The SVLO (Sexual Violence Liaison Officer) Model:  Ensuring universities can respond to disclosure of sexual violence

Last week saw LimeCulture, the UK’s leading sexual violence training and development organisation, launch its new accredited course for key university staff, the Sexual Violence Liaison Officer (SVLO) Development Programme. The 2 modular course that is taught over two 3-day blocks, has been filled with a range of university-staff who have been selected by their universities to become their key representatives in responding to disclosures of sexual violence.

This new course provides university staff members with enhanced awareness and understanding of sexual violence, including understanding the impact and needs of victims, how to work in partnership with other agencies involved (including the police) and how and when to make referrals to external support services. The course also focuses on the legal implications of sexual violence and the court process, including internal investigations and what is required from the university. The course is available to staff-members from all universities and HEIs in the UK.

LimeCulture has been commissioned by the University of Greenwich and Keele University to support them to develop their institution-wide sexual violence strategies. The work that LimeCulture has been doing separately with the two universities, has lead LimeCulture to believe that developing a Sexual Violence Liaison Officer (SVLO) Model across all Universities is the most effective way of responding effectively to sexual violence in the university context.

The challenges for Universities in responding to sexual violence are multiple.  They are often very large organisations, made up of lots of different departments – or even entirely separate colleges –  who are responsible for and have a duty of care towards all of their staff and students  whose number could run into tens of thousands’ explains Kim Doyle, LimeCulture’s joint CEO whose portfolio of work has focused on university responses for the last few years.  “It’s extremely difficult for a single University to keep track of how many disclosures of sexual violence are being made across their institute.  How can they? A disclosure could be made to many different people within a single university…a trusted tutor, a supportive lecturer, student services, HR, a counsellor, an NUS officer, the list goes on. There are so many staff within a single university that could come into contact with a fellow staff member or student that has experienced sexual violence that it’s really difficult for them to make sure that the response that is given to that disclosure and the subsequent support of the student is appropriate’.

However, it is clear that each University has a responsibility to their staff and their students to respond appropriately to any disclosure of sexual violence. Over and above supporting a victim in relation to their educational needs, a university will also need to consider the wider support needs of a victim/survivor following a sexual assault. This might include access to a forensic medical examination, psychological therapies and mental health support or, indeed, sexual health services. It could also include a police investigation and potentially a court case as well as internal disciplinary proceedings.

Importantly, each university will need to ensure that they have acted appropriately and their involvement has not done anything to undermine a criminal prosecution or contaminate evidence relating to the sexual offence in the event that the student wants to report the matter to the police at any point either now or in the future. Furthermore, staff could potentially be called as witnesses in a trial, so robust record keeping will need to be in place to account for any involvement the university has had in relation to a sexual assault.

In addition to their victim-care responsibilities, all universities will also have to consider their responsibilities for any staff or student member who is accused of committing a sexual assault. This may involve carrying out an investigation internally, it might mean implementing polices and procedures to remove or suspend the accused and could include reviewing whether the university could have done anything to prevent the assault by way of safeguarding.

‘The extent of a university’s responsibility is significant and extremely complex. Coupled with the current increased focus on tackling sexual violence in universities, the stakes for institutions to get their responses right could not be higher’ explains Kim. The added difficulty for a university is that the needs of somebody who has experienced sexual violence can be multiple. People do not respond in the same way to sexual violence and this makes it virtually impossible to plan a response’.

However, what is clear, is that the needs of victims/survivors are likely to be wide ranging. ‘In addition to their educational needs, they may need to change accommodation, they may need time off from their studies. They may also have mental health needs, physical health needs, sexual health needs. They may wish to report their experience to the police, which could end up in a lengthy investigation. They may end up in court, giving evidence in a trial against their perpetrator. They are very likely to need support from professionals or local support services’. Adds Bernie Ryan, LimeCulture’s Training and Development Manager.Its seems to me that even if a university provided all it’s staff members with basic awareness training around sexual violence, it is still virtually impossible for a university to guarantee that all of their staff members could respond appropriately and ensure that a victim/survivor’s needs are being met’.

