funded universities to disclose crime statistics and guides universities on how to implement comprehensive policies dealing with crime on campus, particularly gender-based crimes.

Esmeralda Sayagues is a second-year candidate attorney at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr Inc, she writes in her personal capacity.

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    • ikick

      The concept is good. Also mandatory should be lectures to all women on objectification, femininity, , LGBT rights, and the rights of men on campus. It’s critical.