Catalysts and barriers to reporting: Part II

In the first instalment of this two-part blog post, I explored catalysts to reporting that were identified by interviewees in the Silencing Students report, and what institutions can learn from these to increase reporting. In Part two, below, I outline barriers to reporting and explore how institutions might mitigate or address these barriers. While the post focuses on students who are reporting, many of these points will also apply to supporting reporting from staff as well. In addition, Silencing Students included interviews only with students who had attempted to report to the police or their institution and did not include those who had not attempted to report, so there are likely to be more barriers that are not identified here. Nevertheless, the data we have allows areas of action to be identified, and below I’ve expanded on the barriers and outlined actions institutions can take to address these.

Barriers to reporting: unclear pathways and being dissuaded from reporting

One set of barriers to reporting was around reporting pathways. These included:

  • students not knowing who to report to
  • difficulty in getting the person to whom they reported to take action
  • or even being dissuaded from reporting when they tried to do so.

These findings suggest both that improved structures are needed but also that institutional systems are not understood by staff, as well as the ways in which staff protect each other by dissuading students from reporting. Most importantly, they suggest that a shift is needed from institutions from avoiding reports due to fear of reputational damage towards welcoming them, as Graham Towl (2016), among others, has suggested.

Silencing Students showed that students report or disclose to a wide variety of academic and non-academic staff, as well as other students, including counselling staff, security staff, personal tutors, heads of department, counsellors, and others. However, when students disclose to academic staff it can create a situation of conflicting loyalties for the person they disclose to. The collegiality of academic staff can be a barrier when it comes to acting on disclosures of sexual misconduct from students. Staff may feel obliged to protect and support their colleagues by trying to avoid hearing any information about colleagues that may compromise their relationships with them, or by dissuading students from making a formal report. This collegiality also has a darker side, whereby staff may purposefully cover up criminal behaviour and other forms of misconduct to protect others from the consequences of their actions. Some of these issues could be avoided if staff are aware of who, within the institution, they should signpost students towards when they receive disclosures. Disclosure training for staff should explicitly discuss this problem (and we would encourage you to work with your local specialist sexual violence organisation and adapt existing training available from the USVReact project to deliver in your own institution). In addition, it needs to be made crystal clear to all staff that covering up for colleagues is unacceptable.

However, there may be other reasons why staff may dissuade students from reporting; they may be aware that their institution is not safe to report to and that doing so will put the student at risk. However, even in this situation the principle of choice and control for the survivor should be upheld (see Bull, Bullough and Page, 2019). If a student wants to report, then they should be supported and facilitated to do so; if a staff member has concerns that this will put the student at risk they should go directly to the safeguarding lead for the institution and/or to the Board of Governors (and we are aware that the staff member may also be putting themselves at risk of victimisation by supporting students in this way; and that senior management may not be open to hearing about sexual misconduct – that’s a topic for another day).

Finally, students and staff who experience sexual misconduct may be unsure whether the behaviour was serious enough to report and as a first step, want to informally discuss their concerns. There should be options for students to informally discuss low-level concerns (or indeed any concerns) and ask for support without having to make a formal complaint. Training and awareness-raising for all students and staff about the variety of forms that sexual misconduct and abuse of power takes will help people to understand what behaviours are able to be reported, as discussed in the next section.

Barriers to reporting: everyone already knows, so what is reporting going to do?

Another barrier to reporting was sexual harassment being openly known about and accepted within the department so students felt was no point in reporting it. Institutions need to be proactive about tackling institutional cultures where sexual harassment is accepted and normalised. As Sundaram and Jackson’s research has shown (2018), sexual violence is normalised and minimised within HE. Heads of department or school, research group leaders, Deans, and others can take actions around training and awareness-raising within their institution/department/faculty/research group. We are working with Rape Crisis South London to set up training for Heads of School/Department in addressing staff sexual misconduct. Until this is launched, or for more general training, if you are in the southeast we would recommend getting in touch with Rape Crisis South London’s training department, who do a lot of work with HEIs. More generally for training it is crucial to work with organisations that have expertise in violence against women in order to ensure a survivor-centred approach; without this approach, reporting will be much less likely to happen, and much less safe when it does.

For departments with entrenched, long-term cultures of power-based harassment and abuse, a longer-term, multi-step approach may be required to build trust with staff and students. One example is the Climate Review held by the English Department at Concordia University in Quebec (accessed 14 October 2019), also while building a relationship with your local Rape Crisis or Survivors’ Trust centre to help understand how to support survivors and rebuild trust. Changing University Cultures is a UK-based organisation that specialises in wider cultural change work within universities. Working with them alongside Rape Crisis or The Survivors Trust would be a good place to start in tackling an entrenched culture of abuses of power.

As well as training and awareness-raising, proactive steps can be taken around setting up investigations. Where there are rumours or informal knowledge of sexual harassment within a department, an investigator can be appointed before formal complaints are received, and/or heads of department can ask people to come forward with confidential reports in order to start gathering evidence, as outlined in this briefing note.

Barriers to reporting: awareness of the possible consequences of reporting

Possibly the biggest barrier to reporting is (legitimate) fears around the consequences of reporting. Fears expressed by interviewees in Silencing Students included

  • being worried it would ruin their career
  • fear of the staff member stemming from the experience of assault, harassment or abuse and/or fear of retaliation from him/her
  • concerns over confidentiality after reporting
  • needing a reference from the staff member they needed to report.

These fears are valid and justified. Students or staff who disclose or report are put at risk, and institutions need to be willing and able to protect them from retaliation. Students must be assured that they are allowed to discuss concerns confidentially and gain access to support, whether or not they want to make a formal complaint. If students are initially supported well by someone with expertise in sexual violence who understands the institutional systems, this support will build trust and after some time they may decide to formally report.

