Student Life

Harassment in Higher Education


After the bachelor degree, the harassment doesn’t stop. It obeys the same principles but it can take more radical forms, like hazing.

« The harassment also exists of course in higher education » explains Béatrice Copper-Royer, a psychologist specialized in the child and adolescent clinic. « We will never completely prevent humans from either being sadists or victims » adds Patrice Huerre, psychiatrist. « The phenomenon is mainly developed at school and college, because it’s closely linked to this period of life, but it would be wrong to say it doesn’t exist afterwards », continues Béatrice Copper-Royer. « At college, we observe an increase in aggressivity, linked to adolescence, which then diminishes » she explains. It sometimes reappers nevertheless, and often in more extreme forms, which can be the source of hazing. And to precise : « As a general rule, the harassment disappears gradually with age, as young people grow older and become more comfortable in their social relationships. » But not completely.

At the university, the lack of a « class » atmosphere and the impersonality of the place generally protect against harassment.

Students are very numerous, very mixed, you sit wherever you want in the amphitheater… The need to belong to a group and to conform to its rules isn’t really relevant. In prep class and schools, the atmosphere is more propitious.

« The harassment generally targets those outside the group standard » explains Béatrice Copper-Royer. In small classes, 

Where everyone knows each other, there are therefore more opportunities.

Which form does it take ? « It’s not necessarily colourful » explains Catherine Rioult, psychologist and psychoanalyst. « The competition among the students, which can lead to rivalry, sometimes pushes some students to denigrate others, to peddle rumours on the internet ».

« With age, harassment can become more indidious. The actions are less direct, more furtive » she continues. The harasser may be trying to shine, without necessarily wanting to intentionally crush the others. 

Hazing, a form of harassment

Hazing is one of the forms that harassment can take in the world of higher education, as Catherine Rioult explains. Those who inflict it on their classmates would be in the grip of a « last breath of aggression, much more intense », says Béatrice Copper-Royer. Hazing differs from « classic » harassment because of the group effect and its punctual nature. The harassment is diffuse and continuous, and hurts over time the victims. Hazing is punctual, but generally much more violent. In both cases, the same profiles are targeted. « The weakest are identified and targeted » explains Patrice Huerre. On the other side of the fence, harassers and hazing initiators often share the same motivations. « They are often people who don’t have confidence in themselves, and try to boost their self-esteem by attacking people who appear weaker than themselves » explains Catherine Rioult. « Those who have been victims of this type of violence, in their family or somewhere else, are also more inclined to repeat it » testifies Patrice Huerre. « There are also people who are a bit sadistic » he adds.

« In hazing, there is traditionally a ritual that is reproduced, a kind of initiation rite. It’s at the moment when it becomes above all a pleasure for the person who initiates the hazing that we must ask questions ourselves » says Pascale Senk, writer and journalist, specialized in psychological subjects. Overall, students are less affected than younger ones, and more able to defend themselves. « Students manage to take some distance more easily, unlike college students, who are more willing to respond immediately », explains one of the specialists interviewed.

But for those who are still confronted to it, how to react ? Everyone agrees to say it : don’t hesitate to talk.

Freedom of speech

While many students hesitate or refuse to complain, various mechanisms have been put in place to facilitate speaking. Starting with psychologists and crisis units that can be mobilized immediately and at any time on these subjects. While many cases of sexual violence are particularly unclear, some universities, such as the university of California, have tried to define precisely the situations, behaviours or acts that constitute harassment or aggression. One way to help students whether or not to make a complaint.

Many universities then try to make the process easier. At Colgate university, an online form is available to quickly report an incident. At Elon University, a 24-hour hotline is available to allow any student to discuss or report a problem of this kind. At the university of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), an entire team (most of the time professors or administrative officers) has been designated and trained to talk with students who would come forward, to identify distress signals or abusive behaviours. These staff members make themselves available to help the student in any further steps.

For those who hesitate, students can also get access to a « confidential » person (designated as such by the university) who undertakes not to divulgue anything of their conversation without the student’s written consent – unless there is a legal obligation on his or her part. « witnesses » students are also included in these measures : Kansas State University has set up a « silent Witness Program » which allows you to report an aggressor anonymously (by using an online form), via a secured encrypted server.

Training is a central element of prevention policies. Many universities propose courses or seminars around these questions, as well as « self defence » courses for girls. At Elon University, all the new students have to take an online course, called Haven. It covers the ethic of love and sexual relationships, the effects of alcohol or drugs in this area, consent, and it covers some ideas received on the question.

Other universities, such as Dayton (Ohio) or the university of Virginia, have set up a program of courses, proposed by the Green Dot association, which sensitizes the students of their « witness » status and help young people to talk to a friend who would have crossed the white line. 

Furthermore, these last months, many states (New York, California…) have adopted laws (often mocked) named « Yes means yes », which target the students. These texts aim to introduce the notion of direct consent between two persons before any sexual relation. These texts are progressively being adopted by different universities beyond these states, and are giving rise to communication campaigns. The idea : encouraging students to take a step back and check that the partner is willing to engage in a sexual intercourse.

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Latoya Adams

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