Sexual harassment and year abroad: the call for student-led briefings

Julia McGee-Russell reports on the call for student-led briefings, following sexual harassment reports last week

Julia McGee-Russell
17th October 2020
After a meeting held last week where students reported incidents of sexual harassment during their year abroad, many have called for better year abroad briefings.

The meeting was held on Zoom by Director of the Year Abroad Dr Damien Hall, and included a series of polls for students to share experiences of their year abroad. A "large percentage" of those who answered the polls said they "didn’t feel very safe, and some not safe at all," said student attendee Lizzie Mallett.

Incidents such as catcalling, being followed and groping were reported, many from students who spent their year abroad in Paris.

After these experiences had been shared, several students offered to lead a briefing for future year abroad students on the issue of sexual harassment. Languages student Sarah Kerry explained that Dr Hall "didn't really address" the issue.

"I didn’t really think this was an appropriate response, as our year abroad is part of SML (School of Modern Languages). They have a duty of care that I don’t think they fulfilled," she told The Courier.

"Despite asking students to elaborate on their experiences, Damien clearly wasn't prepared for the responses he might get," said one anonymous student.

"I felt angry and disappointed."

Anonymous student

She continued, saying "I felt angry and disappointed for the students who came forward and bravely shared their experiences. Above all else, Damien's response was invalidating and trivialised the students' experiences by ignoring the severity of them."

In Dr Hall's email response to a complaint, shared amongst students, he apologises for "Trivialising or invalidating the concerns expressed by you and others about harassment in Paris", adding that he hopes "you feel that your concerns have been taken with the seriousness that they deserve".  Several students thought this response was "appropriate" and "apologetic".

A University spokesperson said: “The University takes these concerns extremely seriously. As soon as the issues were raised by students at last week’s meeting, they were reported to the appropriate Year Abroad Officer in the School of Modern Languages (SML) so they could be addressed. They have now also been reported to the Student Health and Wellbeing team.

“Any student experiencing sexual violence and/or harassment while abroad can use the Student Health and Wellbeing Service Report and Support system, which will put them in touch with a Sexual Violence Liaison Officer (SVLO) based in Newcastle, who will provide ongoing support or link them with in-country support if appropriate."

“If students are abroad, they can use the online resources of our insurer AIG 24 hours a day, which can put them in touch with emergency help if required. If students feel unsafe in a particular Year Abroad destination after they get there, they always have the option to change locations."

Endian Algar, who experienced sexual assault on their year abroad, has had a positive experience with SVLO support, saying "I think it's really great that the support that they offer doesn't time out. Now that I have reported, I have access to the SVLO assigned to my case for as long as I want support. This includes support with PECs, and with Student Wellbeing if I wanted it. I also appreciate that you receive the same level of support regardless of when you report… I wasn't made to feel bad for waiting until I felt able to report."

Endian has since begun working with SVLO to provide guidance for year abroad students who experience assault However, when asked if they felt year abroad briefings adequately discuss sexual harassment, they said "I don't remember it being mentioned at all."

"We were told we would '100% be harassed'"

Anonymous student

Others, who attended year abroad briefings for locations in France, had more serious recollections.

One anonymous student recalls "In one of the briefings I attended before going abroad, we were told '100% you will be harassed in some way in France'."

"We were just told that harassment was to be expected"

Lizzie Mallet

Lizzie Mallet explained that a Health and Safety briefing "briefly" touched upon the issue of sexual harassment.

"However, we weren’t really given any advice. We were just told that harassment was to be expected, to be sensible and look after ourselves like we would at home. Like most women, I have experienced sexual harassment but I don’t think we should just be told to expect it and be careful. It’s really not good enough."

"There is very little information provided for those who experience sexual harassment or abuse abroad."

It Happens Here

It Happens Here are a university society dedicated to raising awareness of sexual violence. According to a spokesperson, students who approached the society for support "didn’t know what to do and had to keep digging for information themselves when they should be supported."

"It is clear that the University has to sort this out, as there is very little information provided for those who experience sexual harassment or abuse abroad. We have put together a support document that we are publishing shortly and later on we will be adding year abroad info once we have researched this enough."

All students who spoke to The Courier want a student-led briefing on the issues of sexual assault to be available for future year abroad students. Newcastle University has yet to confirm if student-led briefings regarding sexual harassment will be made available to students before their year abroad.

However, a University spokesperson added: “We would also like to invite any student affected by these issues to meet the incoming Student Health and Wellbeing Sexual Violence and Hate Crime Prevention Lead to discuss how we can better brief students in future about safety abroad, and in particular issues around sexual harassment."

“Any student who would be interested in working with us further on this should contact:”

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons

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AUTHOR: Julia McGee-Russell
Previous Deputy Editor of The Courier, previous Arts Sub-Editor and Head of News at Newcastle Student Radio. Lover of all things arts, culture, and self-care.

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