 It is the complexity around this area that has led LimeCulture – and the universities that they have been working with – to realise that they simply cannot expect all their staff to get this right, even if they do provide them with awareness training. ‘It’s just too hard and too complicated to expect everyone to understand all of the issues, challenges, varying needs and complexities that surround sexual violence. It is so important that the response is appropriate, we just shouldn’t be taking the risk of expecting everyone to know how to deal with these disclosures sensitively and professionally’ explains Bernie.

When asked what they think the solution might be for Universities who are trying their best to implement responses, both Kim and Bernie are clear.It seems obvious that a university’s best solution would be to remove the risk of inappropriate responses – or at least reduce the risk that the wrong thing is said or incorrect advice offered to somebody who has experienced sexual violence’ suggests Kim.

 ‘The answer in our view is to identify a number of key staff within the university, train them to ensure that they have the specific skills to be competent and confident to respond to any disclosure of sexual violence, regardless of who is making that disclosure – or when or where the incident occurred’ explains Bernie. ‘Creation of specialism within a number of key staff, will ensure that those seeking support are offered the correct advice and response on behalf of the university. It also means that it’s easier for people who have experienced sexual violence to know where they can go within the university to access support, advise or assistance. We see this role as acting as a conduit for students who want to access services outside the university but also for those services to have a clear route into the university’.

 Bernie goes on to explain ‘Sometimes the hardest thing for somebody who has experienced sexual violence is telling another person about their abuse. They often feel guilt or shame about their experience or they might be worried that they won’t be believed.  These feelings all contribute to the barriers that stop them coming forward. If we make it clear to everyone within the university that there are specially trained people who will listen to you, offer you advise and can support you if you have experienced sexual violence, then we begin to remove – or at least begin to break down – some of those barriers’. Many students will wish to approach someone trusted in the university in the first instance so that they can be supported with university specific issues such as interruption to studies or accommodation implications. The SVLO can provide information and signposting to specialist services meaning that the victim/survivor is not required to navigate this for themselves.

Importantly, Universities UK also agree with LimeCulture about this model, and in their recently published report of the Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students ‘Changing the Culture’, UUK are clear that ‘an effective response should involve the identification and up-skilling of specialist staff within the university to act as key people (Sexual Violence Liaison Officers) who will manage the response to a reported incident of sexual violence affecting a student within the university’.

 ‘The role of the SVLO is to assist the victim/survivor access the support they need following a sexual assault. An SVLO can explain their options about reporting, without putting any judgment or pressure on that person. They can assist them to seek or access specialist support services, health care or forensic services. Crucially, the SVLO can take on the role of a single point of contact within the university for that student or staff member’ explains Kim. ‘The SVLO will be responsible for making sure that the University has done all it should in ensuring the needs of the victim/survivor has been met, and are in line with the university policy around such cases’.

 What about where a student still goes to their lecturer or that trusted tutor to disclose their experience of sexual violence, rather than an SVLO?That is fine. The SVLO model does not prevent a disclosure to that lecturer, or trusted tutor. If somebody has decided that they are ready to disclose sexual violence, they should not be shut down or stopped from doing that. On the contrary, the SVLO model means that the untrained staff member can assist the victim/survivor to seek specialist support from the SVLOs, and thus reduce the risk of inappropriate responses’ explains Bernie.  ‘The important thing about the SVLO model is that by having identified key people with the knowledge and skills within the university, they can also support other staff members by ensuring disclosures of sexual violence are not being handled in isolation of the university. That lecturer or trusted tutor can be supported by the SVLO to ensure that their response is line with what the university expects and in line with the University’s sexual violence policy’.

