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Managing a Disclosure

Supporting Disclosures of Sexual Misconduct

The University has a duty to provide neutral and balanced support to all students, whether the student is reporting an allegation of misconduct or responding to an any allegation. It is possible that a student will choose to disclose an incident of sexual misconduct to any staff member. It is likely the student has chosen a particular person because they know them and feel they can trust them. A disclosure will be unique to each student’s situation and it is important to remain calm, reassure the student, assess the situation/risk, listen to their story and provide support and options. Sexual Misconduct can be experienced by anyone. It is crucial the staff member creates a safe space and that the student is aware of their options so they can make an informed choice. Remind the student of the limits of confidentiality and your possible legal obligations. 

University Commitment

Queen’s University is committed to providing a safe environment conducive to the academic, social and personal development of all members of the University. The University will take all reasonable steps to provide a safe environment for all students, staff and visitors to the University. This principle applies to all members of the University. The University regards as unacceptable any form of sexual misconduct and operates a zero tolerance policy with regard to sexual misconduct. 

Definition of Sexual Misconduct

Sexual misconduct means any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature that is committed without consent or by force, intimidation or coercion. Sexual misconduct can be committed by a person of any gender and it can occur between people of the same or different gender. Such behaviour will usually also constitute a criminal offence. Sexual misconduct may be committed in person and also by letter, email, text or by postings on social media sites. Examples of sexual misconduct can include sexual intercourse or engaging in a sexual act without consent, attempting to engage in sexual intercourse or a sexual act without consent, sharing private sexual material of another person without consent, kissing without consent, touching inappropriately without consent, inappropriately showing sexual organs to another person, making unwanted remarks, suggestive sounds or gestures of a sexual nature, spreading rumours about another person’s sexuality, name-calling or jokes about sex or gender and visual displays of posters, graffiti, videos, pictures or other offensive material. These examples are neither exclusive nor exhaustive and other forms of behaviour may be regarded as sexual misconduct. It is likely these examples will constitute a criminal offence. 

Managing a Disclosure

If someone has told you about something that happened to them, we can help advise you on how best to support them, and how to decide what is the best course of action to take.

Give them control

Sexual violence is about power and control, so it is important to give the person making the disclosure as much choice as possible.

Listen without judging

Give the person your full attention without giving your opinions.

Believe them

Believing the person is really important for their recovery. Remember the blame always lies with the perpetrator.

Don't ask too many questions

Try not to ask too many questions, especially leading ones. Try to stick to just the facts.

Acknowledge how they are feeling

Everyone will react in different ways, so explain that it is okay to feel this way right now.

Offer support

Let them know about Support Services and agree a plan. Don't make false promises, and agree to check in with them soon.

The 'Student' Checklist

S Safety
T Timeline
U Understand Disclosure
D Discuss confidentiality
E Empathy
N Non-judgemental
T Take notes
S Support options

Guidance Notes

  • 1. Definitions
    • Reporting Student - The person who is alleging, in good faith and in compliance with University policies, the occurrence of a breach of the Student Conduct Regulations and/or the law. (Appendix 3) 
    • Responding Student -The person whose actions are alleged to have breached the Student Conduct Regulations and/or the law. (Appendix 3) 
  • 2. Clarity about your role

    Explain at the outset the parameters of your role – that you can listen, provide information and practical support and will assist the student in obtaining specialist assistance from internal and external sources. 

  • 3. Privacy

    Ensure a private, quiet space is available for discussion and the student is comfortable, feels safe and is able to speak freely without interruption. 

  • 4. Confidentiality

    Ensure you explain this is a confidential process, though there may be circumstances where it may be necessary for you to share information without their consent:

    • If there is a known risk of harm to them or to others.
    • There are safeguarding concerns i.e. student is under 18 years old.
    • If there is a legal obligation to disclose any detailed information. The Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 states that it is the duty of a person who is aware of an offence to report it to PSNI. Therefore at this stage, inform the student that if they disclose any identifiable information you may have to report this.