Furthermore, many students and staff, especially women, students of colour, disabled students and LBGTQ+ students, will already have experienced abuse, sexual violence or different forms of harassment in their lives. They may also have previous experiences of poor responses to disclosure or reporting. As a result, clear messages are needed about the type of response that they will receive from the HEI – that they will be listened to, believed, and taken seriously, including options for making students feel safe during the complaints and investigation process.

Confidentiality is a key area where students who report staff sexual misconduct need control and choice. Students may not want their peers, family, or other staff members to know about what has happened to them, and they may fear retaliation by the staff member or his allies. On the other hand, they may wish to be able to talk about what has happened so they can explain to their lecturers and peers why they have been missing classes etc. There are, of course, necessary constraints around confidentiality during the investigation process, and these need to be explained to students when they are considering making a formal complaint. However, options for confidentiality need to be discussed on disclosure, and these also need to be flagged up in policies so that students who are considering reporting have as much information in this area as possible. See further points for confidentiality during complaints processes in our revised disciplinary guidelines to published soon.

Finally, if students need a reference from a staff member they need to report, departments need to have in place referencing protocols for this situation. For example, sexual misconduct policies should include the option for references to be vetted by a head of department, or for references to be obtained from another member of staff.

Barriers to reporting: boundary-blurring behaviours making the student feel complicit

Another barrier to disclosure or reporting is feeling complicit in boundary-blurring behaviours so that the student felt they had consented to whatever occurred or felt that others would judge their actions. It’s important to recognise that people may blame themselves for the sexual violence they are subjected to. This is exacerbated with ‘grooming’ behaviours where a student may have consented to invitations, such as accepting a gift of a book or an invitation for coffee, or having become involved sexually/romantically with a staff member in a way that they perceived as consensual at the time. As a result, reporting the staff member may also mean disclosing material that is deeply personal, that they may be embarrassed or ashamed of, and/or for which they expect to be judged by others. The discomfort of this experience may be intensified by having to disclose/report to academic staff or others at the university where they want people to think well of them and judge them on their academic achievements.

To address this, much clearer professional boundaries are needed around what behaviours are acceptable from staff members, including whether it is ever acceptable for staff to make sexual or romantic overtures to students, as discussed in our forthcoming post on policies. This is a longer-term process which can be led by heads of department opening up discussions with staff and students around what behaviours they feel comfortable with. We can make available our survey questions on professional boundaries used in the National Union of Students report (2018) so that institutions or departments can gather evidence on what works within your local context. Helpful reading in this area includes Schwartz (2012) on boundaries in higher education, and Cooper (2012) on boundaries in social work, which can be adapted for discussion within the HE setting. The Clinic for Professional Boundaries will also run training in higher education. Implementing disclosure training for staff so that they respond appropriately without blaming the student for what has happened, as noted above, will also help.

Barriers to reporting: Lack of provision for third party reporting

If it is too risky for students themselves to make a complaint, it is crucial that institutions allow third party reporting, so that a staff member or other students can report behaviours that they have become aware of. This should have the power to trigger an investigation, which of course would start from a position of neutrality and seek to gather evidence, as with any other investigation.

As noted in our forthcoming blog post on safeguarding, some universities already allow for third party reporting and/or proactive investigations in policies. For example, Durham University’s Procedure for managing disclosures or reports involving allegations of staff sexual violence and misconduct, ‘The University retains the right to investigate a third-party disclosure should it feel that is an appropriate’[1]. In some cases, it may be difficult to gather sufficient evidence from a third-party report to carry out a full investigation, however, in many cases there will be sufficient witnesses, and so this approach should not be discounted.

Conclusion: building trust

A final barrier to reporting that interviewees for Silencing Students noted was lack of faith in the institution to take any action if they did report. Sadly, our research shows that this lack of faith is not necessarily misplaced. What institutions can do, therefore, is take steps to build trust around their willingness and capacity to address staff sexual misconduct. This will take place in part through dealing appropriately with reports when they arise. Trust can also be built through, where possible, sharing information with staff and students, as we outline in our soon-to-be-published revised disciplinary process guidelines. Building trust is a longer-term process, but it is a crucial one. Students and staff will report when it feels safe enough to do so. Therefore, underpinning all of the actions listed above, this sense of trust is what we should be aiming for. In order to get there, students and staff who are reporting should have control and choice wherever possible throughout the process.

If you missed Part One of this blog post, you can find it here.

Dr Anna Bull, 16 November 2019

Support information:

GALOP, the LGBT+ anti-violence charity

Rape Crisis, for women and girls who are survivors of sexual violence: 0808 802 9999 (12-2:30pm and 7-9:30pm every day)

Survivors’ Trust, for survivors of sexual violence of all genders


Bull, A., Page, Tiffany, Bullough, J., 2019. What would a survivor-centred higher education sector look like?, in: Gamsu, S. (Ed.), A New Vision for Further and Higher Education. Centre for Labour and Social Studies, London, pp. 73–82. [accessed 14 October 2019]

Cooper, F., 2012. Professional Boundaries in Social Work and Social Care: A Practical Guide to Understanding, Maintaining and Managing Your Professional Boundaries. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Jackson, C., Sundaram, V., 2018. ‘I have a sense that it’s probably quite bad … but because I don’t see it, I don’t know’: staff perspectives on ‘lad culture’ in higher education. Gender and Education 0, 1–16.

Schwartz, H.L., 2012. Interpersonal Boundaries in Teaching and Learning: New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 131. John Wiley & Sons.

Towl, G., 2016. Tackling sexual violence at UK universities: a case study. Contemporary Social Science 11, 432–437.

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