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Abuse at university / college during COVID-19: support for students


With current COVID-19 measures, student life has drastically changed: most classes and social activities are taking place online and students are spending more time indoors and around the same people. Despite this, students can still experience abuse and violence, whether it is on or off campus, online or in person.

At this time it can feel more challenging than ever to know what to do or where to go after an experience of abuse, but we want to reassure you that support is out there.

In this blog we look at some ways you might experience abuse at university or college during the pandemic, we discuss some legal options (including reporting the incident), and provide information about where to get support.

Before you continue reading…

If you are in immediate danger, call 999. If you are not in danger, you might still be thinking of reporting the abuse to the Police and/or to your university or college. Reporting is entirely your decision and at the end of this blog we discuss some of the things you should consider.

Support is also really important after an experience of abuse and some universities and colleges have dedicated services for survivors of gender-based violence. Check this with student services, your student union or wellbeing services. Throughout this blog we also suggest organisations and services that can help.

Whatever happened, it is always a good idea to know what your rights and options are. If you are unsure of what to do or where to get support, call our Legal or Advocacy Support helplines.

1. When someone is harassing or stalking you online

Online abuse was common before the pandemic. However, the fact that student activities and social opportunities are now taking place online has led to an increase in these incidents, with perpetrators using online and mobile technology to continue the abuse.

There are a range of behaviours and tactics that can be used to abuse and harass online. Some of them are:

The Women’s Media Centre has a list of online abuse tactics that can help you identify what is happening to you.

Online abuse and harassment can come from anyone: it can be a person you know or a group of people; the perpetrator can be someone close to you (like a partner, ex-partner or friend) or it can be a complete stranger. Whoever it is, you have a right to feel safe and to do your activities on and offline without harassment.

Get support

Online abuse can feel very isolating, particularly in a time when it might seem harder to find someone to talk to that you trust. Support organisations and services are still working and they can help you to plan practical steps to protect yourself, explain options against the abuser or simply be a listening ear.

Some legal options

If you are experiencing online abuse, there are other steps that you might be able to take. Below we cover some general options that might be available to you. However, we always recommend getting legal advice specific to your circumstances. You can call our Legal Helpline to find out about options for your specific case.

  • Going to the police –If you decide to report, the police are likely to require proof of the abuse. Make sure to keep a log of the incidents, screen captions and as much information about the incident(s) as you can (this template by Fix the Glitch can help you document the abuse).
  • Protective orders – in some cases you might be able to request an order from the court to protect you from the abuser. These can include non-harassment orders, Exclusion Orders and domestic abuse interdicts.
  • Image-based sexual abuse (or so-called 'revenge porn') – in Scotland, the law can protect you if someone has shared –or threatens to share– your intimate images or videos without your consent, although it only criminalises certain situations. You can read our guide to learn more about your options.
  • Cyberstalking – stalking is a crime in Scotland when you experience two or more incidents that cause you ‘fear and alarm’. If this is your situation, try to keep a log of incidents (whether these happened online or not). You can use our mobile app - FollowItApp - to record the stalking incidents securely.

2. Living or self-isolating with an abuser

During your studies, home might be a residence hall, or a house or flat you share with other flatmates, a partner, or family. Regardless of whom you share accommodation with, we understand that home might not be a safe place for you.

It might be that your flatmate / partner / family member / another residence hall dweller was abusive before the pandemic and the abuse has increased over the past months; or that you recently noticed abusive behaviours or experienced abuse from them.

It’s important to recognise that abusive behaviours are not always physical or sexual. Coercive control (emotional and psychological abuse) is a common manifestation of abuse, one that can go unnoticed but is equally devastating. Above all, if someone is making you feel uncomfortable, distressed or scared at home, trust that feeling and seek support.

Get support

Experiencing abuse at home can understandably be a very stressful and difficult situation, but you don’t have to cope alone – when you are ready, there are many services that can support you.

If the abuser is a partner/ex-partner, their behaviour may be considered as domestic abuse. There are several organisations in Scotland that can help you, and a good place to start is the Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline or your local Women’s Aid group.

Your partner/ex-partner might also be stalking or harassing you. If that is the case, you can also contact Rape Crisis Scotland’s Helpline (available to any survivor of sexual violence) and the National Stalking Helpline. Have a look at our Domestic Abuse during COVID-19 blog for more helpful information.

If you are considering leaving your current home and you don’t have an alternative place to go, you can get temporary accommodation in a refuge by contacting your nearest Scottish Women’s Aid group (read more about woman’s refuges here). You can also access temporary emergency homeless accommodation through your local authority council.

Student visa – if you are in Scotland on a student visa, you will likely have an immigration condition on your visa called ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ or NRPF. This means you may struggle to access certain support, such as Women’s Aid refuges, although you can access legal support. Contact Ubuntu Women’s Shelter to get emergency short-term accommodation while you figure out your situation.

We have also written some specific information for women with NRPF experiencing abuse that might answer some of your questions.

If the abuser is another flatmate, a friend or a stranger, what you are experiencing can be considered harassment or stalking. You can call Rape Crisis Scotland’s Helpline (available to any survivor of sexual violence), the National Stalking Helpline or get in touch with our Advocacy Support Helpline so we can refer you to the right service.

