Like 'Lord of the Flies': Students reveal environment at broadcasting school

An independent report into a top broadcasting school has revealed serious allegations including racist comments, sexual harassment and an atmosphere ripe for bullying behaviour.

Today the New Zealand Broadcasting School, which is part of the Ara Institute of Canterbury in Christchurch, released findings of an independent review which was sparked by Herald reporting last year.

The 64-page document holds accounts from 51 current and former students and staff, and covers the period from February 2019 – October 2021.

Investigator Richard Raymond, QC, wrote that one student's allegations were "undoubtedly bullying" and also involved sexist and derogatory comments.

"A tutor was often present, and is alleged to have 'chuckled along with the boys'," he wrote.

A different student said he witnessed bullying against another student which "never stopped... it was awful".

"This was confirmed by others. The student is adamant the tutors in the stream were aware of it," the report said.

Overall the investigator made 60 recommendations, all of which have been accepted by Ara, which says they will be fully implemented.

Ara acting chief executive Darren Mitchell said it is simply not acceptable to have the type of behaviours that were reported to Raymond take hold and go unchecked by staff.

"We acknowledge and regret the impact this behaviour has had on a number of our students."

Also detailed in the report was what several students described as a "boys' club" culture, where women at the school frequently felt sexually objectified by comments directly made or inferred by male students in this prevailing culture.

He said this amounts to sexual harassment.

"Reference was made to Ara's formally stated position that harassment of women was not acceptable, but the student believed that it happened 'more times than Ara would like to admit'."

The report found no allegations of bullying nor sexual harassment toward students from tutors in the last three years. It did receive evidence that a "small minority" of tutors in some streams allowed a culture to prevail in class which enabled not only bullying, but also sexual harassment by some students.

"And the making of sexist and inappropriate comments by some students and a minority of tutors. To a much lesser extent, that culture also enabled some racist comments."

Inappropriate and sexist language was frequently used within the school, the report heard, and on occasion, written on classroom whiteboards.

"You can't get anywhere without sucking a little d***", was one comment allegedly left for others to see.

One learner said students discussed amongst themselves the futility of raising issues of concern with tutors.

"That is because, in their view, 'not much is done' by the tutors to deal with the issues.

"The general consensus, at least in the view of several students I interviewed, is that there is little point in raising issues with tutors or Ara."

A separate student, from several accounts, was repeatedly and cruelly bullied, sexually harassed and subject to sexist and inappropriate remarks throughout their time at NZBS, the review heard.

Although the investigator was unable to outline details due to confidentiality requirements, he said the student's time at NZBS was traumatic.

"The student suffered from depression following their time at the NZBS. The student was unable to source help from the tutors in the class, one of whom was regarded as complicit (they 'would let it slide" and enabled a 'constant misogynistic, severe gossip, culture')."

He wrote that the student felt unsafe and unprotected in what was a toxic environment.

"The accounts of this student were verified by several others. On one occasion when help was sought from a tutor and counselling was clearly necessary, no referral to student services or assistance was offered."

Mitchell said: "Every student and every staff member, has a right to expect that their health, safety, and wellbeing will be prioritised by Ara. We are committed to acting quickly and decisively to rectify the findings from this investigation."

Mitchell said a number of actions have already been completed or commenced since the investigation began, some of which have been acknowledged in the report.

"We are well progressed in updating the Code of Professional Practice as well as our policies relating to inappropriate behaviours. We have also moved quickly to appoint live-in management to the student accommodation facility, and extra resource to the NZBS to support the school in responding to relevant recommendations."

An alleged lack of pastoral care, in one student's experience, meant the school lends itself to sexual harassment and bullying within the student community, the report found.

This student likened the experience to the Lord of the Flies.

One student recounted an experience which took place outside of NZBS, at an "industry event", where a man from the industry allegedly made inappropriate physical contact and comments.

Several students also provided evidence of being verbally put down and shut down by others. The students who provided this evidence said to the investigators it was never the tutors who behaved in this way, but other students.

"The concern was, and is, that there was, as one student put it, 'not a lot of effort to rectify that culture from the tutors'. Some said tutors were often present when the 'jokes' were made.

"Some thought what took place was horrible, but appeared to be normalised. Another said the 'boys' talk' about sexual conquests on the weekend were heard by the tutors in the class, who would join 'in the laugh' and thereby enable this type of culture."

The investigators heard complaints from students regarding allegations of a racial slur typically used against black people.

One incident in particular allegedly played out in front of a tutor who the student accused of doing nothing at the time. This couldn't be verified, the report said.

"This incident was confirmed by another non-Pākehā student, who was offended not just by this incident, but on numerous occasions when the term was used. The student raised it with the tutor, but it was brushed aside with a facile response.

"The same student was subjected to gratuitous and offensive racist comments and innuendo throughout the student's tenure at NZBS."

These allegedly included offensive racist caricatures being left on whiteboards.

The investigation team heard evidence of a tutor referring to a non-Pākehā student as someone who would do well on an "urban station", because the student had "an urban look".

"The word "urban" was intended to refer, in the eyes of the students, to American black culture or ghetto culture.

"Another student confirmed the gratuitous and frequent use of the word 'urban' in one stream, and its association with Māori and Pacifica students."

There was evidence from one student that a tutor objected to radio broadcasters speaking te Reo during Māori Language Week. The tutor regarded it, according to the student, that opening broadcasts in te Reo was "irrelevant".

