Knox College. Image: Asia Martusia/Critic te Arohi

Sexual assault and harassment rife at Dunedin’s Knox College

More survivors of sexual violence at Knox College have come forward since Critic broke the story of sexual abuse and harassment at the Otago University hall of residence a month ago. Content warning: sexual assault and harassment.

This story is published today in Critic Te Arohi, the Otago University student magazine. Original reporting by Esme Hall and Sinead Gill, with additional reporting by Charlie O’Mannin.

Riley* was raped on her first night at Knox in 2016, the very same day that the first years received talks about having consensual sex. Boys and girls received separate talks.

Riley said that “digital communication from the person you slept with that they consented” was one of the ways of avoiding non-consensual sex that was raised in the boys’ consent talk. Knox management did not confirm if this method was, or is still, taught.

At a social event that same night, Riley said a male student “fed me alcohol to the point where I could no longer stand. He then carried me back to my room, used my phone to send himself text messages saying that I consented, and proceeded to have sex with me.”

Riley said it was “gross” that the consent seminar had the opposite effect, informing the male student “how to avoid getting prosecuted for sexual violence”.

At the time, Riley told a member of college management about being raped, but alleged that they were “incredibly unhelpful and said that [I] didn’t have any evidence,” despite Riley showing them screenshots of the texts he’d sent off her phone.

According to Riley, the only disciplinary measure faced by the student was getting him banned from her accommodation building, which she felt was not a strong enough measure for someone accused of rape.

A week after he was banned, Riley was awoken between 3 and 4am by him “kissing my forehead in my bedroom, saying he had left his phone here.” She said this “was terrifying,” especially as only residents of her particular building were supposed to have access. She became “very obsessive about locking doors”.

She told her submaster about the incident, who promised they’d tell the former deputy master, but “I never heard any follow up”.

Riley said that the male student went on to assault and harass over 20 other girls while at Knox, and management was aware of his behaviour. Other 2016 residents Critic have spoken to back up this claim.

Riley explained to Critic that eventually his victims realised they were not alone, and later in the year a group of them went to a member of college management. They alleged that they were discouraged from taking their concerns to the proctor. According to Riley, a member of college management said “the proctor wouldn’t do anything if we went to him”. This member of college management no longer works at Knox.

Riley claims that after the group came forward to management, the disciplinary measure they enacted on him was that “he wasn’t allowed to have contact with females… if [women] wanted to have contact with him, they had to initiate it. So he would just stare at us instead.”

The male student was eventually kicked out of the college, but only for punching Knox master Graham Redding when he was drunk, alleges Riley.

“The whole situation felt like they cared more about the safety of the staff than the safety of the students,” said Riley. “It was like, physical violence against staff is not ok, but physical violence against students is fine.”

When asked to comment on these allegations, Redding said he would not comment on individual cases.

Knox College (left foreground) is located in the Dunedin suburb of Opoho, on the opposite side of the Botanic Gardens from the university. (Photo: Public Domain)

Mediation sessions over sexual harassment stoked toxic culture

Mediation sessions were another disciplinary approach taken by Knox. In Rose’s* experience, mediation sessions were “awkward” and only stoked resentment from the harassers.

At Knox College the “supers” were a group of returners, exclusively men, who had a special position of authority at the college, all living in the top floor rooms. Redding told Critic that he disbanded the supers last year.

In 2016, Rose’s friend was sexually assaulted by two supers in the Knox car park. They picked her up and started groping her buttocks. Allegedly, a super said “it’s your fault for having a good ass, let us touch it,” when she protested. They also encouraged a first year boy to touch her buttocks. “She was screaming at them,” said Rose.

Her friend “cried for hours” after what happened, and later told Rose. The two of them went to Redding. The resulting disciplinary measure was a mediation session, which Rose said was “so awkward.” She recalled that they just recapped what had happened while the harassers “barely said anything”. From then on, the boys “showed no remorse”. When they walked past each other, Rose said the boys and their mates would “stare [them] down”. “All the supers hated us because of it.”

