There have been a number of developments in support for third-level students who have experienced bullying or harassment on campus in recent years. With the return of in-person teaching, temporarily isolated college and university communities have resumed interaction, and some negative experiences may have come with it.
In an attempt to combat any environment of bullying that may be facilitated on university campuses, the Speak Out tool was launched in October 2021 by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris. The tool is available for higher education institutions across the country, and works with the aim of collecting reports of bullying to inform policy and shape third-level initiatives, as well as signposting supports for students experiencing bullying or harassment. The tool is available for students and university staff members to report any instances of bullying, harassment, discrimination or violence completely anonymously.
Speak Out provides information relating to a range of options in dealing with incidents of bullying
During the launch of Speak Out in October of last year, Simon Harris stated that “the creation of this innovative and supportive online platform will provide a safe and anonymous medium for students and staff to report incidents of bullying, assault or sexual violence in a trauma-informed environment.” This means students can report their individual instances or incidents, and by doing so contribute to the overall improvement of third-level anti-bullying initiatives and policies across the country. Harris continued, saying: “Speak Out represents a national approach to tackling these issues by raising awareness, and by providing a means of recording instances, which will assist in achieving a zero-tolerance culture.”
Speak Out is supported by various organisations including the Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland (PCHEI), the HEA Centre of Excellence for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, and is receiving funding from the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. It has also gained support from the Union of Students Ireland (USI), as Vice President for Welfare, Somhairle Brennan, said that, “having as much knowledge as possible is vital and the data we will get from [Speak Out] will be incredibly useful in directing the supports we provide for students in the future.”
Trinity College Dublin is one of the eighteen higher education institutions to opt into the Speak Out scheme. Students, staff, and visitors can make a report to Speak Out directly through tcd.ie, and the website states that “Speak Out allows the University to direct you to helpful supports and provides information relating to a range of options that can assist you in dealing with incidents of bullying, harassment and/or sexual misconduct in nature.”
Offering the informal, confidential method of reporting can allow students to take action that is mindful of their healing process
Speaking to Trinity News, TCDSU Welfare and Equality Officer, Chloe Staunton commented that “Trinity Speak Out was designed with a dual purpose in mind. Firstly, it aims to raise awareness about Trinity’s Dignity and Respect Policy and the supports available to affected students. Secondly, the anonymous reports submitted through the Speak Out tool are used to shape improvements in the supports College provides.” She explains how vital services like these are in a university environment: “Bullying and harassment can be a traumatising experience for students. When dealing with the aftermath, reporting formally may not be a viable option. Offering the informal, confidential method of reporting can allow students to take action that is mindful of their healing process.”
the tool cannot gain feedback from students as to whether their experience has improved. Students may be hesitant to use the tool because of this, and opt for services where they can gain a one-on-one conversation and interactive support, which Speak Out only signposts
The introduction of Speak Out in higher level institutions is undoubtedly positive, as it provides data to both the university and organisations that have the power to change policy in the long run. However, on a case-by-case basis, it may seem slightly impersonal for students experiencing bullying or harassment. Chairperson of the PCHEI, Gertie Raftery, notes that Speak Out provides “bespoke signposting to trauma-informed supports”, but the main function of the tool appears to be long-term improvement, rather than dealing with bullying on a case-by-case basis. While overall, this is positive, as it will foster environments that discourage negative behaviour, it may be overlooking immediate student requirements.
The anonymity of the service can appear to add to students’ hesitation to use Speak Out. As the report is made to Speak Out completely anonymously, students must follow the support suggested by Speak Out to see any individual improvement. As well as this, the tool cannot gain feedback from students as to whether their experience has improved. Students may be hesitant to use the tool because of this, and opt for services where they can gain a one-on-one conversation and interactive support, which Speak Out only signposts.
This kind of support can be seen in University College Dublin’s new Report and Support Tool, a similar model to Speak Out tailored directly to UCD staff and students. Launched in 2020, as noted on their website, this tool “collects information about incidents of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct and the University will use this information to inform the development and delivery of activities aimed at raising awareness about Dignity and Respect at UCD and the Bullying and Harassment Policy and Sexual Misconduct Policy in support of eliminating bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct.”
Speaking to Trinity News, UCD Student Union President Molly Greenough stated that “UCD’s Anonymous Report and Support Tool is one arm of the University’s approach to combatting bullying, harassment, and sexual misconduct. The Report and Support Tool is incredibly important in terms of collecting data, and in my view, might be a more comfortable first step for staff or students to take if they don’t feel ready to make a full disclosure.” She continues to note that the tool can be used by bystanders of bullying or harassment, so that the University can be made aware of incidents even if the victim is uncomfortable with coming forward.
Greenough notes that developments are continuously being made to the tool, and that it “will be updated this year to include an option to be contacted by a member of the Dignity and Respect Support Service if the person would like to discuss the issue further.” If the complainant wishes to reach out and have a one-on-one conversation with a support service, this is directly available, but “there are no updates provided to complainants under the Anonymous Support and Report Tool, as it’s used for primary data collection.”
The framework for this tool mirrors Speak Out in many ways, but by creating a UCD-centric model, the service is able to offer students specific resources and make them aware of available options moving forward, including making a formal complaint to the university. Speaking on the new UCD Dignity and Respect Support Service that was launched in November 2021, Greenough notes how this works in tandem with Report and Support in UCD: “there is a team of Dignity and Respect Support Advisers to provide both students and staff with proactive, confidential support and outline the steps for informal or formal resolutions.”
These two tools work together to cater directly for a student’s immediate needs, and foster a wider environment that discourages and condemns bullying. Greenough continues; “The landscape of dignity and respect has really changed throughout my time in the university, and there was never such an acute emphasis on developing a culture of calling out inappropriate and unwelcome behaviour, nor such clear avenues to make complaints. Deeper societal and cultural change won’t be achieved overnight, but in my view, the steps UCD have taken are certainly moving the institution along in the right direction.”
UCD’s Report and Support tool and the Speak Out initiative are similar in many ways. They both provide a platform for students to safely and anonymously report incidents of discomfort they have experienced on campus and work towards positive and productive change to policies in order to prevent a continued environment of bullying around third-level institutions.
UCD’s Report and Support can provide bespoke changes as they hear reports that affect UCD students specifically, and therefore the change made is catered specifically to UCD staff and student experiences
The Speak Out tool can be seen to be more beneficial due to its government backing and its support by many important bodies. This facilitates conscious change countrywide and has the power and funding to make this change. However, UCD’s Report and Support can provide bespoke changes as they hear reports that affect UCD students specifically, and therefore the change made is catered specifically to UCD staff and student experiences. Along with its Dignity and Respect Support Tool, UCD staff and students can, if they choose to, receive immediate supports and resolutions, while also contributing to positive change in their university.
The plethora of initiatives and support systems that have been introduced across third-level institutions help to foster safer and more comfortable environments for higher education students and staff. Both the nationwide Speak Out tool and UCD’s individual supports and systems work towards an ideal university environment, and thus both can be celebrated as a positive step.
TCD Students should know that if they experience any form of harassment or assault that there are numerous supports available for them, including the TCDSU Welfare & Equality Officer ([email protected]), Student Counselling Service (student_counsell[email protected]) and the Junior Dean’s Office ([email protected]).