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FAQ: Should extenuating circumstances include rape and sexual assault?

Monday 25-01-2016 - 14:49

The topic of ‘extenuating circumstances’ has been highlighted by the petition created by the University of Birmingham student calling for rape and sexual assault to be regarded under extenuating circumstances.

CN: Sexual assault and violence

In the education sector the term ‘extenuating circumstances’ is used to describe unforeseeable, exceptional and uncontrollable difficulties or circumstances that have impacted a student's ability to complete, submit or attend a specific assessment. The topic of ‘extenuating circumstances’ has been highlighted by the petition created by the University of Birmingham student calling for rape and sexual assault to be regarded under extenuating circumstances. In my previous blog I discussed how victims of sexual assault, often have their education and attainment negatively impacted by their experiences.

Due to the coverage of this petition, other universities’ extenuating circumstances outlines have also been looked at by the press and it has been highlighted that many universities do not have anything specifically on rape and sexual assault either. Many of them insisted that such circumstance would fall under the “victim of serious crime” or “personal injury” categories.

 

Some people might think that this is sufficient, however as the student from Birmingham pointed out: sexual assault and rape has devastating immediate and long-term effects which could include:

  • Relaying the incident to the police and seeking legal advice - a lengthy process which requires the sufferer to re-live the event countless times
  • Confiding in a medical professional, testing for the possibility of pregnancy and disease
  • Depression
  • Night terrors
  • Hyper vigilance
  • Guilt and self blame
  • Suicide 

Fortunately, the petition was successful and last December the University agreed to include rape and sexual assault in their extenuating circumstances. A spokesperson for the University of Birmingham said:

“The University annually reviews all of its codes of practice, including that on extenuating circumstances. The current code does mean a student who has been the victim of a rape or sexual assault can be offered support through extenuating circumstances, even though this is not currently listed as a specific example. The next review of this Code will review the examples used and provide more comprehensive guidance notes, which will cover rape and sexual assault, as well as many other circumstances.”

The issue has also caught the attention of the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron who took this opportunity to send a letter to vice chancellors about the issue. In it he mentions the specific issues survivors may face, he writes: “There are aspects of sexual violence not covered by other categories – the risk of pregnancy, the stress of medical tests, psychological issues and potentially legal proceedings if an attacker is charged. Students should know that if they are ever unfortunate enough to fall victim to sexual violence, they can at least be sure of their right to extenuating circumstances.” These are all decent points and observations that I agree with. 

Farron ends his letter saying that - “I hope that universities across the country can adopt clear, consistent and specific guidelines to ensure that this is the case.” Now, that is all easily said but I’m a massive fan of details. So I’m wondering HOW are universities going to develop consistent and specific guidelines, WHO is going to help them do it the correct way and who holds them accountable if they don’t? This, of course, isn't mentioned in the letter.

 

There are now many institutions that want to follow the example of University of Birmingham which is great, but what are the practical elements involved in this change beyond editing policy? 

 

What is the process for students applying for extenuating circumstances because of rape?

Applying for extenuating circumstances isn't a walk in the park, especially when you have to reveal something really personal or traumatic. Are universities or colleges expecting a police report or a letter from a sexual assault referral centre as proof? This is concerning as NUS’ Hidden Marks research showed only 10 per cent of students who were seriously sexually assaulted reported it to the police. The 1994 Zellick Guidelines which is used by many institutions state that serious offences like rape should not be investigated by universities and need to be dealt with by the police before internal action is taken. So in this case, is a report to the university/college valid enough for the student to be believed?

 

Has a culture of sensitivity been embedded in faculties?

It’s important the people who deal with extenuating circumstances are clued up with the requirements that a student survivor may need and how to be sensitive in their approach. Negotiating arrangements can be an intimidating experience that can be made even more uncomfortable if the staff involved aren't trained on specific issues.

 

What is the wider strategy for Academic-Welfare support?

The extensions and arrangements that students receive in terms of academic support can vary with extenuating circumstances often based on school/faculty/institution. They also don’t necessarily link to welfare support either. What I’d like to see is a type of needs assessment and faculties having more knowledge about support services on and off campus that students can easily access. The campus welfare services and academic support services should be signposting students to each other.

 

Is asking institutions individually to change their policies the most efficient method for change?

SUs lobbying their institutions to change their policies are brilliant but we must also think about what the national picture looks like overall for student survivor support. The reason why NUS have campaigns like #StandByMe is because the chances of being supported as a student survivor shouldn't be a lottery depending on what institution you attend. The blunt truth is, when institutions aren't required to do something by the powers above there’s no one to hold them to account for not doing it. It’d probably be more beneficial if the sector came to an agreement about this becoming a new standard when creating policies and producing guidance that all institutions could use. *Stares at UUK*

Anyway - If you are thinking about taking part in national action to support survivors on campus, (Tim Farron included) get involved with the Stand By Me Campaign,  which you can find out more about by contacting me at NUS directly, and by clicking here.

 

Until next time,

Susuana

 

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