"This upset some of the students in the class. However, the tutor appeared 'disinterested' in hearing their views. The student believed the tutor started unnecessary debates, causing arguments, particularly around certain aspects of gender and race. The tutor allegedly concurred with the view of another student that the English language was superior to te Reo Māori, which was offensive."

While there were some inappropriate comments attributed to tutors, the investigator said in his view none of the comments made were malicious and all the students he interviewed agreed with that.

"They were more often than not ill-judged, poorly timed and clumsy comments, not appropriate to the prevailing situation in class or elsewhere."

Included in the report were several examples of comments to students who may have been overweight or references to how they looked.

"Another student regarded this behaviour as 'weird' and that it was 'not normal or appropriate' for a tutor to be thinking or talking about how someone looks, either physically or what they are wearing.

Evidence of inappropriate comments on how students should conduct themselves with potential employers were provided to the investigation team.

"Much of what was suggested in the session was helpful and constructive. On the other hand, there was advice along the lines that there was a 'sweet spot' of how much the students should drink. In effect, the guidance was 'you don't want to be too boring, so you need to drink, but you do not want to be black-out drunk'."

One student, who did not drink alcohol, and who raised this with the tutor in front of the other students, was told they may like to "reconsider that". A number of students recounted this episode with one describing it as "hugely concerning".

One student who spoke to the investigators later reflected that the behaviours endangered women in particular, if they entered into the industry.

She said she "kind of felt [she] was being groomed [by the NZBS] to be groomed [by the industry]". That was an assessment made by several female students.

"One considered that female students were encouraged all the time by tutors to say 'yes' to whatever was put up to them, in the sense of 'climbing the ladder' and getting ahead in what was described as a male-driven industry. But there was no teaching of when to stand back, say 'no' and take a position when the situation is wrong."

Subsequent feedback from students who discussed this aspect with the employer concerned, told the investigator that the employer was "horrified" with what had been stated by the tutor.

"There was a perception amongst students that a culture of drinking and drug taking is so ingrained in certain sectors of the industry that if you do not 'get into it' then you do not 'fit in'.

However, students now in the industry had reported it was not as they were led to believe at the NZBS.

"They feel some tutors are out of touch with the current reality of the industry.

"Students have expressed the view that they wished they had known, while they were at the NZBS, that most in the industry actually do not care if you do not drink, or that if you had a personal issue, you could talk to your employer and be appropriately supported."

Other students shared both negative and positive experiences, with some students speaking highly of the course, the school and the tutors.

The report noted many students described the high levels of stress on the course and there were times when the students were required to work seven days a week, and very long hours.

Students believed some tutors wanted the student body stressed and overwhelmed, because, the tutors say, that is what it will be like in the industry.

It was used, many students believed, as an explanation or response for anything negative raised by the students, whether it was the long hours, stress, health issues, or concerns with drinking and behaviours generally.

One said, "it was almost like a game".

One student who confided in a tutor several times the mental health issue they were experiencing, and abuse of substances as a result, received no appropriate support or advice. It was beyond the tutor.

Other students were simply told to "go and read a book" or "go for a walk around the block".

Raymond, the report's author, wrote that he was "very concerned" for some students' wellbeing while at the NZBS and for some of those students who have left.

"It was apparent some students remain unwell and said as much. Some of the responses from the NZBS and Ara to certain situations which developed were very poor. Some of course were entirely appropriate. What is lacking is consistency and a clear approach on how to deal with these issues."

He did note that at some point during the course of 2021, Ara's Student Wellbeing Advisor was made available to the NZBS students one afternoon a week. Several individuals, both students and tutors, mentioned the positive impact.

There were several students who made contact with the investigation team as they wished to clearly convey how much they enjoyed the NZBS, witnessed no bullying or harassment and found the course to be excellent for assisting them into the industry.

NOTE: The independent report by Richard Raymond, QC, raised issues regarding previous Herald reporting. These included a story published on October 14, 2021 which stated: "A top broadcasting school has confirmed multiple official complaints of bullying and one of sexual harassment have been raised by students against staff members in recent years." In fact, one staff member had been accused of bullying and one of sexual harassment. This story has now been corrected.

The report's recommendations
A "significant number" of recommendations to address the identified shortcomings were made by the investigator.

• These included introducing a professional development component for tutors which enables them to spend time in their respective industries on an annual basis.

• Staff were advised to undertake compulsory training in relation to diversity and inclusion, in particular in relation to the LGBTTQIA+ community.

• Training in how to appropriately respond to a student who presents or approaches a staff member with mental health issues was also recommended.

• Guidelines for students should be developed with regard to expected student conduct and the consumption of alcohol at both formal and informal events.

Ara board chair Dr Therese Arseneau said it takes the report findings extremely seriously and has set a clear expectation that all recommendations will be addressed.

"The shift in behaviour and other changes recommended by Richard Raymond are significant and will require time and additional support. The board has committed the resources to support effective delivery on recommendations and expectations."

WHERE TO GET HELP

If it is an emergency and you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

For counselling and support:

For help with specific issues:

All services are free and available 24/7 unless otherwise specified.

For more information and support, talk to your local doctor, hauora, community mental health team, or counselling service. The Mental Health Foundation has more helplines and service contacts on its website.

-By Katie Harris

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