There was a party soon afterwards, and the two girls remembered being “very scared about what they might do there, whether that be aggressively talking to us or actually physically hurting us”.

Knox resident too scared to go to proctor about harassment

Later in the year, the supers took first years’ phones and sent sexually explicit and threatening messages to Rose and other girls. Critic has copies of these messages, which include “come to my room at 12 for a good time or I’ll come get you”, “I’ll fist you all at the same time”, “… get your cunt over here”, and “[I’ll] fuck your rack until I penetrate every hole with my massive fist”.

Rose said she and her friends were afraid to tell management about it because they were “pretty concerned about what everyone would think” if the supers got kicked out. “People would’ve been pretty angry. I remember thinking it would be ‘social suicide’ to speak up.” In a separate incident when a student told Redding about the supers’ disturbing behaviour, one super’s response via text message was “Supers are not happy about the way management are running things… they are ruining tradition, which is what Knox is built on.”

She did eventually tell Redding and he gave her the option of leaving it within the college or going to the proctor, “which he said he’d fully support, if I chose that route,” she said. According to Rose, Redding suggested that she could have received more hate than she was already getting if she went to the proctor. Rose felt that going to the proctor could have “resulted in [the supers] being removed from the college,” which would have created “a lot of backlash towards us. Hence him saying I could end up in a worse situation if I did that.” Rose felt that “he thought it might be better to keep things a bit more peaceful,” and keep it within the college.

Rose said “I do get where he was coming from, and [Redding] was always there for us, but reflecting on it he probably should’ve made the decision for us and taken it further.” The students “just ended up on alcohol bans that they didn’t adhere to anyway”.

Rose said Redding was very supportive and did “try his best”. “But he was in a very hard place; if he tried to ban any of the traditions or anything, people got very angry and half of the college would hate him.” When the supers were finally disbanded “all the past supers and their supporters thought Graham was ruining Knox culture,” said Rose.

“He was definitely very aware of the issues,” she said. Rose alleged “Graham said to me once that Knox is a great place but has a sinister underlying culture of sexism, and that he was trying to eradicate it in his five year goals”.

Again, Knox master Graham Redding told Critic he would not comment on individual cases.

The main entrance of Knox College, Dunedin

What is university best practice?

Redding told Critic that the college follows “the same sexual misconduct policy and procedures as the University of Otago.” However, no such policy exists in writing.

Instead, according to a university spokeswoman, the university and the colleges follow a set of procedures outlined in the Discipline Statute and the Student Code of Conduct. This includes the powers of the proctor’s office to investigate a situation, and that of the provost and the vice-chancellor to impose disciplinary measures. The Student Code of Conduct was updated in 2016 to include sexual assault, but no such update has occurred in the Discipline Statute; instead, the spokeswoman said, “sexual assault is referred to as any other sort of misconduct”.

She said a formalised policy document has “been in the making for a number of years,” following on from a review panel in 2016 that consisted of members of police, the university, OUSA, sexual violence survivors and health professionals. The policy is “likely” to be completed and released by the end of the month, said the spokeswoman.

“In the absence of the fact that we don’t have a formalised policy yet,” the university trains halls of residences to follow a “set of procedures” for dealing with sexual violence that includes promptly investigating, and supporting referral to the proctor, police or Te Whare Tāwharau.

The university spokeswoman said “people get hung up on the word ‘policy’, it can be used as a verb as well, not necessarily something in a document”.

In Critic‘s last story, Redding said survivors are presented with a range of options to help them “determine their own needs and how to meet those needs,” and several sources suggested this could sometimes include deciding whether exclusion should be pursued for perpetrators. But a university spokeswoman said that if misconduct had occurred, the university would “never expect” the affected person to “make a determination on a penalty such as exclusion”.

