opinion

"I was terrified in O'week but I hope my son won't need to be."

Warning: This article contains information about sexual assault and suicide which may be distressing for some readers.

“I’m in her bedroom and I can’t take it anymore.”

These are the words my friend, *Sue, cried to me one night in February 1994, during the first week of her residency at St Mark’s College in Adelaide. She was in the dorm room that had once belonged to Allison Nitschke, an 18-year-old resident at the college who had been murdered in her room by fellow student, Alister Thompson, after an O’Week (orientation week) party in 1991.

The violent murder became the stuff of urban legend around campus. Details of the cruel, vile things that Thompson, in his drunken state, did to Allison’s young body, grew more ghastly each year. It was considered a given that the room was haunted.

But the stories told to Sue by college seniors in an attempt to unnerve her weren’t her biggest concern. No matter what had actually happened, at some point Allison had felt safe in that room. At some point she was happy there – excited about the adventure of university ahead of her. And then one night, her life was stolen from her. Her body was taken from the room and she was dumped in the Adelaide Hills.

She was a typical uni student one second. And the next, she was a murder victim.

Mia Freedman speaks to Kathy Kelly, the mother of Thomas and Stuart Kelly, on the loss of her sons. Post continues after…

And that’s what kept Sue awake at night. Sue had won a scholarship to stay at the college. She’d been allocated Allison’s room in the college dorms, and there was nothing she could do about it; except be very afraid.

Sue’s experience shaped the way she, and I, approached O’Week activities. Actually, it more than shaped it: it stopped us from participating. We didn’t attend any event, at all. We were two girls, on the cusp of our eighteenth birthdays, living away from home for the first time. We were terrified about campus life, and we had every reason to be.

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Anyone who’s attended university, or known someone who has, knows about the college/university culture, where alcohol limits and the concept of consent are non-existent. We’ve all heard about the cruel and humiliating rituals, performed in the name of “orientation”, that senior students and residents put newcomers through, so they can prove themselves worthy of belonging to the group.

Because nothing says ‘undying loyalty’ like drinking until you’re unconscious and waiving your rights over your body.

Last week news.com.au revealed an ‘explosive’ Orientation Week manual that they discovered was published in 2013. It contains graphic details of sexual and alcohol-based O’Week activities at St Mark’s College.

I didn’t need to read the article about it – because twenty years ago, I read the manual. I read the copy that was given to Sue. It may not have been exactly the same, but it was certainly a version of it.

So, it seems that not much has changed in twenty-five years.

The front cover of the O'Week manual as discovered by news.com.au. Source: news.com.au

But Australian parents already knew that, just by the example of the unbearably tragic, high-profile case of the Kelly family, who lost Thomas, 18, to a one-punch attack, and Stuart, 19, to suicide after just one night at St Paul's College, four years later. All parents already know that campus life isn't much different to what it was: an environment that's usually alcohol-infused and often unsupervised.

So how do we, parents of school-aged children, face sending our kids to university and/or college in this culture? Losing a child and not being there is every parent's worst nightmare, and campus life poses a real risk of that happening.

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It's terrifying to know this is what our kids must face when they graduate from school. But there's finally a sign that things might be changing.

This morning, a 200-page report, called The Red Zone Report,  was released by organisation End Rape On Campus Australia. The report draws its title from orientation week, 'The Red Zone' being the time in which first-year students are the most vulnerable to sexual assault, hazing and excessive alcohol consumption, most often at the hands of older students.

The report, written by journalist Nina Funnell, details the history of sexual violence and hazing at some of the country’s most prestigious residential colleges. It concludes with 10 recommendations to state and federal politicians to address the epidemic of violence on campuses, including the formation of a national government taskforce to investigate the "scale and severity of sexual violence at Australian residential colleges", and the criminalisation of college hazing rituals.

Significantly, the report also calls for a coronial inquiry into the death of Stuart Kelly, who took his own life after being at the University of Sydney's St Paul's College for just one night, in February 2016. It demands to know, on behalf of every Australian, what happened at O'Week that led to Stuart Kelly's death.

The Red Zone can do so because it's the first report that hasn't been funded by any of the interested educational institutions. So finally, there's a chance we might get closer to exposing the full picture of campus life - which we need to do so we can save lives.

The report is the biggest indication that times are changing around Australia. It comes in an era where society agrees we're more accountable to each other. Thanks to the outing of Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo Movement, and significant cases such as "Mattress Girl", sexual assault and bullying have become mainstream conversations.

It's too late for so many young adult and teens venturing into the 'real world' of campus life. It's grossly unjust that it's too late for Stuart Kelly.

But today we were sent hope that it's not too late for the next generation of students who are, right now, just innocent kids at school.

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.

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