Justine Landis-Hanley is one of the few students who’ve tried to speak out against the culture at some colleges. Picture: Adam Yip/ The Australian Exclusive: O-Week manual of horrors
Justine Landis-Hanley is one of the few students who’ve tried to speak out against the culture at some colleges. Picture: Adam Yip/ The Australian Exclusive: O-Week manual of horrors

HAZING: Shunned for telling the truth

WARNING: Graphic

STUDENTS who have blown the whistle on their university colleges are facing extreme backlash and ostracism for daring to speak out critically of their communities.

In some cases, the ostracism is so severe it is driving students to self harm.

As part of an investigation into college culture, news.com.au has spoken to dozens of college students who have provided detailed information about college culture, but many students say they are too terrified to speak out under their own names fearing retaliation from their peers.

One student who has previously spoken out under her real name is Justine Landis-Hanley. In 2016, as a University of Sydney college student, Justine wrote a compelling article for student publication Honi Soit about the culture of sexual harassment at the Usyd Colleges.

The reprisals were swift and severe. As Justine describes:

"I would sit down at dinner to have whole tables of people turn away from me. People in the hallways refused to make eye contact when I said, 'Hi.' People would talk about me behind my back, and yet the rumours had an awful way of finding their way back to me. People said that I [wrote the article] for attention, that I did it to make [my own college] seem better than every other college. I never said anything about any of this because I understood where they were coming from.

"One thing that oddly got to me the most was having my door defaced. At college, people often decorate each other's doors. One of my best friends had stuck Snapchat pictures of me she had saved from last year all over my door as a cute surprise on my birthday. The day the article went out, I came home to find one of them missing. Every week onwards in semester one, one would be taken down. I found myself feeling incredibly low. On top of all the rest, I felt like scum.

"I knew I hadn't done a bad thing, but I was made to feel like I did. I didn't feel safe on campus. I didn't feel safe at home.

"I remember I came back to my room one night, feeling like I had thrown away my one chance at having a home again, took out a razor, and ran it down my palms until they bled.

"I can't explain this means of escape other than I just wanted to have control over the pain being inflicted on me. I would go to Uni with bandages under my long sleeved shirts. I hid the pain from as many people as I could. I wanted to appear strong.

"In second semester I came back to college thinking that it was all finally over, that everyone would have forgotten their hatred for the piece, and their hatred of me.

"But every night of the first week I went back, another picture was taken from my door, until there was one left.

"It's not that I cared about those little pieces of paper people stole. What hurt so much was the fact that people I lived with, whom I had come to think of as my family, would purposely try to make me feel like sh*t. They were trying, albeit in a pretty pathetic and cowardly way, to run me out of my home.

"That weekend, I took the last picture down myself. I was taken to hospital that night for being suicidal.

"I've come to accept that things will never be the same. Some people still don't look at me, or say 'Hi' like they used to. I have found myself retreat from the place I used to love more than anywhere else in the world."

Justine’s world collapsed after she spoke out against the culture at some of Sydney Uni’s prestigious colleges. Picture: Adam Yip/The Australian
Justine’s world collapsed after she spoke out against the culture at some of Sydney Uni’s prestigious colleges. Picture: Adam Yip/The Australian

Justine eventually moved out of college and away from the people who were tormenting her.

Sadly, her story is not unique. When University of Sydney student Kendra Murphy spoke out publicly about her alleged rape at St Andrew's College, she hoped her story would drive change and prevent others from being assaulted.

"I wanted to put a face and story to the cause ... I was hoping that if there was a real person with a real story attached to the cause, it was less likely to be swept under the rug and ignored as it had so often before."

But while some students from her college were supportive, Kendra says others "were manipulative or just downright disgusting".

As the backlash hit, Kendra was accused of "ruining the reputation" of a "great institution".

"The people that thrive [at college] will never understand how horrible it really can be."

Katie Thorburn, a former resident at St John's college at Sydney University agrees. Since leaving college and deciding to reside with friends, Thorburn has spoken critically of the "root and boot" culture and extreme sexism within colleges.

But this has not been easy.

"They are really scary places to speak out against, because you're indoctrinated from day one [to remain loyal].

"When I was at college there [was] no way I would have said a bad word [about college], because then everyone would know I said it.

"From day one in O week, you are told do not speak to the media. Do not engage. At O week parties we couldn't have our phones on us, so no one could leak photos."

Katie said students were also reluctant to speak out against the colleges because of the powerful alumni body, and for fear they will jeopardise the connections they are forming.

"You're not just speaking out against the Old Boys Network, you're speaking out against a future Old Boy's Network too."

Sharna Bremner, the director of End Rape On Campus Australia, said students who have ambivalent feelings towards their own colleges may air those grievances in private, but will usually remain outwardly loyal for fear of those consequences.

"Even highly disgruntled students will often remain silent because of the reprisals and threats, or because of a lingering sense of loyalty to the college."

Ms Bremner said many college students perceive their communities are constantly under attack from the media.

"Because of the constant media scrutiny, the students develop a kind of 'siege mentality' of 'it's us versus the world'. It creates an environment where absolute loyalty is demanded and anyone who breaks ranks and speaks out critically will be banished as a defector."

Katie agrees: "If you live somewhere there is a sense of ownership, connection and belonging. If you feel the place is under attack you will defend it [even if you dislike aspects of it]."

"The problem," says Bremner, "is that good people end up staying silent on topics which they really shouldn't, and so a lot gets swept under the rug.

"I have a huge amount of respect for what Kendra and others have done. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to your enemies, but even more to stand up to your friends."

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Know more about college culture in Australia? Contact: ninafunnell@gmail.com

Nina Funnell is an ambassador for End Rape On Campus Australia and the author of The Red Zone Report. She is a Walkley Award-winning investigative journalist and is running news.com.au's exclusive investigation into college culture.

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