    Once you have clarified the bounds of confidentiality, you can discuss the following:

    • That the student can choose to disclose as much information as they wish to.
    • Explain that there is an online reporting system and that you can support them to complete a report.
    • The University will keep this information while they remain a student at QUB.
    • Information may be shared internally in line with the University’s Privacy Notice.
  • 5. Key questions for the reporting student

    Ensure the following key questions are explored during the discussion: 

    • What form of sexual misconduct are they experiencing / have they experienced? 
    • When did the incident take place? Is it recent or historic? 
    • Have they told anyone else about this? 
    • Do they feel safe right now? If not, your response should be considered in line with the Support Pathway and the Referral Pathway Flowchart (see below).
    • Do they require immediate medical assistance? If so, your response should be considered in line the Referral Pathway Flowchart seeking medical help as a priority. 
    • Have they or do they wish to report their experiences to the Police? It is important to confirm there is no obligation to do so and to not put pressure on the student to take any particular course of action. The student should be provided with a copy of the Internal and External support contact details, which provides details of available support to report experiences. 
  • 6. Key questions for the responding student

    Ensure the following key questions are explored during the discussion: 

    • When did the incident take place? Is it recent or historic? 
    • Have they told anyone else about this? 
    • Do they feel safe right now? If not, your response should be considered in line with the Support Pathway (Appendix 1b) and the Referral Pathway Flowchart (Appendix 2).
    • The student should be provided with a copy of the Internal and External support contact details, which provides information on available assistance. (Appendix 4).
    • What do they need from you at this moment? 
  • 7. Safety

    The safety of the student is paramount. Assess that the student is safe and whether they require any immediate medical attention. If the alleged perpetrator is still in the vicinity, please notify either the Police on 999 or QUB Security on 5099. If the student requires emergency medical aid please call 999 for an Ambulance. If there is no immediate risk DO NOT call emergency Services without the students consent. 

    If the student does not feel safe in their accommodation, emergency shelter can be provided by either contacting Women’s Aid or QUB accommodation. The University has a range of properties across campus and the student can move location if necessary. The student can also access medical attention from the Rowan Centre (Sexual Assault Referral Centre), from any Sexual Health Clinic or from their GP. Please refer to the Internal and External Support for contact details. 

    Examples of helpful statements might include:

    • “Do you feel safe right now?”
    • “Can I ask if you need any medical treatment?”
    • “Would you be open to getting further support?”
  • 8. Give the student control

    Recognise that those who have been the vicitim of sexual misconduct often feel that they have lost the control to make choices about their situation and/or feel powerless. It is therefore really important that the student should feel in control of what happens after their disclosure is made. Within the bounds of confidentiality, they should be given the opportunity and support to develop their own thoughts, explore options and make their own informed decisions about the next steps. Use invitations as a way of exploring with the student what their wishes are. 

    Confirm (where possible) the level of risk faced by the student. Helpful questions include:

    • “Are you feeling frightened right now?”
    • “Can I just ask what it is you are afraid of?” 

    As well as ensuring the student has consented and are aware of what they have consented to, it is also advisable to explain to the student that they can withdraw their consent at any stage. 

    Helpful questions include:

    • “Can I just check that you are happy for me to pass this information onto ______?”
    • “Can I just clarify what we have agreed as the next steps?” 
  • 9. Sensitivity

    Respond to a disclosure in a sensitive, empathetic and non-judgemental manner. Thank the student for feeling able to share sensitive information and reassure them that you will help them. Recognise the barriers to disclosure such as fear, embarrassment or feelings of shame or blame. 

    Allow time and space for them to talk and use basic communication skills such as open body language, active listening and attending. Try not to interrupt their flow but occasionally use paraphrasing or open questions to clarify their story. 

    The student may be in a distressed state, they could be confused and find it difficult to recall information. Try not to use sympathetic language or ask leading questions, it is not your role to investigate this incident but to gather the facts and reassure the student of the support available. 

    Please note: It is advisable not to touch a reporting student as this can be traumatic for a survivor of sexual assault and you could also transfer DNA. 

    It is appropriate to use silence as a communication tool, in order to give them time to reflect and recount information. Grounding techniques such as getting the student to take deep breaths or to count backwards from 10 to 1 may be helpful in order to get them centred. 

    Examples of empathetic language include:

    • “Thank you for coming along. How can I help?”
    • “Take your time-you only have to tell me what you feel comfortable telling me and you can stop at any time.”
    • “I understand this can be difficult to talk about.”
  • 10. Timeline

    When supporting a Reporting student it is important to clarify when the incident took place, If the incident has taken place within the past 7 days, advise that eating, drinking, teeth brushing, smoking, and showering can impact on forensic evidence being gathered. It is likely that they may have done some of these things already, so therefore reassure that this is a natural response to the trauma experienced. 

