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Expert in sexual violence accuses VUB of failing victims of abuse

06:28 14/06/2022

An expert on sexual violence has accused the authorities at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel of doing too little too late to stop attacks and protect its students, Bruzz reports. The criticism from Danièle Zucker comes after 15 testimonials from alleged victims of an international student on campus were presented to the university at the end of last year.

A second-year student went to the VUB authorities in October after hearing from her friend that she had been assaulted by the accused, a 21-year-old diplomat's son. After discovering that her friend was not the only victim, the student collected four more testimonies and approached the authorities again in November. She was then told that more details were needed before any action could be taken and that investigations into allegations should be conducted by the disciplinary committee, not by students themselves.

In total, the student collected 15 testimonies of students being assaulted by the 21-year-old. "There was a boy on our course who assaulted and abused several girls,” the student told Het Laatste Nieuws. “There were situations in which some girls woke up in different clothes than they were wearing the night before. Girls who don't remember anything about what happened because they were drugged with alcohol."

After being told that the university needed more information, the student approached doctor of psychology and expert in sexual violence Danièle Zucker, who had recently published a book about rape. Eventually some of the victims met with Zucker and together they began to build a file on the attacks.

The testimonies date from 2020 and 2021. According to the students who spoke to Zucker, the accused allegedly plied them with alcohol before abusing them in his dorm room with the door locked. Among the victims were also two men. On 6 December, the file ended up in the hands of the vice-rector at the VUB. Some precautionary measures were imposed on the 21-year-old at the end of January. The diplomat's son was no longer allowed to drink alcohol on campus and was no longer allowed to contact the alleged victims.

Eventually, the VUB disciplinary committee reviewed the file, and a ruling was handed down on 20 May. The student received the second heaviest punishment the university could mete out: except for his exams, he would no longer be allowed to be physically present on campus.

"What the VUB does not tell you is that this sentence only applies for one year,” said Zucker. “This means that the boy will be back on campus next year, while most of the victims have left the VUB or even Belgium. Others have started taking classes online out of fear. One of the victims stayed at the VUB and had panic attacks every time she saw the perpetrator. You can’t do that. More must be done."

According to the psychologist, all the victims are still afraid of reprisals. The diplomat's son is alleged to have already threatened some victims with legal action. "They are afraid and do not even dare to file a complaint with the police," Zucker said. According to her, the VUB has not done enough and continues to make mistakes, but it is not the only institution to do so. "We see the same trends at French-speaking universities, but also in the US, for example. Scientific research also shows that. But people at VUB don't want to know about that. This is unacceptable. The university is more concerned about its image and wants to show that the campus is a safe place but does not recognise the seriousness of the facts."

"I was invited to talk to the vice rector of a French-speaking university," Zucker says. "I was told that such perpetrators are ordinary boys, not predators, who make mistakes. That people gain a lot of experiences at that age, also sexually, and that sometimes things go wrong. They do not want to give a serious punishment, because that would put their future at risk. I was very angry at the time and got the impression that students are not safe at all."

Zucker also denounces the lack of speed with which the VUB has dealt with this case. The same criticism resounded after a VUB lecturer was kicked out at the end of last year for transgressive behaviour. That procedure took almost a year. "It's exactly the same. They don't learn and don't want to. The investigation only gained momentum when it appeared in the media, otherwise it would still be going on. The VUB minimises and trivialises the facts."

The expert also believes that the disciplinary committee should have handed out the heaviest punishment available to it: expulsion. "The problem is that the disciplinary committee consists of students and teachers, people who have no knowledge of the matter,” Zucker said. “They do not know what is going on in the minds of perpetrators and victims. They do not know that the average age at which offenders start is 13 years and that the risk of them committing rapes and sexual offences again during their university years is very high. For such facts, every university must have an external structure, completely independent and professional."

One VUB student who wished to remain anonymous reported being raped to the VUB authorities in October last year. She had a similar experience when she approached the disciplinary committee.

"It's professors and students our age who judge, but I don't think they're capable of making statements about such complicated facts,” she said. “An external body would be more professional with a better understanding of perpetrators and the psychological consequences for victims. I absolutely do not dare to go to campus anymore and have only set foot there twice since it happened. The second time I ran into the perpetrator and that was disastrous. The campus is not a place where you can walk around as a victim. You are vilified, there is a culture in which victims are not believed."

She says that she finds it unacceptable and unbelievable that the diplomat's son was not expelled. "What does an offender have to do to be banned from campus? How far should someone go?”

In addition to an external disciplinary body, Zucker also advocates for a European or international register in which students who commit such acts on a campus are included. "There has to be zero tolerance,” Zucker said. “How many more victims must there be?"

The VUB has responded in a statement by confirming that the 21-year-old student in question has been sanctioned by the university and can only return to take his exams. "If this student does not comply with the imposed disciplinary sanction, he will be excluded from the VUB for a period of three years," said a spokesperson. "Despite this heavy sanction and the correct completion of the procedure, the VUB is very aware that the process for the victims is emotionally very disturbing and frustrating."

"That is why the VUB has been working since the beginning of this academic year on a renewed procedure and operation of its helpline and especially on the guidance of the victims during this process."

The spokesperson stated that the university already realised that its current procedures were inadequate after the stories about transgressive behaviour by a lecturer were revealed last year. New procedures will come into effect at the start of the next academic year. "With these measures, the VUB wants to ensure the safety and personal integrity of all its students and at the same time speed up the procedures and better support the victims."

Written by Nick Amies