LimeCulture is aware that some universities have considered whether they should fund local specialist sexual violence services to provide dedicated staff to work specifically on cases of sexual violence that occur within the university community. ‘In our view, this is not the answer. It is important not to re-create what already exists in the community for victims of sexual violence’ explains Kim.Students or staff of universities who have experienced sexual violence should not be seen as special or different. This will just perpetuate the barriers and stigma’

 LimeCulture is of the view that instead, it is important to enable students or staff to access specialist support where it exists in the community, rather than trying to move elements of specialist services into the university.Creating a single post for a university of up to 40,000 students, is not the answerexplains Kim Doyle. ‘Specialist staff need to sit within the governance and accountability arrangements of their own organisations, so there are a number of things wrong with this idea. Furthermore, Universities should not be regarded as commissioners of specialist sexual violence services – just because they acknowledge the need to support their staff or students who have experienced sexual violence – nor should we be creating two-tier systems for university members and the rest of the community’.

In LimeCulture’s view, although it must be acknowledged that students may have differing or additional needs by virtue of the fact that they belong to a university,the focus should be on the university’s responsibility to respond to the individual needs of the victim/survivor and ensure that they are being met as effectively as possible.  Where that need can be met by local police, a local SARC, a local mental health provider or sexual health clinic, a specialist sexual violence counselling organisation, an ISVA service then it should be done so in the consistent way that it is for everyone else, if that is what the student wants. Similarly, where this need should be met by the university itself, for example, where there are educational or accommodation needs, then that is where the needs should be met. The focus should be on identification of the individual’s needs and risks following sexual violence and facilitating access to those services that can meet that need. This is exactly what the SVLO model provides’.

 About the SVLO Development Programme

LimeCulture has developed a comprehensive 2-module course, the Sexual Violence Liaison Officer Development Programme in partnership with the University of Greenwich and Keele University which aims to equip key University and HEIs staff with the knowledge and specialist skills to identify risk and appropriately support the needs of students and staff who are victims of sexual violence.

Course Aim:

To develop the knowledge and skills to enable University Sexual Violence Liaison Officers to advise and assist victims of sexual violence in the aftermath of sexual abuse whether or not the victim chooses to make a report to the police.

Module 1: (3 days) Delivering an effective response to disclosures of sexual violence, identifying needs and managing risk.

Module 2: (3 days) Facilitating access to appropriate support, including the involvement of the criminal justice process

For more information about the course and to make a booking please visit the LimeCulture CIC website at http://www.limeculture.co.uk/training-development

Testimonials from current delegates on the SVLO Development Programme

“The training was fantastic and I really got a great deal from it, I think it would be wonderful to see many other universities going on this training and taking back what they have learnt to really support survivors on their campuses. I really just wanted to say thank you for working with us this far and that I’m both proud of what we have achieved and feel really lucky to be on the training! Can’t wait to see you again in December for more challenging but rewarding work!” Delegate on Module 1 of the SVLO Development Programme, November 2016

“Enjoyable pace, structure and approach. Trainers were engaging, approachable and knowledgeable and the course has helped massively with our strategies and processes towards sexual violence in Higher Education” Delegate on Module 1 of the SVLO Development Programme, November 2016

‘Thank you for providing such an excellent, applicable programme in an approachable style that dealt with and helped us to understand complex and difficult subject areas” Delegate on Module 1 of the SVLO Development Programme, November 2016

“It was great that the training encouraged us to think very practically about our roles. This is often missing from training courses” Delegate on Module 1 of the SVLO Development Programme, November 2016

“I already feel a lot more confident and able to handle an incident. The chance to role play and talk through case studies was particularly useful. I think the training has been pitched at a perfect level and pace. The ability to have discussions about how the information and procedures fit into our specific roles in our institutions has been so useful” Delegate on Module 1 of the SVLO Development Programme, November 2016

About LimeCulture

LimeCulture Community Interest Company (CIC) is a specialist sexual violence training and development organisation that has been established to improve the competence and confidence of frontline professionals (and their agencies) working with victims of sexual violence. It has worked with UUK to help them develop their recommendations in Chapter 5 of their recent report.

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