Reality of Reporting Harassment and Bullying Incidents at University
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The Scary Reality of Reporting Harassment and Bullying Incidents at University

In academia, ‘harassment’ stereotypically denotes sexual misconduct, mostly directed towards young women. But what about non-sexual harassment? Often intertwined with bullying, it is a behavior behavior that is intrusive and offensive, sometimes with gendered, racial, or physical undertones. Bullying may display similarities, but its core characteristic is establishing power and dominance, particularly in social settings. Harassment persists as invasive mistreatment aimed to control and cause harm to its victims.


This issue becomes gendered when harassment and bullying, often perpetuated by male aggressors, are used to control, intimidate, humiliate, and victimize their targets, frequently exploiting power and gender imbalances within rigid university frameworks. 


Yet, the disciplinary process dismisses many complaints without investigation. Even when formalized, outcomes are often not disclosed to students — especially if they involve senior staff members or tenured professors. This raises the pressing question: does the existing system require reform or is the core issue rooted in the perceptions of justice within academia?


The prevalence of bullying and harassment 

Bullying and harassment can take many forms, and occur in a diverse range of situations. General statistics reveal that 66% of students experience some form of harassment on campus every year, including in places like university accommodations and non-educational facilities. Cyberbullying occurs frequently, with 35.2% of the victims being women, and can occur through traditional means like text messages and social media, as well as official communication channels like student email. Approximately 18.5% of international students in the US reported bullying from domestic students. Furthermore, freshmen and students with different beliefs are often targeted, facing discrimination and attacks.


There are also differences in how staff-to-student bullying and harassment occur compared to peer-to-peer bullying. Most statistical analyses focus on peer-to-peer bullying, overlooking staff misconduct. Research has found that 18% of students admitted that they were bullied by a professor on campus, and 50% reported witnessing such bullying. Additionally, about 66% of Ph.D. students and postdoctorate fellows state that the harasser was a senior member of the academic community and had direct authority over them. Approximately 60-80% of respondents identified men as attackers. However, despite university students frequently perceiving bullying occurrence, they may not know how to properly address it or want to avoid the risks associated with reporting it. 


Challenges faced by vulnerable groups

In university settings, women are more susceptible to bullying, harassment, and other forms of mistreatment. However, violence intensifies for vulnerable groups of students. Research shows that 33% of LGBTQ+ people reported they were bullied, harassed or assaulted at university, compared to 19% of non-LGBTQ+ students. A UK-based study revealed that 24% of students with an ethnic minority background were affected by racial bullying and harassment, compared to 9% of White students. Among these students, 20% have been physically attacked, and 50% experienced verbal abuse like insults and name-calling. Shockingly, in many cases, students reported that their harasser was their tutor or other staff member.


International students shared that they felt unwelcome and isolated from the community due to bullying from domestic peers. However, most students who belong to marginalized groups refrain from reporting such incidents. Reasons can vary, but often students doubt that their complaints will be upheld, believe that they cannot prove misconduct, or that the issue was not serious enough to report. 


Flawed complaint resolution mechanism 

Even if victims report misconduct through official university channels, it does not guarantee that their complaint will be upheld and fair outcomes achieved. There are several issues with the complaint process that lead to its ineffectiveness.


Firstly, policies are often confusing, outdated, and generally not user-friendly documents, making it difficult for students to understand and follow. Secondly, students tend to face challenges during the reporting process, which include university staff denying allegations or deliberately blocking and dissuading, i.e. staff not keeping written records of the complaint. Most university complaints are resolved or dismissed at the informal stage, while formal processes can last many weeks. Formal complaint resolution often lacks transparency and communication, protecting the confidentiality of the accused. It is also not uncommon to face academic or other retaliation during the process, especially if the accused is a member of the teaching staff. Lastly, the resolution may not be satisfactory or fair, especially in cases of staff-to-student harassment. Outcomes often lack clarity, and universities are reluctant to take disciplinary action


Typically, outcomes include vague promises of appropriate action being taken without explicit acknowledgment of misconduct. Actual outcomes are not disclosed because of privacy concerns, which leaves the complainants feeling like no significant action was taken. The lack of transparent outcomes also means not knowing whether the perpetrator was removed from campus, suspended, or reprimanded in a way that would ensure the safety of the student. 


Case study: the ordeal of complaining 

Judy’s case is an appalling example of dismissive treatment in complaints against senior staff members. During her studies at the university, her private text messages with another student were shown to a university administration member. The senior staff overstepped his authority by calling Judy and shouting at her, implying that she had abused the student and breached university policy. She apologized, but could not understand why a staff member would verbally harass and intimidate her because of a text conversation. It appeared to her that there was a misunderstanding, and she suspected that screenshots had been edited by the student to incriminate her.


Subsequently, Judy reported being shouted at during the call to a senior academic staff member via email. She also explained how her privacy was breached through sharing potentially edited screenshots. The staff did not acknowledge misconduct but focused on how her conduct provoked the situation. Despite her efforts to prove how these acts breached university policies and impacted her mental well-being, the staff stood firm. Left with no choice, Judy retracted her complaint in fear of retaliation.


Months after graduation, Judy lodged a formal complaint, attaching documented evidence of abuse and hoping that grievance officers would take it seriously. After weeks of waiting, she was informed that the staff would be reminded of the importance of handling complaints effectively. However, grievance officers reinforced the narrative that the incidents were her fault and dismissed all allegations against senior staff.


Ultimately, Judy felt her evidence was never fully reviewed, and the incidents were never thoroughly investigated, assuming the university considered the matter resolved or irrelevant. Her case illustrates the flaws not only within the complaint resolution process but with the hierarchical and highly authoritative structure of universities, where abuse of power often goes unpunished.

Moving forward and ensuring safer reporting

Without a doubt, grievance resolution procedures need to be updated and refined to give students more power and control in these situations. Students should feel safe to report misconduct and expect that they would be believed rather than dismissed or victim-blamed. However, the more significant issue lies in the outdated, rigid university structure that hinders both the complaint process and effective disciplinary action. Universities value authority and respect seniority, placing students at the bottom of the academic hierarchy. Fundamentally, universities need to acknowledge that students deserve empathy and respect within the academic community just as much as the staff.


You can also read: Some Glass in Need of a Good Smashing

(Cover Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash)


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