    Explain that DNA can remain on clothing indefinitely and therefore if they wish to preserve evidence, they could put the clothing into a clean plastic bag and seal it with the date and time recorded. 

    There is also a window of opportunity for any medications to be administered. For emergency contraception should be started ASAP and within 72 hours. HIV prophylaxis should be started within 36 hours. If there is a suspicion that drugs were issued as part of an assault, it is best to be tested within 24 hours. 

    Useful responses could be: 

    • “Can I ask when this first happened?” 

    When supporting a Responding student it is important to clarify when the incident occurred and if the Police are aware of the incident. If there is an ongoing Police Investigation explain to the student that you are not able to go into details of the case for prejudicial reasons. If the Police are not aware of the incident, explain to the student your duty to report a known crime before they go into detail. It might be useful at this stage to inform the student of the University processes such as the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy and the Conduct Regulations. Advise them of their rights and you can signpost the student to SU Advice or Student Wellbeing for further support. 

    Useful statements could be:

    • “The University has a duty to support students who have been accused of Sexual Misconduct and I will assist you to get the appropriate information and support.” 
  • 11. Reporting a disclosure

    It is important to explain to the student the difference between a disclosure and a report and for them to be aware of the processes so they can make an informed decision. 

    A disclosure is a conversation about an incident by telling either the University or Police about their experience without wanting to pursue any further action. The University will record this information accordingly, in line with data protection. 

    A report is a formal record of the incident by raising a complaint to either the University and/or Police, whereby the student wishes for the matter to be investigated and possible action taken against the accused. If the student makes a report to Police this will take precedence over a University investigation. If the student wishes to make a report to Police, advise that any subsequent discussion is stopped and that the student is enabled to contact Police directly. If the student wishes to report to University, make the student aware of Referral Pathway and the subsequent processes involved. Please refer to the Sexual Misconduct Policy, the Anti-Bullying and Harassment Policy and the Student Complaints Procedure for further information. If the student makes an allegation of sexual misconduct against a member of staff the Staff Disciplinary Procedure may be invoked. 

    Explain to the reporting student there is no time limit to reporting an incident of sexual misconduct to the Police and they can do this at any stage. 

    If the reporting student does not wish to report to Police at this stage, they can still attend the Rowan Centre (Sexual Assault Referral Centre) and give anonymous details.  The SARC will be able to provide emergency medical help such as contraception and medication to prevent STIs and HIV. The Rowan can also gather and store forensic evidence for up to 7 years should the student decide at a later date to proceed with a report to the police.

    If you receive a disclosure from a responding student regarding an allegation of Sexual Misconduct it is important to check with the student who else is aware of this. You can advise the student that it is a requirement within the Conduct Regulations for students to inform the University if they have been accused of a serious crime, so that measures can be put in place to protect everyone’s safety.
    Useful statements could be:
    • Have you thought about what you might want to do about this?
    • Would it be helpful if I talked through the options with you?
  • 12. Impact of sexual misconduct

    Sexual misconduct can impact people in many different forms and is individual to each survivor. It is important to also recognise that traumatic symptoms can be indicative of other underlying health issues.  As a guide some of the symptoms may include being withdrawn, poor academic performance, losing interest in activities, difficulties with concentration and memory, absenteeism, visible bruising or injuries, agitation or nervousness and notable weight gain/loss. Feelings of blame, shame and guilt are very common in this situation.

    Responding students who are accused of sexual misconduct may also experience similar symptoms and their wellbeing is paramount. If you have any concerns that the student is at risk, please refer to the Student Support Protocol and contact Student Wellbeing Service for advice and guidance.

  • 13. Support options
    There are a range of support options for students both internally to the University and externally in the community. Please refer to the Internal & External Support Tables (see below) for the most appropriate support option.
  • 14. Self-care

    Receiving a disclosure from a distressed student can be difficult and is important that you look after yourself, this could involve speaking to a person either within your team, Student Wellbeing or accessing specialist support such as the staff counselling service via Inspire.

    It is good practice to maintain professional boundaries and not to become emotionally involved. Finally there is responsibility on the First Responder to look at appropriate self-care strategies such as debriefing to a colleague, Student Wellbeing or accessing the Staff Counselling Service. Participating in creative activities such as art, music, cooking and exercise may also be beneficial.
Support and Referral Pathways
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