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Uni survey ‘worrying’: Aquinas head

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Survey results revealing a high incidence of sexual assault and harassment of Australian university students is “worrying” but not “surprising”, according to the head of South Australia’s only Catholic residential college.

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Br Paul Gilchrist of Aquinas College said while the figures were of concern he wasn’t completely surprised by them, pointing out that those participating in the survey were generally young adults and undesirable behaviour in that age group was often fuelled by alcohol.

“The report is very worrying. A big percentage spoke of assault on public transport and that is concerning,” he said.

Aquinas is home to about 200 tertiary students, with about 75 per cent from rural South Australia, and Br Gilchrist said every effort was made to ensure students were safe at all times.

To support its residents, the college has house groups of about 20 students including a senior who is trained to manage and work with young people. They are supervised by the Dean who is in charge of pastoral care.

“Any form of harassment, discrimination or bullying is not on and we do our best to encourage students to let us know if they are troubled,” Br Gilchrist said.

“We have got a lot of rules and policies in place to protect the student from harm and ensure the college is a pleasant environment for everyone.

“When students start at Aquinas they are given a directory and we speak a lot about this being a Catholic community, fostering development of the intellectual, spiritual, social and emotional.

“I think we’d be one of the few residential colleges that is actively involved in the Church, we have a weekly Mass which a good number of students attend, we have a social justice outreach program where the students are sensitised to the people who are doing it tough. We strongly promote living in harmony with one another.”

Conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission, the survey included the responses from 31,000 students from 39 Australian universities. Results showed that one in five of them had experienced sexual harassment in a university setting, which included travel to and from the campus and uni-endorsed events off-campus. The report also found 94 per cent of students who were sexually harassed did not make a formal complaint and of those who were sexually assaulted, 84 per cent did not report it.

In a statement released by Australian Catholic University (ACU), which was included in the survey, vice-chancellor and president Greg Craven said the university was serious about the safety and wellbeing of students and had taken a number of steps to ensure all its campuses were places of safety and respect.

“Sexual harassment, sexual assault or violence will never be tolerated at ACU,” he said.

“This project has been an important opportunity to consider our approach to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment. It is part of our regular practice to review these regularly and we can ensure that there are services in place to support any student or staff member who discloses or reports any such incidents.”

Initiatives ACU has undertaken include reviewing and upgrading policies, procedures and guidelines; awareness and prevention programs; establishing an advisory committee for consultation and advice; introducing training for counsellors; providing more resources, information and support services, including adopting the SafeZone app, enhanced CCTV services and increased access to drop-in counselling services.

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