Commentary: Here’s what zero tolerance towards sexual misconduct looks like
The NUS voyeurism incident offers lessons for all education institutions, says AWARE Executive Director Corinna Lim.
SINGAPORE: Sometimes, it just takes one brave woman to speak up to make the world fairer and safer for all.
Monica Baey did that when she spoke up last week about her experience after a fellow National University of Singapore (NUS) student was caught filming her in the shower.
ADEQUACY OF PUNISHMENT
Understandably, most of the focus has been on the adequacy of the punishment. The police issued a statement on Tuesday (Apr 23) to explain the factors they considered when deciding on his punishment of a 12-month conditional warning - such as age, potential for rehabilitation and re-offence, remorsefulness, and the absence of any other obscene materials on his devices.
Student safety has been a recurrent theme in the discussion surrounding this case.
But Ms Baey’s case surfaces another equally important issue: The responsibility of educational institutions to enforce a zero-tolerance attitude to sexual harassment and assault on campus.
TOLERANCE TO SEXUAL MISCONDUCT IN NUS
When such incidents happen, students rightfully expect their institutions to do the right thing, which includes providing the necessary support, taking prompt steps to investigate and, where the accused is found guilty, meting out appropriate sanctions.
If this is not done, the complainant may feel unsafe or worse, re-victimised by the system.
For NUS, it is not clear exactly how it went about investigations in this case, and what it did to try to support Ms Baey.
It appears that the university felt that it could have done better, in which case it responded well: Announcing that it would commence a review of its processes, and calling a townhall meeting to discuss the matter with its student body, among other measures.
As for the sanctions imposed, suspension and expulsion are not the only options NUS has recourse to.
Education institutions in the US have an array of other options, such as probation, transcript notations, no-contact conditions, compulsory training, mental health assessments, mandatory rehabilitative counselling (similar to what is offered under our family violence regime) and other means of restorative justice.
READ: University campuses must be safe places for all, a commentary
Managing sexual harassment incidents is never easy, especially when the institution is as large and de-centralised as NUS. What is a fair outcome? I would argue much of it concerns the process of how such incidents are managed.
AWARE, through its consultancy arm, Catalyse Consulting, has supported many Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) in their efforts to institute and improve internal systems of reporting, investigation and discipline to prevent and manage harassment. We have also trained their staff to implement each of these processes professionally.
We have gained three key lessons from our 10 years of work in this area.
1. Prevention is the best cure
One case is one too many. Every case is a crisis to be managed. Many things can go wrong, especially if personnel managing the case are inexperienced.
At the end of the day, whatever the outcome, people will be hurt in the process, and there will usually be some dissatisfied parties. In an age of social media, the stakes are even higher, and things can spiral out of control.
So IHLs should do whatever they can to prevent and deter such incidents. This includes:
- Instilling confidence in the system: Policies must provide for no-retaliation and all complaints must be professionally investigated. Wrongdoers must be held accountable and there should be no attempts to "hush up" any wrongdoing;
- Having clear, written policies accessible to all;
- Running anti-harassment public education campaigns;
- Providing anti-harassment training for all students starting from orientation.
The good news is that many students care about this issue, as can be seen from the public response to the incident. They can and should be engaged to build a culture of respect in the IHL. This will go a long way to reduce incidents.
2. Good policies and protocols are your friends
When a case occurs, everyone is in crisis mode. The IHL will be under a lot of pressure from different parties.
This pressure can be greatly relieved by having clear policies and protocols in place. That way, parties involved know what to expect, and the staff managing the grievance are more likely to do the right thing.
The starting point always has to be a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. And the process must be one that takes into account all parties’ perspectives.
Protocols must have timelines and the people managing the process must ensure that they act quickly and within the timelines.
In most cases, the eventual outcome will not satisfy everyone. But if there is a clear and transparent process that appears fair, people will find results easier to accept.
I once worked with a survivor who was unhappy with the outcome of her case, as the investigation had not turned up sufficient evidence.
However, this survivor felt that her case had been fairly and appropriately handled: It was investigated by a third-party (lawyers who had counselling training and specialised in cases like hers), who asked questions in a professional and empathetic manner, and explained the next steps to all involved with clarity and expediency.
So, while she wished there had been a different result, the survivor was able to come to terms with it.
3. Managing harassment is complex. Training is critical.
Having policies and protocols in place is just the beginning.
Most harassment cases are complicated. Evidence and consent are often an issue. Investigations may involve multiple parties and may be a lot more protracted.
The situation may become emotionally charged with parties involved anxious about their safety and repercussions. It is not uncommon for parties to experience trauma, depression or social ostracisation.
Ensuring parties’ well-being is critical. Counsellors should be at hand to provide support.
Those interacting with the complainant and offender must be mature, sensitive and empathetic. They should also be properly trained to understand the nuances of human power dynamics and sexual harassment, and must come across as fair, credible, knowledgeable and professional.
Managing harassment incidents is not easy. So, it is best to centralise the management of such cases to a team that has received the necessary training and is experienced in dealing with such cases.
The trauma wrought on survivors by sexual harassment still frequently goes unacknowledged. We often talk of criminal records - or even just accusations - “ruining the lives” of perpetrators, without speaking in the same breath of the lasting psychological and emotional wounds borne by their victims - especially in the absence of some measure of justice.
I met a woman once who had been harassed by a lecturer when she was a university student. The lecturer received no material punishment and was allowed to continue working at the school.
A decade after that event, the woman remained haunted - not only by her own harassment, but by the potential harassment she worried other students after her might have suffered under his charge. She was even taking steps on her own to try to find other possible victims.
My point is: By not taking harassment seriously, and not doling out commensurate action when it occurs, we are robbing survivors of the closure they so desperately need to heal.
Combating sexual harassment and fostering a culture of safety, respect and accountability in campuses require leadership, commitment and time.
I urge all IHLs to intensify their efforts to ensure campuses are safe, respectful and equipped to adequately support survivors and hold offenders accountable.
Corinna Lim is Executive Director of AWARE and provides consultancy to organisations to create inclusive and safe workplaces.