Some legal options

There are several options you could explore depending on your situation, including:

  • Protective orders – you can apply for legal measures to stop the abuser from harassing you, such as Domestic Abuse Interdicts, Non-Harassment Orders and/or Exclusion Orders.
  • Other options – depending on whether you and the abuser share rights to live in the property, some possible actions are changing locks and/or getting a Warrant of Ejection from the court (an order telling a person they have to leave the property).

The above are some options, and there might be others available for your particular case. This is why it is very important that you get legal advice. Contact our Legal Helpline or find a solicitor to get further advice.

3. If you experience rape or sexual assault

Rape and sexual assault are any form of sexual contact or activity that happens without consent. This can range from penetration without consent to unwanted touching/kissing or being forced to perform sexual acts. This leaflet by Rape Crisis Scotland has more information about this form of abuse.

Anyone can be affected by rape and sexual assault at any point in their lives. It can happen as one incident or a series of incidents. In most cases the abuser will be someone you know (a partner/ex-partner, a friend, a university/college staff member, a family member) but it can also be a complete stranger.

No matter what you were doing before the attack or how you responded to it, it’s important to know that you are not to blame. Sexual violence is never your fault and the responsibility always lies with the abuser.

Get support

Everyone responds differently to an experience of sexual assault and it might take some time before you feel ready to talk about what happened.

  • At any point you can get in touch with Rape Crisis Scotland helpline on 08088 01 03 02 (open every day, 6pm to midnight). They also offer support over email and text message.
  • Another option is to get in touch with your local Rape Crisis Centre – they can provide one-to-one support. Bear in mind that in some cases you might need to join a waiting list before you are assigned a support worker.

Some legal options

In Scotland rape and sexual assault are serious crimes and there are a number of options you may consider, including:

  • Reporting to the police – this is a very personal decision and it is a good idea to get as much information about the process before making a decision. We look at reporting in more detail later in this blog. You can also read our guide to reporting sexual crime.
  • Protective orders – there are alternative legal measures that might be open to you and can provide you with security and reassurance after your experience. This Exclusion Orders, Non-Harassment orders and Domestic Abuse Interdicts. However, we recommend you to get specific legal advice. Contact our Legal Helpline to explore your options in more detail.

4. Other abusive situations

In this blog we have covered only some forms of abuse, but we know that you might be experiencing something different — it might also be a combination of some or all of the above situations.

Regardless of the type of abuse, please know that support is available for you. We have a list of organisations and services that can help in the situations mentioned throughout this blog and others.

You can also visit our Resources page, which has guides and information that could be helpful for you, or contact our Legal and Advocacy helplines if you are unsure of what to do.

5. Reporting gender-based violence

After an experience of abuse, you might be considering informing the authorities about the incident(s) – whether it is to the Police, to your university/college or both. Reporting is a personal decision, and no one should pressure you into doing so if you don’t want to or don’t feel ready.

In this section you will find some general information about reporting as well as things to consider.

Reporting to the police

If you are in danger, call 999 immediately.

If you are not in immediate danger, you might be thinking of reporting the abuse to the police, whether the incident(s) happened recently or in the past. Reporting to the police is your decision entirely and it is always a good idea to get as much information as possible about the process to help you make a decision.

We have written information about what to expect and your rights when reporting the following experiences to the Police:

If your experience is different to the above or you have any questions, contact our Advocacy Support Helpline every Tuesday, 11am-2pm on 08088 010 789.

If you decide to report to the Police, call 101. You can also report domestic abuse, stalking and harassment using Police Scotland’s online form.

Reporting to your university or college

If the abuser is another student or a staff member, you might be thinking of reporting them to your university or college. Each institution will have its own reporting mechanism, so it is important that you know what the process entails.

Check with your student services or student union in the first instance. They will usually have advice on how to submit a complaint. In some cases they might also be able to offer you support. The links below have details of where to submit a formal complaint and/or get support in universities and colleges in Scotland:

When submitting a formal complaint, in most cases you will be required to disclose the name of the perpetrator before your university/college can take action. You should also check if the institution will disclose your name and the nature of the complaint to the perpetrator. Some institutions also have anonymous reporting mechanisms.

When the abuser is someone external to the university, you might want to let someone at your university/college know what happened.

In some cases, staff members might be required to inform the institution about any disclosures of sexual violence; however, they should let you know when you approach them or you can clarify this with them before disclosing your experience.

If you still have questions about reporting, contact one of our helplines.

6. Support for university/college students

Throughout this blog we have mentioned support services specific to certain abusive situations. However, you can always contact the following organisations in the first instance if, for example, you are unsure what to do next.

These are free and non-judgmental services that can also direct you to the right place for practical and emotional support:

Scotland's Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage helpline

Open 24/7.

Call: 0800 027 1234
Web chat:
Find your local women’s aid group

National Stalking Helpline

Open daily 9:30am - 4pm, except Wednesday when it's open 1pm - 4pm.

Call: 0808 802 0300
You can also fill out their contact form.

Rape Crisis Scotland

Open daily, 6 pm - midnight.

Call: 08088 01 03 02
Text: 07537 410027
Find your local rape crisis centre.

Scottish Women’s Rights Centre

Call our helpline on 08088 010 789 at one of the following opening times:

Legal information
Monday 2 - 5 pm
Tuesday 6 - 8 pm
Wednesday 11 am - 2 pm
Thursday 5 - 8 pm
Friday 10 am - 1 pm

Advocacy support
Tuesday 11 am - 2 pm

Other support services

Have a look at our list of other support services available during the pandemic.

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