VC Desk: Council ratifies DISCHO review recommendations
Released: 16h15, 5 April 2016

05 April 2016 | Story by Newsroom

5 April 2016

Dear colleagues and students,

UCT Council has received the report of the review of DISCHO (Discrimination and Harassment Office) which it requested be undertaken following criticism last year that DISCHO was not being fully effective in addressing issues of sexual violence and harassment on campus.

Read the full reports

Review process

Since its establishment in 2001, DISCHO has been the first port of call for staff and students who experience any form of discrimination and harassment. The unit primarily advises and supports the university community on all matters related to sexual and racial discrimination, sexual harassment, harassment, gender-based violence, and rape.

Towards the end of last year the Review Panel, chaired by Associate Professor Sally Swartz, undertook a comprehensive review of the unit to see if the DISCHO services were in line with UCT approved policies, to identify whether there were areas for improvement, and to feedback to Council on its findings.

Feedback was obtained from staff and students during wide-ranging consultations and the review process included both in-depth interviews and surveys.

Council agreed to management's recommendations regarding a number of immediate interventions (these are elaborated below). Management also indicated that there would probably be a more substantial restructuring of DISCHO and its incorporation into a new unit that was being contemplated arising out of a review of the Transformation Services Office (TSO) which also includes the disabilities services, employment equity functions, and the HIV/AIDS, Inclusivity and Change Unit (HAICU). However, since the TSO Review has not yet been signed off, the recommendations around restructuring are not yet finalised.

Key recommendation from Review Panel follow with Management's response in italics
(Please see Management's response for the full list of 18 recommendations)

  1. The Review Panel found that the sexual and racial harassment policies had not been reviewed for many years and needed review. It also recommended the development of policies on gender, bullying, and general harassment.

    This will be initiated immediately to be completed in 6 months.
  2. Although the policies on racism, on racial harassment and on sexual harassment assign proactive responsibility to managers, the Panel found there was a “worrying lack of awareness by the majority of managers about their responsibilities with regard to the policies” and called for training of line managers to ensure appropriate referral, institutional support for complainants, and timely intervention when complaints are made.

    We will develop a training programme for line managers which will begin within the next 3 months, and will be run monthly to enable a large proportion of line managers to get up to speed by the end of 2016. Special training will be arranged for wardens, and student affairs.
  3. The Panel found there was some lack of clarity of the responsibilities of DISCHO in relation to other structures, both within the TSO and outside it – such as the Ombud, the Registrar's office and HR. The Panel called for a reappraisal of its current structure and operations, including consideration of its appropriate physical location, and call for the work of DISCHO to be more integrated with other structures that deal with harassment and assault, such as the departments responsible for student and staff disciplinary processes, staff training, student leadership training, residence wardens, and recommended that there be regular liaison structures to follow up cases.

    The executive supports the review panel's call for an urgent review of the formal and informal complaints processes for both students and staff and once clarified, these need to be transparent in the policies, communications to complainants, and publicised through an effective and ongoing communications strategy.

    The executive will immediately implement monthly liaison meetings to ensure follow up of cases and will review the structure and relationships with other departments as soon as the Transformation Services Office review is completed.
  4. The Review Panel found that there was a perception amongst some users of DISCHO services and also amongst potential users, that DISCHO prefers mediation as the mechanism for addressing harassment and assault complaints, and that it discouraged complainants from pursuing the formal disciplinary route. It also found that users had a perception that informal options necessarily limited other options, and could only lead to an apology. DISCHO staff strongly disputed this finding – they argued they did not push mediation and provided support for complainants wishing to follow the formal disciplinary routes, and emphasized that this was always the choice of the parties.

    Regardless of how DISCHO actually influences complainants' decisions, there is a perception within the student body that the University, influenced by DISCHO, does not pursue disciplinary processes as often as it should and that perpetrators of harassment and assault are not adequately sanctioned. This may contribute to an apparent reluctance to use DISCHO services. The review of policies and practices will address this, as will the new communication strategy and training. There may also be a need to separate the general mediation services and training, for which DISCHO has become widely recognised as a leader nationally, from the harassment and assault advisory services since the former may be creating a sense amongst complainants that DISCHO expects them to follow the mediation route.
  5. The Review Panel, strongly supported by DISCHO, argues that it is not adequately resourced to fulfil its functions.

    The New Unit will be appropriately resourced within the current budget constraints. It is expected that the merging of DISCHO and HAICU will allow aggregate resources to be more appropriately allocated to areas of greatest need.
  6. The Review Panel proposed a review of what kinds of information must be kept strictly confidential, and what must be reported (currently nothing that identifies individuals is reported). The Panel argues that there must be protocols in place to ensure that referring parties (such as HR practitioners, unions, wardens), as well as staff responsible for risk management (such as Employee Relations in HR) have sufficient information about cases to contain, advise, make informed judgements, and intervene when needed.

    VCMAG supports the recommendation of developing a protocol to deal with confidentiality which respects the ethical imperative, but also provides sufficient information to intervene when required. Such a protocol will be developed over the next 3 months.
  7. The Review Panel argued that senior management does not take seriously enough its responsibility to monitor and promote DISCHO services and activities.

    Although DISCHO regularly and routinely reports on statistics of the office to Council, and there are also monthly meetings between the unit and the DVC (Transformation), there are currently no reports to IF and Senate, and the reports to Council do not give a comprehensive overview of DISCHO services. This will be addressed immediately.

The call from students in particular for a vastly more responsive student-centred unit has been heard. We acknowledge that sexual violence, rape, sexual harassment, racism and other forms of discrimination are common and systemic in society in general. The new unit must play a hands-on role in the strategic and operational delivery to raise awareness and educate around the issues of harassment and sexual assault and rape; give guidance and active support to students and staff who experience any form of violence or harassment; and offer mediation where appropriate. It must follow up all cases, and report regularly on the full scope of its activities. The new unit must also be better placed to inspire confidence amongst the LGBTQIA+ community that it is properly sensitive to, and experienced in dealing with the harassment and assault issues as they affect LGBTQIA+ clients. The new unit must be an active home and promoter of social justice on campus.

We have already made progress in this area in the recent setting up of the Sexual Assault Response Team and we have made a 24 hour service available to all students that may experience distress or trauma. Students can access a counsellor by calling the National Student Helpline* on the following toll free number: 0800 41 42 43.
I request staff and students to make these numbers visible and available within the UCT and residence corridors. This increases awareness and discussions around these issues.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Max Price

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