Outrage at inaction over sexual assaults

Issue 

BY SALLY HYSLOP

PERTH — Students at Murdoch University were horrified to learn that a wave of sexual assaults has occurred on campus since the start of the year. The silence and inaction of university administration have provoked outrage among students and staff.

It was only when a female student went to the press following an attempted abduction in the university's car park that the situation became public. Her attackers tried to drug her with a chemical-soaked rag. What soon emerged was that there is a serious and continuing threat to students' safety. Female students were being approached, often in daylight, and molested or shown pornographic pictures. There have been at least 10 serious sexual assaults in the past three months.

Sadly, the incidents come as no surprise to anyone who has attended the campus since 1999. This was the year that the administration was caught hiding a series of similar sexual assaults on campus. A number of new security initiatives were promised but little eventuated. In fact, this year Murdoch campus has only two full-time security guards for a campus with a population of more than 12,000 people.

Kim Thomas, a security officer who spoke to Green Left Weekly, said the university's the existing system of patrols and emergency buttons demonstrated "a lack of concern and thought" on the part of the administration.

Recently, the university administration removed posters produced by the student union Women's Department drawing attention to the lack of safety on campus.

Vice-chancellor Steven Schwartz's administration has produced glossy promotions about the university to attract overseas fee-paying students. It has established revenue-raising projects like a private secondary school on the campus grounds. Publicity of the spate of sexual assaults may jeopardise the profitability of such projects.

After the recent attempted abduction, the university issued a pamphlet that stated, "Fortunately, the attacks have not resulted in anyone being seriously physically hurt". "Security Awareness" pamphlets have also been distributed which include tips such as: "If you are on campus and are walking to your car, it is best that you walk in a group, or at least with one other person."

The Murdoch Guild's women's officer, Helen Isaacs, demanded that the administration add the following message "if you are the victim of an incident, it's not your fault". Unfortunately, the tips imply that security is students' responsibility.

Many women students are choosing not to attend classes that are vital to their degrees if they finish after dark. Hardest hit are female students with disabilities and women on low incomes. The areas which have been identified as the most dangerous, even during daylight, are the most inexpensive car parks, bus stops and the paths disabled students are forced to use because most of the main walkways in Murdoch have stairs.

If proper security measures were taken in 1999, the present wave of attacks may never have taken place. It is clear that the safety of the students comes a poor second for the Murdoch administration.

"The thought of students spending their precious money on fees and accommodation at another university is obviously more vexing to the vice-chancellor than the possibility that yet another student will be assaulted on campus", said Thomas.

Messages of protest can be sent to the vice-chancellor at <vc@central.murdoch.edu.au>.

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