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Hiding in plain sight – Domestic abuse in student accommodation

10 June 2020

What does domestic abuse look and sound like in a student accommodation setting? It’s a question that doesn’t get asked very often, but I’d like you to think about your answer for a moment. Is it people shouting behind flat doors, or perhaps a bruised cheek? Home should be a safe space, but for some it can be quite the opposite. Domestic abuse is just one of the many hidden things that has had a light shone on it by the current lockdown situation and, with Universities UK releasing their recent briefing document, Beginning the Conversation, I wanted to take this opportunity to share my thoughts and experience on the topic.

Before I joined Unite Students I worked as a police officer, and responding to domestic abuse incidents was a big part of my work. It came at a time when procedures and practices in this area were developing rapidly, especially in terms of risk assessment. I had many years of front line experience dealing with incidents of intimate partner violence, including providing victim support. Later, in the probation service, I also worked with perpetrators of domestic abuse.

Domestic abuse can affect anyone, but it is a strongly gendered crime which is statistically much more likely to affect women than men. For example around half of adult female homicide victims are killed by a partner or family member, whereas the equivalent figure for men is 8%

I had not come across domestic abuse among students while in the police, despite working in the neighbourhood of a university. The issue was well known to my new colleagues however, who over the years had responded to incidents of stalking, harassment, intimate partner violence and honour based violence.

As a crime of the home, domestic abuse often takes place on our premises though it does look a little different from incidents in the community. On the one hand, students often don’t live with their romantic partners and for most students there are no children involved. On the other hand, university can be such an intense environment that it can be easy to find and follow a partner or ex-partner, and achieving physical separation can be much more challenging.

The age demographic of students may also make them particularly vulnerable to domestic abuse. As young adults, they will have less experience of intimate relationships to fall back on, and perhaps less confidence to challenge unhealthy behaviours. Refuge and Avon’s ‘Define the Line’ study in 2017 found that one in two young women have experienced controlling behaviour in an intimate relationship. 1 in 3 say they find it difficult to define the line between a caring action and a controlling one.

In fact domestic abuse often hides behind euphemisms. Someone who “romantically” comes around all the time to shower their partner with gifts may in fact be a harasser. Someone may talk about their partner who “wants to look after them”, say “he’s been cheated on before”. And a perpetrator may say “I’m just very protective”, and may even try to get staff on their side by portraying their partner as vulnerable, and themselves as caring. It’s therefore important to be able to challenge your own assumptions about what’s really going on, especially if your instinct tells you there’s something not quite right.

Another key piece of understanding I brought with me from the police was of the progressive nature of domestic abuse. Non-physical forms of abuse such as verbal, emotional and financial abuse, harassment and stalking, and coercive control, can progress to physical abuse and sometimes even end in tragedy. They can of course also be very psychologically damaging in their own right.

One of my goals over the next year is to ensure that all our frontline team members are able to spot the signs of domestic abuse, including harassment, emotional and financial abuse, and coercive control. In some cases, this involves challenging some of the common misconceptions, including the assumption that “it doesn’t happen here”. Alongside this, it’s important that they can respond appropriately to disclosures, and not be tempted to minimise some of the more subtle indicators. Finally, I am working to ensure our teams and our contact centre know how to ask key questions to assess risk, and to report these things accurately.

The police now have a very sophisticated and robust approach to assessing risk in domestic abuse cases. While we would never want to replace their role, there are a few key questions that would help us assess any immediate and ongoing serious risks and to respond accordingly. For example the police will not leave two people together in a building if certain risk factors are identified. Accommodation security teams also have the ability to remove someone from the building where this is indicated, and they can provide key risk information to police to help them prioritise their response.

However it is education and community based approaches that are likely to be the most effective in reducing the overall harm caused by domestic abuse. There has been excellent work done over recent years to educate young people about consent and sexual misconduct. Similarly, I would like to see more education about healthy boundaries within relationships, and how abuse can present itself in intimate relationships. Two of the universities in my region, Exeter and Bristol, have excellent bystander intervention programmes as part of a wider domestic abuse strategy. I’m interested in looking at how this would translate into an accommodation setting.

Going back to my original question: what does domestic abuse look like in student accommodation? As with all domestic abuse, it hides in plain sight but the signs are there for those who can recognise them. It can look like a student who is always making excuses for their partner, one who gradually loses their confidence or develops anxiety, or one who drops out because of an unnamed stress. I’m committed to empowering my colleagues with the tools and awareness to make a difference, and to create a safer home environment for students.

If you would like to talk to Frances or the wider Student Services team about the issues raised in her blog, or your university’s provision for providing domestic abuse awareness training, you can be put in contact by emailing