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Feminspire | April 20, 2014

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Chaos at St. John’s: Why Has a School Become a Danger Zone for Women?

Chaos at St. John’s: Why Has a School Become a Danger Zone for Women?

After numerous incidents of vandalism, cultural ignorance, misogyny, arson and a general disregard for safety, St. John’s College has finally reappointed a new council to help shape the attitudes of the college, as well as structure the discipline of its students. The question that lingers in the air seems to be, after all of these incidents, will these measures be effective?

St. John’s College is the oldest Australian University Catholic College and is one of the colleges within the University of Sydney. However, just because the college is old does not mean it has wisdom.

There has been a long history of toxic incidents occurring at St. John’s College, with initiation rituals at the forefront of this toxicity. “Freshers,” the nickname bestowed upon first year students, undergo a series of life-threatening tests that utilize peer pressure and intimidation in order to coerce them into participating in dehumanizing acts. These incidents have long been established in the decaying roots of tradition to which this school clings. However, one incident that occurred in March of 2012 shook the student body to its core, spiraling the university into chaos.

In March, akin to when the fictional Dr. Crane sentenced people in The Dark Knight Rises, a combination of thirty-three male students “tried” four female freshers in a ritual called “justice.” They coerced these women into drinking a concoction of “dog food, off milk, Tabasco sauce, various forms of alcohol, and shampoo.” One girl initially refused to drink it because her stomach bleeds if she vomits, but eventually succumbed to the taunting. She was later discovered on the ground, suffering from convulsions, and was hospitalized.

Following this incident, rector Michael Bongers suspended the thirty-three male students. Bongers had been attempting to implement a zero-tolerance policy since his arrival to the campus in 2009, but his determination to occlude the flow of intolerance and dangerous activities of the students was no match for the powers of the council of St. John’s.

The College Council is comprised of eighteen fellows, six of whom must be priests. This Council ultimately governs the school and determines disciplinary actions for its students. Many of its members represented the nostalgia of St. John’s, and worked tirelessly to uphold its “Johnsmen” traditions despite the increasing violence and vandalism committed by the students. The Council defended the thirty-three students, allowing them to return to the school with lighter punishments.

Upon seeing the rector’s disciplinary actions thwarted multiple times, the previously suspended students decided to push the limits of the rector even further.

Initially, the suspended students were barred from holding House Committee positions, the student governing body of the university. When the Council decided to overturn this punishment, the students became uncontrollable. Seven of the nine committee positions are currently held by students who were suspended or who supported those suspended. They have nicknamed themselves the “Justice Group.”

The Justice Group takes part in “community-building” activities, such as setting fires to furniture, drawing graffiti with inclusive slogans such as “they [women] can’t say no with a cock in their mouth,” and decorating the halls with feces. Their official uniform consists of the tee shirt pictured below, inscribed with “Year of Justice.” It depicts a blindfolded eagle vomiting, an homage to the female student who almost died during one of these rituals in March.

Vandalism and rituals are not the only instances of disrespect and mob mentality on the campus. Repeated instances of misogyny are a rampant part of this college culture. Once a month, men participate in a day where they refuse to speak with any women on campus. They nickname them “Jets,” which stands for “just excuse the slag.” They created a number of pro-rape Facebook groups and are known for singing a particular a song, one verse containing the lyrics “yes means yes and no means yes.”

There seems to be no depths to which these students will not sink. The committee even hatched a scheme with one of its members to fool the press. A senior at the school gave an interview under the false pretenses of being a fresher. She claimed that she had never experienced any abuse or rituals at the school. Her facade failed to restore the school’s reputation.

Real students have spoken out, though. Journalist Zoe Arnold spoke of the harsh rituals existing even in her time as a student in 2001. She participated in many drinking rituals, but at the end of the day, she did not feel at home at St. John’s:

“For me, I felt compelled to fit in a culture that I didn’t sit comfortably with, and when I’d had enough of drinking myself to near-death or when I questioned the animalistic bathroom habits of my fellow Johnians I felt like I was the odd one out.”

These incidents are not unique to St. John’s College. In fact, they are representative of a vast number of colleges in Australia and around the world. Another account was told by Nina Funnel, who wrote about it shortly after the aforementioned girl was hospitalized. She said that when she studied at the University of Sydney, her friend was named “Fresher Sacrifice.” She was approached because she “was not a big drinker, did not enjoy imbibing to excess and was generally considered more reserved than other students.” In Funnel’s words, being a Fresher Sacrifice meant that “the student would be plied with alcohol, often until they threw up or passed out.”

While a mob of incorrigible students has run amok throughout the St. John’s campus, destroying buildings and endangering lives, efforts to curb these behaviors are finally being enacted. On November 6th, Archbishop George Pell demanded that the five remaining priests on the council to resign. Many members of the council, professors, and other figures of authority at St. John’s have resigned due to the increasingly animalistic attitudes of the student body. One professor even went so far as to say, “Anarchy has broken out, and anarchy is not too strong a word.”

In order for the council to exist, at least six of its members must belong to the clergy. As a result of the mass resignations, the council has ceased to exist. On November 30th, a new council was formed, including clergy members. They have plans to meet in December and hopefully to begin to clean up the school.

Have you experienced dangerous initiations or hazings at your university? How do you think universities can better control these activities? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.

Written by Nicole Del Casale