Best practice for responding to student’s disclosure of sexual violence

18th September 2019

In a study conducted in January 2019, more than half of the 5649 UK students surveyed said they had experienced unwanted sexual advances and assault. The need for all academic staff to know how to manage these incidences is clear.

From supporting survivors to understanding internal reporting processes, this article offers practical guidance on how to respond to student’s disclosures of sexual violence.

Understanding the barriers to reporting disclosures of sexual violence

When a student reports an incident of sexual violence it is vital they understand that they are under no obligation to involve the authorities or anyone else, including their peers or tutors. The incident may have occurred recently or a long time ago, but the act of reporting itself is likely to be very traumatic for the survivor and they may be suffering from feelings of shame or embarrassment that need to be treated with the utmost sensitivity. This could be heightened by the nature of the perpetrator; for example, if they are in a position of authority or trust. The student might feel responsible for the incident or feel complicit. It’s also possible that the student has sought help before and not received the appropriate support.

Students reporting sexual violence may feel that they will be blamed, not believed or have a fear of reprisal. They may also lack confidence about the reporting or investigation processes or not understand what will happen if they decide to inform the authorities.

Responding and reacting to a disclosure of sexual violence

Disclosure of abuse is a very complex issue and it is critical that the situation is handled appropriately throughout. Each student’s responses will be different and it is likely they will experience a range of emotions as they come to terms with what has happened.

Here are some guidelines on how to manage disclosures:

Create a safe space. This should be somewhere where the student will feel comfortable, where privacy is assured and they don’t feel isolated. They mustn’t think they have a finite amount of time with the member of staff or that they are going to be interrupted at any point. This space may be on or off campus dependent on the student’s wishes.

Create trust. Make sure the student knows they can trust you and that you will not judge them. Accept what they say, do not be judgemental and maintain a calm but empathetic demeanour. Be active in your listening so the student knows that you are attentive to their narrative.

Help them understand that they are not responsible. The student must be reassured that sexual violence is always a crime, no matter who it is committed by and that it is not their fault.

Make sure you fully understand the situation. Don’t ever ask leading questions, attempt to fill in gaps or push the student for information. If you are unsure about an element of the student’s disclosure, gently encourage them to clarify.

Use the right language. Reassure the student that you believe them, that they are not to blame and that they have made the right decision in reporting the incident. Tell them that you are going to help, and explain how. Never use language that indicates that you are shocked or that you feel they should have told someone else, or that they should have reported it before. Never make promises you can’t keep and make sure they know they will not be treated differently.

Keep a record of the conversation. If possible, it is highly advisable to make detailed notes of the conversation as it happens. If this isn’t appropriate, write up your notes as soon as possible after the student has gone. Reporting forms can be useful to make sure you take down the right information.

Explain the next steps. What happens next will depend on the student’s wishes but even if they are adamant they don’t want to involve the authorities it is wise to explain how this works, in case they misunderstood the process, or they change their mind at a later date.

Explain the support options available. The student must know that they needn’t suffer in silence and that there are a number of support options available, aside from going to the authorities. This could include student services, online forums, support centres, helplines and professional counselling.

Lastly, if you feel you need it, make sure you get support for yourself after the disclosure.

Internal reporting processes for student disclosures

All universities should have robust internal processes for reporting disclosures of sexual violence, including anonymised options. Online reporting tools are an excellent idea and can include a reporting platform and a facility for requesting contact from an advisor. The process should be clearly signposted so it easy for a student to find it.

Whether or not the university has a resource for student counselling services, there should at least be a website portal detailing where students can turn to when they need help. This should include as much information as possible regarding types of support, contact details and what the student can expect. Find out more about the support available for survivors of sexual violence.

Remember, there’s little point in having support mechanisms in place if they aren’t communicated well. Make sure all the relevant information is included in student welcome packs and on a dedicated website portal which is clearly signposted from other key areas of the website. Posters and flyers are a good idea but make sure they stand out from other promotional and awareness-building content.

We hope this article has helped you understand some of the processes and approaches required to respond to disclosures of sexual violence. As mentioned, it is a highly sensitive and complex issue so ensuring you and the student get the support you need is vital.

E-Learning student welfare courses available

We have developed a range of e-learning courses around a variety of student welfare subjects, including responding to disclosures of sexual violence. We work closely with universities such as Brunel, UCL and Coventry and have partnered with Rape Crisis to ensure we deliver the most relevant, useful content possible. Please see our responding to disclosures of sexual violence course here.

Contact us today to find out how our course helped Brunel University and how we can help you, and your students.

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