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Guest blog: Students aren’t reporting hate-fueled incidents. Here’s why universities need to do bett

In February 2018, an anonymous letter circulated social media encouraging violence against Muslims on what would be known as ‘Punish a Muslim Day’. The letter allocated ‘points’ as a reward for varying levels of abuse, including 25 points to pull a hijab off a Muslim woman, and 100 points for a physical attack. On the 9th April, five Muslim students were racially abused whilst waiting for a bus in Newcastle-Under-Lyme, including one who was head butted and her hijab ripped from her head.

Hate-based prejudice is a growing problem we need to face in our universities. Unfortunately, the NUS report ‘No Place for Hate’, based on a national survey of 9,229 students, found 18% had experienced at least one incident of verbal abuse or threats of violence, and 15% had experienced one or more forms of physical abuse whilst studying at their current institution.

"However, with critically low reporting rates, institutions have not been able to gain a comprehensive insight into the experiences of their own students, not least to understand why they aren’t coming forward."

This research has been commissioned by Keele Students’ Union, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (now Office for Students). Our research reveals the complex reasons behind the low reporting rates, and highlight significant barriers that continue to restrict reporting rates.

Barriers to reporting hate-based prejudice

The terms ‘hate crime’ and ‘hate incident’ continue to be poorly understood by the student population. The characterisation of incidents as ‘hate’ is highly problematic, and overlooks the more subtle and nuanced issues of bias and discrimination in everyday life. It is precisely this that misleads students to believe incidents can only be reported if they are ‘very obvious’, ‘very serious’, or ‘very severe’: incidents that are deemed ‘too trivial’ to report often slip through the proverbial net. However, it is precisely these smaller incidents left unchecked by academic and professional staff that lay the foundations for more severe forms of abuse.

Our students often arrive at university having experienced abuse and prejudice, which are a normative feature in their daily lives. Burt, Simmons and Gibbons, in their 2012 study of African American youths, discuss the process of preparation minority adolescents go through to help them cope through the bias they will invariably face in a white, heteronormative society. This often starts at an early age, as families and community members warn young people about discrimination, and equip them with the strategic tools they need to cope with prejudice. This practice can help build resilience and arguably act as a psychological ‘buffer’ enabling students to ‘brush off’, ‘laugh off’ or ignore incidents. Reporting is viewed as a long, arduous process, in which the student must internally re-examine trauma, increasing their psychological vulnerability. It is perhaps unsurprising that students felt it was a better option to utilise their long developed coping strategies to deal with it themselves, rather than speak to us about it.

When they do speak out, students often choose to talk to peers as way of making sense these experiences. Meyer (2010) highlights the role others take in structuring how people interpret their trauma, and peers can offer crucial validation to their experiences. Friends provide valuable advice on how the victim should perceive, and subsequently respond, to abuse as well as providing some light-hearted relief. We found that student societies are absolutely instrumental in providing this peer support, nurturing a sense of belonging for the victim amidst an environment which actively ‘others’ them.

"However, peer support is a double –edged sword. Students often feared ostricisation from their friendship circles, or becoming social outcasts if they were ‘found out’ to have reported. Similarly, students were anxious about being constructed as a ‘trouble maker’, or worse, the aggressor."