Commentary: University campuses must be safe places for all
NUS student Monica Baey’s social media revelations have raised disturbing questions about how cases of misconduct are treated.
SINGAPORE: The case of a student who filmed National University of Singapore (NUS) undergraduate Monica Baey while she was showering erupted on social media on Friday (Apr 19), when Ms Baey released a set of Instagram Stories calling for tougher action against him.
Responding to both Ms Baey and the surge of online reactions that followed, NUS issued a statement the next day.
"We hear the concerns expressed by members of our community and the public about having a safer and more supportive campus environment, and recognise that advances in camera technology can be easily abused," it said.
Arguably, it wasn’t technology that was abused but the very basic trust the 23-year-old had that she could take a shower where she lived without being spied on.
It was a fundamental violation of privacy, personal space and campus safety. Many have argued that it was criminal.
SOME CLARIFICATIONS MAY HELP
While we should avoid speculation that could add more fire to the fuel, there are gaps in our understanding of this story that would be beneficial for NUS authorities to clarify, in the interest of preserving public trust and informing debate over possible next steps.
Notwithstanding the 12-month conditional warning given to the culprit by the police, it would be useful for NUS to clarify how they separately arrived at the measures imposed on the man - which included a one-semester suspension, 30 hours of community service, and a ban from on-campus housing premises, as well as counselling and rehabilitation sessions.
NUS said the decision on disciplinary actions considered factors such as the severity of the offence, the need for justice for the victim, the rehabilitative needs of the student offender, the safety of the NUS community, and the penalties imposed by authorities.
Still, its statement does not shed light on the calculations made by the discipline board based on the circumstances of this case.
Was alcohol influence a mitigating or exacerbating factor, for instance? Should it even be a factor?
What about Ms Baey’s point that he had access because he knew someone else in the same hall?
Without these details, online voices are asking if NUS had simply replicated a standard set of punishments without deeper thought given to the damage the incident has wrought on this young woman, its causes or how such offences can be prevented.
Online chatter suggests this wasn’t the first Peeping Tom case in bathrooms around NUS.
Allegations of similar past transgressions have since emerged, and many are waiting to see how NUS will address these claims.
BUSINESS AS USUAL?
In this fog of information, what is clear is it doesn’t seem like harsher punishment for the culprit is currently on the cards.
Ms Baey said she tried to appeal for a heavier sentence, but was told by the police's investigating officer "You just have to accept the outcome" or "go to NUS and push for action".
Yet NUS’ statement does not suggest the university will be taking further action on this specific case, even as they review current disciplinary frameworks.
Ms Baey’s account paints a picture of how hard it is for a victim to find closure in the administration of justice for such misconduct.
It doesn’t help that NUS’ prompt public response to media queries on this case didn’t seem mirrored in the very private manner in which they managed the case with Ms Baey.
Ms Baey’s screenshot of the letter of apology conveyed by NUS came in February, almost three months after her ordeal began. How whole-hearted then are NUS’ recovery actions?
In a climate of uncertainty, the risk is if people come away with the idea that NUS writes off such misconduct or sidesteps concerns over women’s safety because the problem isn’t serious enough to warrant attention. Until it gets media coverage.
Petitions have sprouted up on Change.org, with one garnering 22,000 signatures and counting. Some online vigilantes are hunting for the man’s details.
SUPPORT FOR VICTIMS
We should be careful not to suggest authorities should be pushing for some form of revenge, but a tougher course of action from NUS could send a clear message about what the educational institution stands for and act as a stronger deterrent against such acts.
The worry also is if remedial actions target preventive measures without increasing individual accountability.
NUS Students’ Union says it condemns any form of sexual harassment, but calling it a serious community problem that everyone has a responsibility in handling skirts the issue that, in this case, something was done by one individual.
Some have also called for greater awareness and education of sexual harassment on campuses, but hopefully such discussions have started since Ms Baey reported it to university authorities - and not after this past week.
More can also be done to provide a supportive environment for victims. NUS said on Saturday that it was “in the process of reaching out to her to offer our support and assistance”.
Where Ms Baey’s perpetrator had rehabilitative and counselling sessions, one hopes the same strong support and much more help were extended to Ms Baey well before this incident went viral.
SAFE PLACE FOR STUDENTS
“How can we place our trust in NUS … This trust is now broken,” said Ms Baey’s mother in a Facebook post on Sunday.
“We, as parents, expect NUS to provide a safe and secure place for students to live in ad to protect them from such instances,” she added.
A line has been crossed and a young woman’s privacy was violated. One case is one case too many.
Each time campus safety is compromised, the education institute has a duty to restore confidence and provide speedy, timely and unqualified help to the victim – and not wait until the issue comes under the media spotlight.
More facts may emerge. Meanwhile, we should feel heartbroken by what has unfolded.