Otago University. Photo: Getty Images.

RAs felt frustrated that uni processes did not stop trauma for students

In 2017, Knox’s submaster (RA) team met with management after they became concerned that their residents felt unsafe with Knox’s culture, and were not speaking up about their experiences because they did not trust that management and submasters would deal with them adequately.

In September 2017, several Knox submasters became alarmed at an apathetic attitude towards management amongst residents. They surveyed around 60 students, most of whom felt mistrustful of management. The survey also uncovered instances of sexual violence and harassment submasters were previously unaware of.

The submasters wrote two letters to management, with the second making several recommendations that included making disciplinary procedures (especially for sexual violence) explicit to students throughout the year so that they knew how their problems would be handled if they had one, having a support person present at meetings with management over concerns, following up with students to see if they were happy with disciplinary measures taken, and allowing them time to deliberate over options.

One submaster said they were disappointed by a lack of follow up when students reported sexual violence. “As the process reached its conclusion, it seemed to stop. For people who found that effective that was fine, but there were people falling through the cracks without other tools available.”

The submasters’ recommendations were discussed in a meeting with management, and Knox master Graham Redding said the letter and meeting with submasters contributed to Knox’s review of its systems and processes in 2017.

“Several changes were implemented for 2018,” including “increased focus in sub-master training on sexual assault and harm related issues and dealing with sensitive matters and establishing a Student Safety Advisory Group for students to discuss safety issues directly with management,” said Redding. Te Whare Tāwharau was involved in training submasters and returners in 2019.

Redding said “encouraging students to have a support person was already our policy at the time. Sometimes that option was not taken by a student, which may have given rise to a perception that the policy was not in place.”

One submaster told Critic they believed “management was doing the best they can and trying to apply best practices from the university guidelines,” but that those rules weren’t adequate even when followed to the letter.

“Uni best practices doesn’t mean the best outcome for all students.”

The submaster said it “upset” them when they followed the uni procedures (designed to help their students) but “trauma was still experienced”. They wanted Knox’s disciplinary procedures and processes to improve to prevent residents “falling through the cracks”.

“Sexual violence is not just a Knox problem, it’s a problem across the university. But, because Knox is non-affiliated and doesn’t necessarily have to apply university guidelines, they could apply whatever they want” and have a better process, they said.

The submaster Critic talked to questioned whether it was in the university’s interest to adequately address sexual harassment. “The uni and colleges have too much skin in the game in terms of addressing sexual violence properly,” they said. They took issue with not being able to refer students to other support outside of the uni, like Rape Crisis. “Third party involvement is a must, because the best interest of the student is always a priority and not subject to other constraints like loss of money or brand image.”

Likewise, it was their view that colleges have little incentive to accurately record and report their sexual violence statistics. “Whoever does best practice finds they have the worst numbers… other colleges can pretend they’re all good while having their fingers in their ears. But this is a systematic issue.”


If you or anyone you know has been affected by sexual violence, support is available:

Rape Crisis

Women’s Refuge

Lifeline

HELP

Dunedin-specific support services:

Te Whare Tāwharau – Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Centre – +64 3 479 3790, or +0800 479 379 or text: +6421 278 3795, email: tewharetawharau@otago.ac.nz or walk-in at 5 Leith Bank, North Dunedin, between 10am and 4pm Monday to Friday during semester

OUSA Student Support, 5 Ethel Benjamin Place. Open 9:00am – 4:30pm, Mon-Fri. 03 479 5449, help@ousa.org.nz

Rape Crisis Dunedin – 03 4741592

Rape Crisis – 0800 883 300 (for support after rape or sexual assault)

Shakti Crisis Line – 0800 742 584 (for migrant or refugee women living with family violence)

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Student Health Otago – 03 479 8212

Mirror Counselling Service (for ages 3 to 19) – 03 479 2970

Thrive Te Pae Ora (for ages 12 to 19) – 0800 292 988


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