student safeguarding

Why universities are adopting technology to tackle sexual assault and sexual harassment

managing director, EMEA, CriticalArc

Author Bio ▼

Darren Chalmers-Stevens is managing director for the EMEA region at CriticalArc, a leading technology innovator, designing and developing the distributed command and control solution, SafeZone™. His professional career has focused particularly on security technology matters. He served as technology development manager for ADT Fire & Security, where he led UK and Ireland IP physical security strategy and business development. Before that, Darren held several senior positions for Computer Network Limited (CNL), including VP Professional Services. He also was Business Manager for Integrated Communications at IBM in the UK, where he managed global solution development and delivery. More recently he was Vice President for EMEA Operations at CSIM specialist VidSys.
July 15, 2019

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For the higher education sector, preventing and addressing sexual misconduct is becoming a priority issue.

It is being driven by changing attitudes in society, by the greater openness exemplified by the #metoo movement, the realisation that sexual harassment and sexual assault are widespread problems, and by expectations that they will no longer be tolerated.

What higher education institutions do to tackle it – or what they fail to do – not only determines their exposure to risk but can impact all areas of campus life.

Get it right, says Professor Margaret Otlowski, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Culture and Wellbeing) at the University of Tasmania (UTAS), and put in place clear behaviour policies backed by effective reporting and complaint handling mechanisms, and many benefits will follow.

Since June 2018, Professor Otlowski has been heading up a taskforce, leading her university’s efforts to set new benchmarks in tackling the problem and the wide range of behaviours that it can include.

“It requires a multi-faceted approach and security departments definitely have a role to play.”

“Culture is a hard thing to measure,” she says, “but we want to encourage people to be bold in their ambitions to make change. It requires a multi-faceted approach and security departments definitely have a role to play.”

A major part of the effort required involves education, explaining what sexual misconduct is and leadership spearheading the culture change.

Sexual misconduct is a general term used in University policy documents to encompass both sexual harassment and sexual assault, Professor Otlowski explains and would be the basis of any formal investigation (noting that Australian universities do not have the jurisdiction to investigate or make findings in relation to sexual assault or sexual harassment).

Widely accepted definitions

Under widely accepted definitions, sexual harassment includes any unwanted sexual behaviour which makes a person feel offended, humiliated, insulted or intimidated. This can include staring in a sexual manner, standing deliberately too close or brushing against someone, displaying pornographic or sexually explicit material, asking intrusive questions or repeatedly making unwanted dating requests.

Intent or motive is irrelevant and crucially, for behaviours to constitute sexual harassment, it is not necessary for the person who has been harassed to have told the harasser that their behaviour was unwelcome.

The term sexual assault refers to a criminal offence and covers a range of sexual acts (or attempted acts), from kissing or touching without consent, to rape.

In 2016 lobbying by the National Union of Students (NUS) and others, prompted Universities Australia, a peak body representing the university sector as a whole, to ask the Australian Human Rights Commission to conduct a national survey on sexual assault and harassment, which was published a year later (Change the Course Report, August 2019)

51% of students said they had been sexually harassed at least once during the previous year

The findings were stark: more than half (51%) of respondents said they had been sexually harassed at least once during the previous year, with one in four saying that incidents had occurred in a university setting. Sexual assault was reported by 6.9% of respondents.

In most cases the perpetrators were male, and women were disproportionately affected. Trans and gender-diverse students were more likely to have been sexually harassed in a university environment than either women or men. In 45% of cases those affected knew some or all of the perpetrators, and in two-thirds of cases, the perpetrator was another student.

Responding to the report, UTAS senior managers – supported by Vice Chancellor Rufus Black – set about transforming the safeguarding measures needed to prevent and deal with the problem.

They were determined, Professor Otlowski says, not just to develop protocols and guidelines, but to put in place practical measures that would drive change.

“We established a taskforce and developed an action plan that would be periodically updated.”

New reporting tools

This plan included introducing new reporting tools and effective personal safety communications technology.  With technology identified as a key enabler, advancements in cloud-based solutions to help respond to incidents and emergencies came along at exactly the right time.

A growing number have followed a similar path to UTAS, deploying CriticalArc’s SafeZone safety and security management service. This is not surprising, given that challenges in the higher education sector had a key influence on CriticalArc’s research during the early days of SafeZone’s development, as Robert Christie, CriticalArc’s Customer Success Manager, explains.

“In 2012 when I was undertaking our original market research before releasing the first version of SafeZone, we made detailed studies of 22 countries with special focus on universities. One of the most important primary references was the original Talk About It’ survey by Australia’s National Union of Students into the safety of university campuses.”

Robert Christie says that even though, at that time, very few people were willing to recognise it, that document demonstrated to CriticalArc’s founders that there was a strong need for SafeZone on campuses.

“It’s pleasing to see that seven years later, in a more open climate, institutions are proactively dealing with these challenges, incorporating our product as part of their strategy for combating sexual assault and harassment. SafeZone is a key tool for anyone who needs to communicate quickly with their local response team, and for the team to ensure that response is fast and effective in that moment of need.”

More than a third of universities in Australia now use the platform, encouraging their students and staff to download the system’s app and ‘check-in’ to report routine problems, to request help, or get emergency assistance. Many in the UK, the US and internationally have done the same.

It’s about improving wellbeing and the student experience

For most institutions, this technology isn’t seen as a target-hardening measure or a security tool (it’s not in the same category as surveillance) – it’s about improving wellbeing and the student experience of university life. There is an understanding that, while safety is vital, too much overt security can have a negative impact on campus environments that are supposed to be open, inclusive, and liberating.

CriticalArc and the UTAS team were clear from the outset that the technology is not about tracking.  Only users who choose, at any point, to ‘check-in’ or raise an alert share their location with the UTAS Safety and Security team. Rights to privacy issues were also addressed during the implementation phase of SafeZone at the University, noting sensitivities around this issue.

The technology works by letting response teams and control rooms pinpoint the locations of individuals using a simple app on their smartphones, including students and staff. It allows users to request help, trigger an emergency response, receive rapid notifications in the event of emergencies and benefit from a wide range of pastoral care services.

At the same time, it empowers safety and security teams to streamline and strengthen their capacity to respond to incidents, optimise outcomes, fulfil duty of care and mitigate risks.

And in risk management, the temptation is to think simply in terms of preventing harm or limiting damage. But those heads of security deploying SafeZone to help tackle sexual misconduct are making an even bigger contribution.

For universities that want to make themselves more attractive to students and compete well in international rankings, tackling sexual misconduct should be seen as a litmus-test issue.

Put in place the right measures to deal with it and many other benefits follow, says Professor Otlowski.

This is because the same steps that need to be taken to educate staff and students – including the protocols and technology used to improve reporting and communications and to make the potentially vulnerable feel safe – will have a positive impact on the wider culture of the institution.

“To thrive as communities, to continue to attract students and therefore to prosper, universities need to focus effort on the way they deal with this. Get it right and everyone benefits from the culture change.”

Although sexual misconduct is just one issue on a much broader list of behavioural risks – all of which need to be mitigated against – institutions that address it head-on are better placed to build successful learning and research communities.


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