15 Apr 2019

Knox College sexual assault claims not dealt with years ago - students

12:16 pm on 15 April 2019

Student leaders from the University of Otago's Knox College wrote a letter to hostel managers two years ago telling them sexual assault complaints were not being handled properly.

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Photo: Otago University

Dozens of women have spoken to media over recent weeks with complaints of a toxic culture and a lack of support for victims.

In 2017 nine student leaders or resident advisors (RAs) from Knox surveyed those living at the hostel asking them how it could be improved.

The responses showed students felt they were not listened to, did not trust management and that the complaints and disciplinary processes were not clear.

The survey was then sent to the Knox management team.

One of the RAs, who did not want to be named, told RNZ that managers approached the student leaders individually asking them about their involvement in the document.

They said this response "hurt everyone's feelings".

In an official reply to the letter from the college master, Reverend Graham Redding refused to meet with the student leaders saying it was not clear if they were talking about systemic problems or specific incidents.

The same RA told RNZ they "finessed" the letter to make the points clearer but said the "subtext of the letter was about the lack of support and handling of sexual harassment and assault complaints".

The edited letter noted there was a "level of dissatisfaction" from the student body at Knox and an "alarming cynicism about college culture".

"We understand them to feel unheard by management, untrusting about sub-masters, and concerned with the school-like nature of the wider college body," the letter read.

Students also said they felt uncertain "if staff's primary concern is resident welfare" and because of that Knox residents held back from reporting complaints.

Residents of the college felt like they could not trust the RAs or masters.

Fraser Irvine was one of the student leaders who put his name on the letter but said he could not remember much about it because of the time since it was written.

He spent multiple years at Knox and acknowledged there was a problem with the culture but said Knox was doing everything it could to improve.

Heather Tribe was also part of the 2017 student leadership team. She said her decision to go to Knox was because she wanted to support women and help the college change.

"From the very beginning as a team we were sitting down and talking about how to address some of these really disgusting traditions and cultures.

"My voice is one of many that were trying to make Knox a better place."

She said there was an element of toxic culture at the college.

"Knox has been around for 100 years. These behaviours have been kind of happening for as long as men have been raping women - this is just one place where it happens.

"Every university has a rape, sexual harassment and assault problem. Knox is working to counter that."

Dr Redding said things were changing at the college after the meetings with sub-masters in 2017.

Changes for 2018 included "increased focus in sub-master training on sexual assault and harm-related issues and dealing with sensitive matters," he said.

Knox had also created the Student Safety Advisory Group for students to discuss safety issues directly with management. In 2019 further changes were made including involvement from Otago University sexual health support group Te Whare Tāwharau.

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