It is axiomatic that the safe toy-town image for which St Andrews is famed is by and large an accurate one. Tales of robbery, burglary and violent crime from such far-flung universities as Manchester, Leeds and other major cities are comforting reminders that ensconced in our bubble, we are safe, severed from the outside world and impervious to its many malaises.
Indeed, as The Saint reported in 2013, the St Andrews can claim to be the 21st safest university in the UK, recording an average of 1.5 violent crimes per 1,000 St Andrews residents and from May 2012 to April 2013, only 17 burglaries were recorded.
Belongings are blithely left unattended in the library, front doors are often unlocked and the thought of concealing that iPod or expensive phone seldom crosses students’ minds.
It is within that context that the recent conviction of a former astronomy PhD student for sexually assaulting two women sent shockwaves through St Andrews and popped our once impenetrable bubble.
It is no coincidence then that just weeks after the conviction of Pasquale Galianni, the University quietly scrapped its entire policy on sexual assault and now claims to be consulting with police before issuing a brand new policy in the near future.
Indeed, the University’s advice on sexual assault currently amounts to a brief, but direct, “Further information will be available shortly,” before advising those wanting help to get in touch with Student Services.
Dr Christine Lusk, director of Student Services, talks of “overdriving and overhauling” the current protocol. So drastic are the changes that the University, in an attempt to justify the complete lack of information and advice on their website, said: “Allowing outdated content to remain online would simply risk confusion and undermine our commitment to providing the clearest possible information to the students who need it most.”
Scythe your way through the thicket of PR jargon and you discover a serious problem with a University policy that is evidently inadequate.
It is commendable that the University is seeking to address the issue, but it is long overdue.
In February 2011, a sexual assault outside University Hall sparked a Fife police initiative that saw officers patrol the streets of St Andrews late at night. The then Union president, Patrick O’Hare, warned that sexual assault “happen[s] a lot more than people think. I don’t want to scaremonger, but things like sexual assault and drink spiking do go on here,” he cautioned.
Fast forward a year and in a Saint survey of 487 students, over a third of respondents said they knew of incidents of sexual harassment at St Andrews, while just over 20 per cent said they themselves had been harassed.
Amanda Litherland, then director of representation, echoed Mr O’Hare’s warning. “I think sexual harassment is more of a problem in St Andrews than many people appreciate,” she said.
In April of last year, two women were sexually assaulted. The proctor, Professor Lorna Milne, seeking to avoid panic, commented: “Whilst we do not wish to cause unnecessary alarm, we are issuing this reminder to everyone to keep yourself – and each other – safe.”
Our community is generally a safe and secure one. Yet the University’s overhaul of their sexual assault policy is as much an admission that greater efforts are needed to combat it, as it is a warning to its students. It is one we should heed.